Farm of the Future

A unique enterprise hopes to facilitate agriculture’s move to the future

Published online: Oct 27, 2016 Tyrell Marchant, Editor
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This article appears in the November 2016 issue of Potato Grower.

Photos courtesy Oregon UAS FutureFarm

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

     —Arthur C. Clarke

 

The rate at which technology has advanced in the last couple decades still manages to astonish, even though, by now, we ought to be used to not having time to get used to anything. The technological progress made every year (every day, perhaps?) in so many areas is mind-boggling.

Unfortunately, it often seems as if the roads of scientific advancement and practicality rarely intersect. This can be particularly and frustratingly true in the world of agriculture, where growers are constantly bombarded with offers to try out some newfangled gadget that seems wonderful in theory (and invariably comes with the vague promise that it will “increase yields”). Perhaps none of these technologies have been viewed with as much skepticism in the agricultural community than unmanned aerial systems (UAS), more commonly known as drones. Many justifiably believe there simply hasn’t been enough research done into drones’ effectiveness on the farm; even the most forward-thinking of growers is hesitant to take the plunge on an investment that offers little reassuring evidence in the way of empirical data.

Enter the Oregon UAS FutureFarm. The FutureFarm came into existence last spring when its eventual co-founders, Jeff Lorton and Young Kim, were approached by officials from the Pendleton UAS Test Range, one of six official drone proving grounds of the Federal Aviation Administration. The range was seeing very few flights over its 14,000-square-mile-area that includes over a half-million acres of cultivated farmland in northeastern Oregon. Lorton—director of the Duke Joseph communication agency and producer of the Precision Farming Expo—and Kim—a retired Air Force officer and founder of ag data analytics firm Digital Harvest—seemed like good candidates to kick-start the test range’s productivity. After some research, the two decided the venture was more than worth it.

“This is the most agriculturally diverse test range in North America, if not the world,” says Lorton. Indeed, the area is home to vast tracts of potatoes, tree fruit, wine grapes, white wheat, sweet corn, onions, carrots, peas, beans, lentils, mint, canola, barley and alfalfa. “There’s just nowhere in the U.S. that has that many high-value crops,” Lorton continues. “That’s where there are enough margins for experimentation with new technologies.”

 

Two Sides of a Coin

The FutureFarm works with technology companies and a trusted group of what Lorton calls “research-friendly” growers to discover innovative yet pragmatic ways to improve the world of food production. And while UAS research is a primary driving force behind the FutureFarm, the program also works with robotics, satellite crop monitoring, soil moisture sensors, invisible light sensors, and a host of other technologies.

“The majority of these tech companies burn out because they just don’t know how to fine-tune their technology and make it financially viable,” says Lorton. “Companies have to understand what growers want. In general, technologists use logic: If an algorithm says two and two makes four, that’s it. But for a grower, sometimes the weather or unique idiosyncrasies of some variety means you get five or three. It’ll take years of testing for a lot of growers to develop the trust necessary to adopt these technologies.”

With the goal of accelerating that trust process, the FutureFarm hosted its first Ag Drone Rodeo near Pendleton, Ore., on Aug. 18–19. Some 260 growers, engineers, data analysts and government representatives gathered to observe real-time data-gathering missions and subsequent by crop health reports. Drone companies represented included Yamaha, Digital Harvest, Insitu, MicaSense, Aerial Technology International, RDO and senseFly.

“The Drone Rodeo was a real cosmopolitan affair,” says Lorton. “We had growers from all over the West and international drone companies talking things out together. The event accomplished its goals: publicity of the test range and fostering relationships between growers and technologists.”

 

Into the Future

Lorton and his partners with the FutureFarm understand that agriculture is only going to become more high-tech, and they believe they can be a key cog in helping growers more quickly adapt the most cost-effective, practical technologies. They’ve coined the term “digital agriculture” to replace the overused and poorly understood phrase “precision agriculture.” Lorton describes digital agriculture as a combination of time and space precision with data and autonomous or automated machinery.

“The skepticism from growers is well-deserved; it is a reaction well-grounded in logic,” says Lorton “But that is fading. I think five years from now, flying drones will be dead-simple. The simplicity of operation will just continue. I think any farm of any size will have an affordable aerial imaging solution. Digital changes everything.”

The FutureFarm intends to ensure those changes are for the better.