The entire agriculture industry is under increasing pressure to produce more with less, but small farms are acutely feeling the crunch. Already facing labor shortages and revenue shortfalls, small farms are hampered by scale and might not have access to the resources that larger farms enjoy.
But the Internet of Things (IoT) is kick-starting a radical shift in modern farming. Farming technology that leverages the IoT, artificial intelligence (AI) and 5G, implemented through a phased approach, can deliver a lifeline to small farms.
Small farms, big challenges
Agriculture faces a triple threat: climate change, less fertile land and more mouths to feed. The United Nations forecasts the world population to reach 9.7 billion by 2050, but climate change threatens to disrupt—and, over time, shrink—the world's food supply, according to a report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. To survive, farmers must figure out how to use their land more judiciously.
At the same time, farms can't hire enough workers, and they're having to pay the ones they can hire more money. In 2018, the agriculture industry experienced a 7% hiring decrease and a 5% increase in wages, AgAmerica reports. And the industry is shrinking: According to the latest US Census of Agriculture data, the number of farms is shrinking, as is the total land devoted to agricultural use.
More than 90% of farms in the United States are small farms, and their challenges are compounded by their size. The cost of adoption might seem to make farming technology accessible only to larger operations, but small farms can also benefit, especially if they enlist a managed services provider (like Verizon) to help them tailor a phased approach.
How digital farming technology can help
Farming has leaned on machines and automation for generations, but the use of more advanced technologies is rising. A slew of technologies—AI, IoT, robotics and 5G—can help support farms of all sizes.
Digital farming technology can be deployed to customize the use of resources, such as fertilizer, pesticides and water, for each section of the farm. Devices with embedded IoT sensors can monitor soil moisture, temperature, oxygen and nutrient levels, and AI-powered systems can quickly analyze data to provide insights into how different crops or fields should be treated. IoT sensors can also monitor harvested crops to predict spoilage and help ensure that farms get the most out of their yield.
AI and machine learning algorithms can also automate tasks like detecting and removing weeds. Aerial drones connected to 5G cellular networks, and equipped with IoT sensors and machine learning algorithms, can survey fields and target insecticide or herbicide delivery. Similarly, machine learning tech can be combined with robotics to measure plant height, soil saturation and stand count (the number of active fruiting plants) to help determine upcoming yield and future plantings. Edge computing makes all of these capabilities possible with an integrated network.
The essential facilitator for these solutions is a robust 5G network—one with the high bandwidth and ultra-low latency necessary for robots, drones and sensors to measure, analyze and act on information at the edge.