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Ag Tech Shaping the Future of Farming

In a standing-room-only space at South by Southwest (SXSW), festival attendees heard from Randy Spronk, hog farmer from Edgerton, Minnesota; Alex Heine, cattle farmer and customer experience director at Quantified Ag; and Darren Anderson, president and cofounder of Vive Crop Protection about the reality of agriculture technology’s role on the modern farm and where ag tech is headed. 

The Food and Ag Landscape 

In one generation, Spronk has seen farming practices driven by horses replaced by self-steering tractors, precision ag, and cloud-based data collection. 

Yet, the adoption of technology has been more of an evolution than a revolution in ag. Alex Heine referred to the start of his career at Quantified Ag researching the presence of tech in various industries. “Agriculture was second to last on the list in terms of digitizing the technology. I find that pretty hard to believe, because we’ve been able to do so much and innovate. We’re trying to implement technologies, data, software in the systems to family farms.”  

Darren Anderson attributes incremental advances that build off each other and offer true transformation in the industry. “There is an enormous amount of technology that is used in the production of a safe and sustainable food supply today,” says Anderson. 

Over the last 25 years, those incremental advances have resulted in crop-protection tools that include biopesticides, integrated pest management practices, innovations in genetics, and the use of sensors and drones for precise application. 

Cutting-Edge Technology 

Nanotechnology, gene editing, and sensors are among the innovations that increase crop and livestock production while reducing our footprint on the environment. 

Anderson and his team at Vive harness nanotechnology. He explains, “If we understand how things work at the nano scale and can control how things work at the nano scale, we can make products that end up being quite a bit more effective and do what they’re supposed to do and cause fewer issues in the environment.” 

This is especially key in creating crop-protection products that stick to waxy-leaf surfaces at the nano scale. 

Sensors like those at the core of Quantified Ag’s electronic ear tags send producers more information about their animals. The biometric and behavioral data point producers to the animals that need more care and tell them when to intervene for their welfare. The data can also be shared along the supply chain for better transparency. 

Gene editing is another technology that has a huge impact. For Spronk, gene editing could reduce the use of antibiotics, mitigate disease and pestilence, and increase the welfare of the pig. “Just as the internet was one of the large innovations that changed all our lives, this (gene editing) could be too.” 

Successful Start-up Companies 

As ag tech start-ups try to succeed in a market that is inundated with options, Heine and Anderson share threel best practices: Have a business model that works, engage with key industry stakeholders, and listen to the customer. 

In the end, every decision a grower makes about what to implement on the farm aligns with the three E’s: What is ethical in animal welfare, what is best for the environment, and what will impact economics for society and the farmer. It’s a balancing act between those silos and what the consumers really want. 

Opportunities for Innovation 

According to Spronk, farmers are going to see an increase in autonomous machinery, remote sensing and control in buildings, and the next generation of ag producers who have an established familiarity of data and technology.

For Anderson, transparency will be key. Consumers who are excited to learn about the impact of technology in food production will be engaged in conversations with growers. As data is made readily available, they’ll be able to align their values with production practices to make a decision on what to purchase and from whom.

“Technologies like blockchain will be able to improve the traceability, the transparency, and trust so that we can share exactly what we’re doing and feel very confident that we’re producing food that is as sustainable as possible and using the best technology available to show you that we are caring for the animal welfare, that we are reducing our carbon footprint, and that we are doing the best job we possibly can,” Heine says.

Watch the full panel discussion here.

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