Scaling to “Small” Agriculture

In the United States, small farms— including organic and traditional—make up 91 percent of nearly 2 million farms. With a potential market of 1.8 million small farms in the United States alone, developers and designers have taken notice of the opportunities presented by integrating precision farming techniques on a smaller scale. Smartphone sensors and apps, as well as small-scale machinery, allow smaller farms to take advantage of precision agriculture technologies.

Smartphone Tools

Table 1: Agricultural uses of existing smartphone tools.

The smartphone alone has several tools that can be adapted to farming applications. For instance, crop and soil observations can be logged in the form of snapped pictures, pinpoint locations, soil colors, water, plant leaves, and light properties. Table 1 lists some in-phone tools that are useful for gathering data.

Smartphone Apps

Many smartphone applications have begun to incorporate Internet of Things (IoT) ideals, data aggregation, and speedy processing to bring up-to-date, actionable information to small farmers regarding seeding, weeding, fertilizing, and watering. These applications gather data from handheld sensors, remote sensors, and weather stations, creating in-depth analyses and valuable recommendations. Several applications have been developed specifically targeting the small-scale farmer:

Disease Detection and Diagnosis: Photos taken of suspect plants can be forwarded to experts for analysis.

Fertilizer Calculator: Soil sensors and leaf color can determine what nutrients are needed.

Soil Study: Capturing soil images, as well as pH and chemical data from sensors, allows farmers to monitor and adjust to changing soil conditions.

Water Study: Determining Leaf Area Index from photos and brightness logging can help farmers determine water needs.

Crop Harvest Readiness: Camera photos with UV and white lights accurately predict ripeness.

When specialized applications improve farm productivity by analyzing soil, crop, weed, and pest variables, as well as offer valuable feedback for agricultural decisions, the small farmer’s quality of life can noticeably improve.

Small-Scale Machinery

Manufacturers are also looking at developing solutions specifically for small farms, such as the “Rowbot,” which can fertilize, mulch weeds, and sow seeds for cover crops. Much smaller and more nimble than traditional cultivating equipment, the Rowbot can fit between crop rows, does not compact soil, and can distribute micro-doses of fertilizer. Scaling up operations can be achieved by networking the machines into “flocks.”

Figure 3. A combine can measure yield while harvesting wheat. (credit: Michael Dechev/Shutterstock)

Global Implications

In the developing world, roughly 500 million small farms produce more than 80 percent of the food consumed. Precision agriculture technology is becoming more widely accessible around the globe. New handheld devices can measure plant and soil health, giving farmers the information necessary to accurately calculate fertilizer requirements. Given that the United Nations projects worldwide demand for food will increase by 50 percent by 2050, precision agricultural technologies for farms of all sizes will be in demand.

Solving problems for farms both large and small and helping farmers meet ever-increasing food demands aren’t the only solutions smart precision agriculture can provide. Smart farming offers a number of other benefits, such as:

  • Lowering fuel and energy consumption thus reducing carbon dioxide emissions

  • Reducing nitrous oxide released from soil by optimizing nitrogen fertilizer use

  • Reducing chemical use by pinpointing fertilizer and pest control needs

  • Eliminating nutrient depletion through monitoring and managing soil health

  • Controlling soil compaction by minimizing equipment traffic

  • Maximizing water use efficiency

Figure 4. Crop information can be logged in by means of a smartphone image. (credit: Scharfinn/Shutterstock)

Conclusion

Precision agriculture has grown to meet increasing worldwide demand for food using technologies that make it simpler and cheaper to collect and apply data, adapt to changing environmental conditions, and use resources most efficiently. Although large farms have been the first to adopt these technologies, smaller farms are now able to benefit as well, using tools built into smart phones, relevant applications, and smaller-sized machinery. What’s more, these technologies are contributing to solutions that extend beyond farms, including pollution, global warming, and conservation.

Future developments in precision agriculture will likely include increased autonomous farm vehicle use, as well as improved wireless data transmission and acquisition from smarter, smaller unmanned aerial and unmanned ground vehicles (UAVs and UGVs, respectively). In addition to monitoring crop and soil conditions, these smaller vehicles can also monitor the status of farm equipment, allowing farmers to improve machine servicing and maintenance. In general, process improvements learned in the industrial manufacturing arena will continue to find their way into agriculture.

This article was reprinted with permission by Mouser Electronics. It was written by Steven Schriber. For more information, visit here.