Farming is one of the oldest and arguably most important human pursuits. People have come a long way over the millennia in how we farm and grow crops with the introduction of various technologies. Advancements in farming from the Agricultural Revolution up to the modern era are a testament to what humankind will do to produce food. Being a proponent of sustainable farming methods, The Conservation Foundation supports both traditional and new tools and methodologies. One promising area is the use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) to improve agricultural yields, quality, and land and water sustainability.
First, let us discuss what AI is. In a blog about Artificial Intelligence and Conservation, we mention that a commonly used definition of AI is “the ability of a computer or a robot controlled by a computer to do tasks that are usually done by humans because they require human intelligence and discernment.” AI is meant to support and accelerate human decision making – not replace humans. AI primarily does this with smart data discovery (e.g., correlations and pattern recognition), visualization (e.g., charts, graphs, and dashboards), machine learning (in a sense the system codes itself), and enhanced predictive capabilities. Examples of AI in everyday life are digital personal assistants (like Siri), online shopping and advertising, cybersecurity, language translation, and detection of fake news.
Artificial Intelligence and Farming
Farming is turning to Artificial Intelligence to help yield healthier crops, control pests, monitor soil and growing conditions, organize data for farmers, help with the workload, and improve a wide range of agriculture-related tasks in the entire food supply chain. AI applications in agriculture have been developed to help farmers with profitable and sustainable farming by providing them with proper guidance about water management, type of crop to be grown, optimal planting, control of pest attacks, and nutrition management. Using machine learning algorithms in connection with images captured by satellites and drones, AI-enabled technologies predict weather conditions, analyze crop sustainability, and evaluate farms for the presence of diseases or pests and poor plant nutrition on farms using data like temperature, precipitation, wind speed, and solar radiation. In addition, AI helps with the improvement of seed genetics and developing more efficient farm machinery. With such AI-driven solutions, farmers can meet the world’s needs for increased food by sustainably growing production and revenues without depleting precious natural resources.
There are many current and proposed uses of AI in farming. Here are examples of those most relevant to current day farming.
Soil and crop management: The type and nutrition of soil play an important factor in the type and quality of crop that is grown. It can be exceedingly difficult to determine the quality of the soil.
A German-based tech start-up called PEAT has developed an AI-based application called Plantix that can identify the nutrient deficiencies in soil including plant pests and diseases. This app uses image recognition-based technology. By capturing images of plants using smartphones, farmers can get an idea on which fertilizer most helps to improve harvest quality.
Similarly, Trace Genomics is another machine learning-based company that helps farmers do soil analysis. Such apps help farmers to monitor soil and crop’s health conditions and produce healthy crops with a higher level of productivity.
The amount of data being captured by smart sensors and drones via real-time video streaming provides agricultural experts with entirely new data sets. It is now possible to combine in-ground sensor data of moisture, fertilizer, and natural nutrient levels to analyze growth patterns for each crop over time. Machine learning is the perfect technology to combine massive data sets and provide constraint-based advice for optimizing crop yields.
Pest and disease control: Pests are one of the worst enemies that damages crops for farmers. AI systems use satellite images and compare them with historical data using AI algorithms. These can detect if an insect has landed and which it may be, such as a locust, grasshopper, etc. Alerts are sent to a farmer’s smartphones so they can take required precautions and use an optimized combination of pest control solutions.
The UN, international agencies and large-scale agricultural operations are pioneering drone data combined with in-ground sensors to improve pest management. Using infrared camera data from drones combined with sensors on fields that can monitor plants’ relative health levels, agricultural teams using AI can predict and identify pest infestations before they occur.
AI can also be used for disease prediction. Disease is more predictable due to weather conditions. Some are more common in wet weather, for example. This eventually can result in a more cost-effective strategy for fungicides and other disease solutions.
In fact, many companies are involved with using AI to help farmers reduce their across-the-board usage of chemicals and consequently results in cleaner water, air and soil, and healthier wildlife habitat.
Water management: Water is the scarcest resource in many parts of North America, especially in communities that rely most on agriculture as their core business. Being efficient in using it can mean the difference between a farm or agricultural operation staying profitable or not. Linear programming is often used to calculate the optimal amount of water a given field or crop will need to reach an acceptable yield level. Supervised machine learning algorithms are ideal for ensuring fields and crops get enough water to optimize yields without wasting any in the process.
Seed genetics: Many people believe AI can help the most by improving seed genetics. Seed genetics have improved productivity, lowered the need for disease and pest control, and reduced irrigation, which conserves water. As one farmer told me: “In the 1988 drought we averaged 75 bushels an acre and in the 2012 drought almost 200 bushels an acre.” A recent RNA breakthrough by UChicago-led research has had initial tests show that by adding a gene encoding for a protein called FTO, both rice and potato plants increased their yield by 50 percent. The plants grew significantly larger, produced longer root systems and were better able to tolerate drought stress. Analysis also showed that the plants had increased their rate of photosynthesis. The researchers are hopeful about the potential of this breakthrough, especially in the face of climate change and other pressures on crop systems worldwide.
Farming and The Conservation Foundation
Believe it or not, The Conservation Foundation has a working organic vegetable farm. McDonald Farm has 60 acres, 2 tractors, 4 greenhouses, 1 hardworking crew, and a huge variety of vegetables. Since 1998, we have been working hard to maintain and improve the property and use it to further the causes of conservation, education, and agriculture. The organic vegetables are sold through a shareholder-based program, our farm stand, and at the Aurora Farmers Market.
The Conservation Foundation’s McDonald Farm is both a throw-back and a farm of the future. Being in the heart of the suburbs and close to its customers, it provides a good model for other small, local farms to follow where we can keep our carbon footprint small and provide local, fresh food to people close to where they live. We have installed many examples of positive actions people can do at home or their place of business, such as wind and solar energy (we generate about 25 percent of our office energy between the two), permeable pavers and concrete to showcase storm-water best management practices, and a small green vegetative roof on the old milk house. We also have rain barrels for sale and a 25,000-gallon rainwater collection system that irrigates the vegetables. We hope that when people visit the farm, they will leave with one new idea they can employ at home or work.
Ready to work on the future of farming? For almost 50 years, The Conservation Foundation has been a thought leader providing education on new and exciting ways of doing conservation and applying them to everyday life. The Conservation Foundation is also a forum for folks to push the envelope and challenge people in their thinking. We are always looking for creative, hard-working people – become a member today!
Feel free to comment on this blog with additional ideas you have on how artificial intelligence can improve farming and reduce the use of agricultural chemicals.
By Steve Stawarz, Oak Brook
DuPage County Advisory Council Member
R&D Manager, Digital Diagnostics