It’s all too common for consumers to not consider where the foods they browse at the grocery store come from. Even less thought about are the research projects and innovations needed to get them there, and what the state of agriculture actually is.
Agriculture may be in trouble. The average age for a farmer is 58, an age that has steadily increased for over 30 years. In light of this, the world looks to new farmers and young people to pick up where previous generations of farmers left off. New farmers are trusted to lead agriculture into a new, innovative age of production, efficiency, sustainability, climate change, and health and environmental awareness.
While the number of farmers under the age of 35 has only increased by 1.5% nationally, millennials are appreciative of the efforts of farmers and ranchers and value them as an important part of society. For example, they patron farmers through farmers markets, craft beer, artisanal cheese, and local meats and produce that promote energy conservation.
The agriculture industry needs innovation to improve sustainability and productivity in farming and pave the way for new farmers to pursue a career that can have massive effects on global hunger and the environment.
A shift toward indoor farming
Purchasing farmland can be a hindrance to many people who want to start a farm. In some states, high farmland prices suggest a farmland bubble to financial experts, particularly in states like Iowa, where land costs nearly $9,000 per acre. Other states, however, have land prices that are more conducive to starting up farms. One such state is Maine, whose increase in farmers under the age of 35 has skyrocketed to 40%—much higher than the national trend.
With farmland prices’ ups and downs across the board, many new farmers are turning to indoor agriculture and discovering new innovations that are revolutionizing their craft. Instead of building horizontally and taking up more farmland, many of these farms have begun vertical farming. These farms are environmentally-friendly skyscrapers that offer several floors of crops in a small area rather than crops planted over acres of land. Proponents say this method is more practical and cost-effective and could even potentially stop disease transmission in traditional agriculture.
Some indoor industrial scale farms powered by LEDs are becoming more common, as this technology can produce crops with higher yields and shorter grow cycles in all climates and times of year. They are also more energy efficient than the traditional high-pressure sodium (HPS) lamps currently used. LEDs surpass 50% efficiency as compared to 30% from HPS lamps. In other words, LEDs can produce the same amount of produce as HPS lamps for a fourth of the cost.
Innovation in the fields
Farmers look for innovation in the fields to make their products and operations better and their lives easier. Farm management software, such as products from DeLaval, stands to benefit farmers, particularly up-and-coming ones, who can use these programs to calculate food rations and milking systems. This could increase productivity, cost-effectiveness, efficiency, and can simplify farm management. Mobile app VetAfrica from software company Cojengo makes the diagnosis of livestock illness easier to detect while also helping farmers find the best veterinarians and treatments, according to the company.
Various farms across the U.S. are using a number of agricultural innovations to improve farming sustainability as well. Bright Farms uses a special hydroponic system that employs water circulation to use less water and prevent agricultural runoff. Green Sense Farms employs a water and nutrient recycling system to benefit plants with no runoff, and it uses coconut husks, once considered waste, as a renewable growing medium. Chicago-based Farmed Here focuses on local distribution to reduce energy consumption and uses local packaging suppliers. And that’s just a few examples of how far farming sustainability has come.
Educational development in agriculture
To develop new techniques and technologies in agriculture, beginning farmers and those interested in agriculture require a first-rate education. Learning needs to promote progressive agricultural techniques and support research and development that inspires innovation. The farming population is aging, and state-of-the-art technology is rapidly becoming more available at a lower cost, so this education is crucial to the future of agriculture.
In December, USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) announced that $15 million was now available to fund pre- and post-graduate fellowships as well as, for the first time, undergraduate fellowships. This funding aims at training up-and-coming agricultural scientists who will work to solve current and future challenges, such as food security and environmental sustainability, with new ideas and technologies.
The nonprofit First Generation Farmers supports beginning farmers, ranchers, and agripreneurs. Its Incubator Program, recently promoted through a Kickstarter campaign, hopes to give future farmers the tools they need to start their farm, including an acre of land, seeds, supplies, tractors, and irrigation.
It’s educational programs like these that could get beginning farmers and their facilities off the ground to foster the next generation of agricultural professionals.
Agricultural events gather the best minds
Agricultural conferences and showcases shed light on the problems and solutions that agriculture faces and will face in the future. These collaborative events bring together farmers, companies, universities, nonprofits, and other organizations and individuals dedicated to the future of agriculture and encourage productivity and creativity between industry professionals.
Food think tank Food Tank, for example, recently held the 1st annual Food Tank Summit in Washington, DC, in partnership with The George Washington University, which Food Dive attended. The two-day event featured over 75 speakers from the food and agricultural industries, from researchers and government officials to farmers and chefs, who came together to discuss a wide range of topics in the agricultural realm.
Another event, the Ag Innovation Showcase, features up-and-coming startups and research projects that contribute to various issues the agriculture industry faces.
Each year, the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers and Resource magazine host the AE50 New Product Awards, which recently announced their 2015 picks for most innovative products of the year. Companies like Case IH Agriculture, Haggie Manufacturing Company, New Holland Agriculture, and John Deere were among some of the companies with the most products named, which included everything from cotton strippers to engine cooling systems for tractors.
Through new and bold ideas, the latest technology, education initiatives, and collaborative events, the agriculture industry can face the future with the innovations needed to solve its most pressing issues. Innovative minds and new farmers, ranchers, and agripreneurs are at the forefront of this movement and are preparing to lead the industry into a new age of enhanced productivity, efficiency, and sustainability.