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Can Technology Offset Declining Farmer Numbers?

The number of farms in the U.S. continued to trend lower, as does the number of farmers. While this hints at some of the growth and consolidation of farms in parts of the nation, some young farmers believe it shows that now is as good a time to get into the business as there's been in quite some time, especially considering some of the new technology reaching U.S. farms and the opportunity those new tools hold for the younger generation.

The 2012 USDA Census of Agriculture, the collection of farm data gleaned every five years, shows a continuation of the trend of declining farm numbers. In Iowa, for example, the number of farms fell to 88,637, down 4,000 from 2007, the agency's last ag census. That's likely due mostly to consolidation based on the data for specific farm sizes, says Iowa State University Extension retired ag economist William Edwards in a report released this month.

"These farms did not just disappear. Many midsize farms were consolidated into larger units or subdivided into smaller units. In fact, the number of farms under 50 acres and over 1,000 acres has increased," Edwards says. "The area of land in farms dropped just 0.4% over the same five-year period, while the number of harvested acres actually increased by 3%."

Another trend that continued during that five-year time frame was farmer age. The average age of farmers in Iowa moved slightly higher to 57.1 years. For all farm operators -- including both farm owners and workers -- it's closer to 55 years of age. To Edwards, that shows a demographic change underway.

"This indicates that many of the nonprincipal operators represent the next generation of farmers," he says.

Though the data shows the trend toward younger farmers making up a larger piece of the total farm population pie is a slow one, there is growing opportunity for that younger generation to accelerate that trend in the next few years, one young farmer says. Ben Sloan is an ag engineer in Ames, Iowa, and member of FarmersfortheFuture.com. His view through the lens of new technology for agriculture lends credence, he feels, to the establishment of more younger farmers in agriculture, especially as the elder generation reaches the point of potential retirement.

"New technology that makes farming less rigorous and more attractive to a younger demographic could help balance out this steady increase [in farmer age]," Sloan says.

He outlines five areas of ag technology that hold promise for young farmers in gaining a foothold in the farm industry.

  • Unmanned aerial systems (UAS). "Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) seem to be at the forefront of agricultural technology. Drones could have a huge impact on farming," Sloan says. "Farmers who utilize drones would be able to decrease costs associated with pest control as drones enable farmers to treat a specific area affected by pests instead of spraying the entire field."

  • Wearable technology. "We have seen a boom in wearable technology, especially in the fitness department, but it is predicted that farmers may one day be adorned in this technology, too," he says. "For example, Google Glass was presented at the 2014 AgInfo Conference and forward-looking farmers discussed potential uses, including documenting machinery maintenance, hands-free communication, and crop scouting."

  • Sensors and precision ag. "Crop sensors that can measure and record data about crops based on reflected light are already available and can attach to a machine to collect information while going through the field. These data help farmers apply chemicals to crops based on unique needs, saving money, increasing productivity levels, and decreasing their environmental footprint," Sloan says. "Moving forward, precision technology systems, drones, mobile applications, and new software will likely work together to give farmers more information faster, saving time and money."

  • Driverless tractors. "While the adoption of current driverless tractor technology has been slow, largely due to cost, the benefits of investing may outweigh the costs in the near future," he says. "As the technology improves and becomes more easily accessible, more farmers will be able to implement driverless tractors, giving them access to efficient, 24-hour production without having to rely on skilled labor."

  • Mobile apps & Web-based software. "Mobile agriculture apps and software that streamline processes and data collection will continue to assist farmers in nearly every aspect of the farm," Sloan says. "In addition to mobile apps, cloud technology, and online software continue to be developed that can assist farmers with everything, from irrigation to crop yield monitoring. For example, a system called WaterBee assists with irrigation and water management by collecting data on soil content and other environmental factors using wireless sensors."

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