Equipment manufacturers look to the future of smart farming

The fundamentals of agriculture—how we produce food, fiber and fuel and still protect our natural environment—will require solutions that are still being dreamed up. And American equipment manufacturers are on board.

During the online Commodity Classic, March 3, top executives from four major ag equipment brands shared what changes they expect in equipment in the next 20 years and how trends in changing farm demographics and consumer demands are going to drive technology. The panel included: David Gilmore, senior vice president, sales and marketing for John Deere; Bill Hurley, vice president, customer support, AGCO; Scott Harris, vice president Case IH, North America; and Todd Stucke, senior vice president, marketing, Kubota Tractor Corporation.

These executives and their companies are monitoring trends and the push for climate smart agricultural solutions to improve soil health, and conserve resources tops the list. In the next 20 years, Stucke said, the stewards of the land will prosper in a carbon capture market, but only if they have the technology on their equipment to help them measure these efforts. All four men mentioned technology such as autonomous machines, electric power, artificial intelligence, machine learning, sensors and robotics that will not only make labor more efficient, but allow farmers to precisely farm at any scale.

But, those technological advancements also need solid infrastructure out in farm country. The Association of Equipment Manufacturers, according to Stucke, is putting its might into lobbying on Capitol Hill for broadband internet infrastructure that reaches into rural communities. Without adequate broadband service, tomorrow’s equipment can’t be fully utilized to help farmers in their stewardship work, or in getting crops in and out of the field. And it’s going to take federal pushes much like the push to bring electricity to rural America in the mid-20th century.

“There are 24 million households in America that do not have reliable internet, and 80% of that 24 million are in rural areas,” Hurley said. It’s not a project that is attractive to the private internet providers because there are fewer people living in rural areas and it’s expensive to bring the technology to them. But, as the Gilmore added, farmers can’t advance in their work and fully realize the efficiency of tomorrow’s technology without it.

Of course, at the end of the day, farmers have to be able to get their seeds in the ground and the crops out of the field. And the potential downtime from equipment that’s at the mercy of a computer glitch or needs to be electrically charged in a power brown out situation is a top concern of many. All four men echoed that they are working to increase their dealership capacities to address these concerns from farmers as the technology evolves.

The conventional wisdom has been to go bigger with more horsepower in the field to cover more acres. But future equipment may actually start to shrink in size to reduce soil compaction and be more efficient, Harris added.

“If you’ve got one big machine in the field and you’re willing to take the soil compaction, and that machine goes down, your operation has a problem,” Harris said. “As opposed to if you have 10 smaller machines in a field and one goes down, you can still operate at 90%. You have to balance the costs in acquiring that autonomy.”

Overall, the future is going to include more technology in ag equipment, but manufacturers are looking to make sure they match the technology with the farming operation so that it’s not just “technology for technology sake,” Gilmore said. Many growers have been looking for older equipment for many reasons—from the ability to repair simpler engines themselves, to less technology break-downs, to just frustration with the technology itself not working as it should every time. When asked if manufacturers might still have a tier of equipment without bells and whistles for these farmers, Gilmore said his company considers the cost of the technology and its intent to improve efficiency in the field before it reaches the showroom floor.

“I do know if the technology is available to the producer and it can be implemented with ease and lowers costs of operations and makes them more efficient and effective and more sustainable, 9 out of 10 will implement it,” Gilmore said. “We have to focus on what makes economic sense for this technology.”

Jennifer M. Latzke can be reached at [email protected].