Currently, the success of the agriculture industry depends largely on access to a large workforce. It’s no secret that agriculture relies heavily on both temporary, seasonal farm migrants with H-2A visa status and undocumented immigrants to perform the physical labor required in planting, pruning, weeding, harvesting and sorting crops. Big farms employ thousands of migrant and immigrant workers each year to keep up with the demand of feeding the growing world population. Agriculture is a real-time balancing act, tasked with feeding the world while dealing with daily changing factors, such as weather, pests, disease and availability of resources. Agriculture also contributes substantially to the U.S. economy and affects many other industries in the U.S. and worldwide. Ensuring that the agriculture industry has the resources it needs to remain viable is important in many ways.
In the current political climate, the use of foreign workers to perform jobs in the U.S. is a controversial issue. For farmers, the H-2A visa program bridges a gap and allows them to meet food demand with an appropriately-sized workforce, even while the domestic labor supply is dwindling and largely uninterested in farm labor. There have been problems with the H-2A visa program over the last several years that have resulted in low crop yields due to the lack of workers to harvest crops. Slow federal processing of H-2A visas and computer glitches have prevented workers from getting to the fields on time and production has suffered. If visas are delayed by even a week during the short window of prime harvest time, there could be devastating effects to farmers’ bottom lines and yield. Demands for H-2A visas keep increasing, but no one is sure how H-2A visas will be affected by changes in U.S. immigration law. In addition, with Mexico’s economy improving and stricter U.S. border control, the number of undocumented immigrants into this country has declined. The reality is that the agriculture industry is in a precarious position with the majority of its workforce at stake. The solution for this dilemma may be found in technology for agriculture: AgTech.
What is AgTech?
AgTech is a rapidly growing sector of the technology industry that offers technological solutions across many different specialties within the agriculture industry. Implementation of AgTech solutions is the key to operating large, efficient and sustainable farms with a spare amount of labor. Many of the solutions outlined below automate work traditionally performed by field workers and can also predict labor needs for any given season.
Sensors and Drones
Traditionally, the monitoring of crops was performed manually by workers walking through fields and orchards taking note of crop status and any anomalies. For large farms, this is especially labor intensive. Now, IoT (internet of things) monitoring devices, such as sensors and drones, can perform this work. Monitors collect data about plant and soil health, light, weather, moisture, pests, disease and provide a constant data stream back to farmers.
Predictive Analytics Tools
With big data streaming to farmers, predictive analytics tools process data into useful metrics that provide valuable insights and information on trends. These metrics help farmers determine prime harvest times and forecast staffing needs. Even better, monitoring devices combined with predictive analytics tools can give farmers precise information about exactly which crops are ready to be harvested on any given day, so that field workers perform more prioritized and focused work. Overall, these tools enable farmers to solve issues quickly with the most efficient use of resources.
Artificial Intelligence in Automated Machinery
The use of machinery is not new in agriculture, but with the tech world currently focused on improvements in machine learning and computer vision, agricultural machinery is also predictably moving in the direction of automation. In addition, immigration laws have had a history of impacting the agriculture industry, which can ultimately lead to late/lost harvests. This can cause a huge economic impact, a $3.3 billion missed GDP growth in 2012.
Several companies are working on developing robotic weeding machines, robotic harvesters and smart sorting machines. In many other industries, machines have already taken over tedious and labor-intensive tasks, requiring humans to employ more high-level skills as machinists and engineers. In an industry such as agriculture that is facing a potential labor shortage, the development of automated machines could really be a solution for maintaining large yields with a small workforce.
The emergence of AgTech has the potential to solve agriculture labor issues, but these technological solutions are also making sustainable agriculture possible. With a growing world population, moving towards sustainable agriculture is necessary and requires the most efficient use of resources. In addition, the agriculture industry is massive, contributing over $900 billion to the U.S. GDP each year. Ensuring the stability of the agriculture industry is important, not only for the food on our dinner plates, but to the health of our economy. Moving forward, leveraging AgTech solutions to solve problems facing the agriculture industry is a necessity.
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