This hard land: From cotton gin, to combine harvester, to computer vision (by way of The Boss)
Farming is hard. It always has been. There is a song called This Hard Land by Bruce Springsteen, rock’s great chronicler of every-day struggle in modern America, which captures something of the labour and luck of working the land. “Mister, can you tell me what happened to the seeds I’ve sown? Can you give me a reason, sir, as to why they’ve never grown?”
It’s a metapor, of course; the song is about a search for ‘home’ in the restlessness of ‘middle America’, where the country looms large. But its narrative context, about making ends meet on remote farmland, is familiar everywhere.
The challenge of farming has softened and strained with each technological leap, from the cotton gin to the combine harvester – and to the kind of computer vision trickery being loaded onto farm machinery today. But it never gets easier, and the twin demands being placed on farming today to feed the world and arrest climate change are formidable. The latest scientific thinking says we have just 12 years to save the planet, after all.
More “rapid and far-reaching” transitions in energy and industry are required if global warming is to be limited to 1.5°C, calculated as the maximum rise to retain environmental stability. These are the conclusions of a late-2018 report from the United Nations (UN) Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. After 2030, the future is a gamble, relying on untested technologies and techniques, and the environmental outlook is unreliable.
By then, the world’s population, around 7.6 billion today, will have reached 8.6 billion, says the UN. It is projected to hit 9.8 billion in 2050, about 30 per cent higher than today. The planet will need to grow 70 per cent more food in 2050 than it did in 2009, it calculates. How can family farms, farming corporations, and farming co-operatives compute that? Where should they go? The stakes are getting higher, as Springsteen might put it.
The agriculture sector is required, urgently (and with help from government and industry), to innovate again in these hard times. New digital technologies are taking hold in farming, as in every industrial sector. There will be over 75 million agricultural IoT devices by 2020, up around 44 per cent, says Business Insider Intelligence; the average farm will produce 4.1 million data points every day by 2050, it calculates. There will be two million connected farms by 2024 and 30 million connected cows, says ABI Research. These are robust trends.
But farming is hard, and hard for technologists, too, trying to make sense of the market – to make business by imposing logic and order on it, and offering technology as a means to richer, greener bounties. It is a fragmented sector, and hard for grasp at global level.
This is an excerpt from a new editorial report from Enterprise IoT Insights, called Connecting Agriculture – the promise of smart farming and the challenge of connectivity’, which looks at development of IoT technologies in the farming and agricultural sectors. The report, free to download, can be found here. It is the second in the new Making Industry Smarter report series from Enterprise IoT Insights. For a full schedule of editorial reports, see back page of the Connecting Agriculture report.