Witness the innovations in agriculture in the last 10 years. In 1993, who used a cell phone with ease practically anywhere? Or used the Internet? Or electronic mail? Or who sprayed one herbicide on a crop to control all weeds without crop damage? Or pushed a single button to shift gears or launch a sequence of implement movements? Or steered straight with hands-free steering or reduced field application overlap without foam markers? Or stopped bugs with plants? Or grew corn to make plastic? Anyone? You get the picture.

Whew. Will the speed of innovation slow down? Not likely. Innovation not only will continue in agriculture, but will trickle down into it from highly advanced industries, such as the medical, defense, aerospace and computer industries, where new technologies deliver profit. As the latest technology advances within these industries become mass produced and less expensive, bright agricultural minds will watch, research and adapt these technologies to aid on-farm efficiency, produce new crops and animals, and much more.

Simple and profound

What technologies changed agriculture most in the past 10 years? New Mexico State University ag economist and futurist Lowell Catlett says five simple but profound technologies came to be important over the past decade.

“The first was the release and improvement of GPS, which is leading to a whole new wave of accuracy in precision farming tools. This is a major coup for agriculture and the whole U.S. as we begin to more fully utilize this technology,” Catlett says.

Second was biotechnology. “This technology came into full glory and hatred in the last 10 years, and really probably defined the decade more than anything,” he says.

The third most influential technology was the growth of the Internet. “While it was invented a long time ago, it wasn't until the past decade that it came into play,” Catlett explains. “Now we're just starting to redefine how we're going to procure inputs and how we can potentially sell them using this technology tool.”

Fourth was the improvement in weather satellite accuracy. “Surprisingly, I think this technology has probably done as much for agriculture in the last decade as anything,” Catlett states. “We've started getting a new level of forecasting, especially on potential freeze dates and higher levels of forecasting accuracy.”

Number five was the cell phone. “It may seem small and insignificant, but this mobile technology has really redefined who we are, especially in the past five years,” Catlett says. “It is truly saving us precious time and has really changed how we obtain service and work with local farm suppliers. You can make that call to a supplier from the field, so they either have it ready by the time you get to town or they called their regional warehouse, which ships it to the dealer maybe even yet that day.”

The next 10 years

What technological advances can we expect to see by 2013?

Within the hallowed halls of academia, one of the best futurists is Mike Boehlje at Purdue's Center for Food and Agricultural Business. He sees three types of technology at the farm level that are in the process of coming to market: technology to manipulate growth processes of plants and animals, technology for monitoring and measuring systems, and automated process control technology. On its own, each area is significant, he says, but it's their coming commercial convergence that will bring the most significant change.

“The first area, manipulating the growth processes of plants and animals, is a continuation of biotechnology efforts that developed the successful input-side traits such as Roundup Ready soybeans, Bt corn and cotton,” Boehlje explains. Roundup Ready technology simplified the soybean production process for growers. It not only improved and lengthened weed control, it required less management and reduced labor, allowing farmers to oversee larger acreages.

“Going forward, where we have the most potential advances for the future is on the output side, whether its protein content, amino acid levels, healthier oils and more,” Boehlje continues. “We're gaining in this area because we have a better understanding of biology, of what we need to do and what we can do to manipulate plants and animals.”

Profound change, he predicts, will occur during the next 10 years as farmers move out of commodity production and into differentiated production of specific crops with higher value.

The second group of technologies, systems that monitor and measure, will improve and see wider application. “Numerous tools using this technology — such as GPS, yield monitoring, remote sensing, smart machinery — have allowed us to real-time figure out where we are, what we're doing, and how we're doing it,” Boehlje says. “Coming soon, we'll begin applying improved tools to a broader set of agricultural production practices.”

Monitoring everything

Boehlje likens such change to that occurring in the greenhouse industry and high-tech livestock facilities, where practically everything is monitored (air, soil, plants and animals). “Improvements in sensor technology will take us to a completely new level of measuring the growth process, the surrounding environment, the operation of machinery and much more,” he says. “It will automate the processes that used to require human intervention. So rather than adjust the power levers on our tractor, the environment is sensed and implements adjust automatically. In some cases, reduced skills will be needed to accomplish certain tasks.”

The third area of technology, automated process control technology, may provide the most significant advances in agriculture production. “This technology will actually alter the production process as it senses it to help plants, animals and machines produce at an optimum level,” Boehlje states.

Take irrigation, for instance. “Instead of simply irrigating the ground if no rain occurs, automated process control will link the irrigation system to plant sensors, soil sensors and a weather station so it can apply more water or less water to specific areas of a field, driven by software and GPS,” Boehlje says. “Think about the greenhouse example where sensors are changing the angle of windows, humidity levels, water and fertility amounts and more automatically. We're starting to think along these same lines on how to grow crops in fields and animals in buildings.”

Big Bang stuff

In Boehlje's observations, these three technology areas change agriculture from “an industry that grows stuff to one of biological manufacturing. We're in the process of the biological manufacturing of specific-attribute raw materials for the nutritional, industrial and pharmaceutical industries,” he says.

He believes the simultaneous evolution of all three processes, or convergence of them, will have profound implications for agriculture. “When you combine biotechnology with information technology with process control technology, you'll get some truly Big Bang stuff,” Boehlje states.

Because of this convergence of the technologies, in many cases the human managerial process will be altered or substituted, he adds, which results in “simplification technology.” “What we used to do manually will become automated, enabling each manager to expand what he or she oversees,” Boehlje says. “As a manufacturing plant becomes more automated, it allows the plant manager to expand control and manage more units.”

Think about soybean production before Roundup Ready soybeans, Boehlje says. You had to spend more management time to know your weeds and match the right herbicide mixture. You had to scout more for proper application timing of each field. You may have cultivated. “Now, without too much thinking, you simply plant, spray once, maybe twice, and forget about it. This technology has substituted for oversight of the operation, allowing growers to manage larger soybean acreages,” he says.

How close are we to this technology convergence? “In animal production, we're already quite away along the curve to converting livestock production units into manufacturing facilities,” Boehlje says. “With confined livestock like poultry and pork, we're expecting to see more sensors and software driving more automation, helping sense levels of infection which triggers dispersal of proper medication into the water to prevent a disease outbreak.”

In crop production, Boehlje says, we'll see technology convergence sooner in more high-value crops where critical monitoring and automated processes will achieve a quicker payback. “But there is a whole set of technologies such as GPS, yield and quality monitors, lightbars, steering guidance that is already there, so one doesn't have to go too far before we start seeing more convergence in crop production,” he says.

Wireless and nano rule

In Lowell Catlett's list of five technologies that will most change the nature of agriculture in the next 10 years, first is the wireless digital technology. “This, without question, will definitely be the most pronounced tool of the decade,” he states. “We're seeing PDAs merged with cell phones and laptops being shrunk down to PDA size. But wireless technology, either 802.11 [Wi-Fi] or Bluetooth platforms, will totally redefine absolutely everything.”

The next two technologies, DNA sensing chips and nano lasers, will be directly connected to the wireless technology.

“Sensing chips have been around during the last decade, but they're becoming more mainstream and commercial,” Catlett says. “The first phase of this DNA sensing technology is currently performing medical diagnostic work, and it's absolutely overwhelming what they are doing for human medicine right now. And it's this work that will set the stage to totally redefine plant and animal agriculture. It will totally revolutionize diagnostic work on animals for vet care, followed by plant and soil diagnostics to detect nutritional deficiencies or soil characteristics and more.”

The science-fiction fantasy of nanotechnology — building novel structures, devices, and materials at the atomic or molecular scale — is becoming a reality. According to research at the University of California — Berkeley, a bio-nano breakthrough may someday lead to devices that diagnose disease, detect evidence of bioterrorism and aid in the discovery of new drugs. Most impressive, though, is that these devices, based on a DNA-sensing chip in development at Berkeley, will fit in your pocket. Already available DNA “gene chips” enable the analyses of DNA samples to identify biological substances. The silicon or glass chips are embedded with tens of thousands of different fragments of DNA. Each bit of reference DNA consists of a specific sequence of bases — the four letters that spell out the genetic code — that are unique to the disease or pathogen, for instance, that the user is attempting to identify.

Catlett explains that the nano laser or vertical-cavity surface-emitting laser takes information from DNA chips and transfers the data via wireless protocols. “This will provide truly phenomenal capabilities to measure and get information from fields and animals and will ratchet up management like you've never seen before,” he predicts.

Biotech speeds onward

The fourth technology, biotech, will continue as one of the top technologies of the next decade, Catlett says. “It will reform itself, so the next round of products will deliver ecological and medicinal benefits for the environment, humans and animals.”

Finally, software programs called “intelligent default” will combine with wireless, DNA chip and nano laser technologies to revolutionize everything that is connected to agribusiness, according to Catlett. “The idea is there are parameters in such software that, when given information from remote-sensing devices that is outside set parameters, the software will either notify a manager via a coded message to a wireless device or cell phone or it will mitigate, enhance or change what's there to resolve the challenge itself,” he explains.

Catlett says the trucking industry already has put this technology into play. “Cummins engines have technology that monitors engine revolutions and shifting points in combination, because when these conditions get out of whack, trucks can jackknife. When this occurs, a signal is sent to a fleet manager with exact GPS location and time, and a phone call can be placed immediately to the driver to determine if everything is okay,” he says. “And a fleet's safety factor jumps up immensely with this technology.

“The beauty of this technology, that will totally revolutionize management, is that it's fairly inexpensive,” Catlett continues. “And it will cause a whole new stream of agribusiness firms to enter the market offering intelligent default software that fits all kinds of farm-based applications, causing the wireless platform to explode. And for managers, it will be a phenomenal tool that will give them flexibility like they've never imagined.”

Catlett concludes that “the great thing about these technologies is that they'll truly be put into place by the savvy producer, and it will revolutionize agriculture. And most of it will be normal in 10 years or less.”