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Helping Small, Family Farmers Put Food On The Table: Smart Farms
 

Background

American agriculture is often recognized as the "breadbasket of the world", or, as some would call it, "supermarket of the world". Within the US, large agricultural conglomerates have an enormous political influence, particularly in states that rely heavily on that sector for tax revenues, employment, and capital flow. Consequently, it is a well-accepted precept in Washington DC that agricultural subsidies and other benefits to these large companies are a mainstay of Federal policy and budgeting.

Family farmers have struggled in recent decades to remain viable, not to mention to grow and thrive. As conglomerates that aggregate land and crops have increasingly bought up small family farms, there has been a rise in efforts to protect family farms and farmers, who simply want a level playing field. The charity organization and concert series known as Live Aid has regularly raised the profile for this struggle, while raising money to assist small farmers.

The Federal government has certainly offered some support to family farms. But there is a widely held perception that more could and should be done, particularly in light of the voluminous support provided to their larger competitors, such as the agricultural conglomerates.

President Obama took a major step in early 2009 by providing $2,5 billion in grants and loans for the deployment of broadband technologies to serve rural communities (as provided by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, "ARRA", to the USDA's Rural Utilities Service).  This funding will open great new opportunities for America's farmers to access the full benefits of information technology and develop efficient, effective "smart farms".

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Ideas / Solutions

The new Federal funding, as well as other governmental subsidies, price supports, and other output-based benefits to small and family farmers will enable the infrastructure to be laid for farmers to maximize their use of information technology.  But there are additional opportunities for the Federal government to offer help through technology that will increase productivity, maximize resources, and position these farms for sustained growth and competitiveness for years to come. As I.T. can be expensive and can cause a change in the way of doing business, many small farmers might not be inclined to restructure their way of doing business. But with Federal funding for the hardware and software, together with training, these one-time expenditures will provide a lasting benefit for small farms by maximizing their personnel and capital resources.

Farm productivity is partly a function of information: soil conditions, weather conditions, crop conditions, awareness of infestations, and appropriate timing for taking action. Much effort is expended in monitoring fields, crops, and the infrastructure to maintain optimal conditions. Technology can provide a short-cut to regular monitoring, and even to regularly adjusting the conditions that maximize output.

Instituting "smart farms" can save farmers a great amount of labor, increase their control, and give them an edge against destructive forces such as weather and pests. “Smart farms” enable the farmer to automatically and remotely monitor and adjust for all elements that contribute to their farm’s productivity.

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First, remote sensors need to be deployed in soil to detect moisture levels, and above ground to detect air temperature and precipitation. Cameras need to be deployed to provide visual assessment of the condition of above-ground growth, such as trees, stalks, or leaves, depending on what is being grown. The cameras can also detect evidence of pest infestations, if not spot the pests themselves. These devices should be deployed at intervals that will provide meaningful coverage and assessment of the entire field, and will vary with each location.

Each device must be equipped with a transmitter so that their data can be collected by strategically placed wireless receivers. All this is possible by deploying a wireless mesh network, known as WiFi (conforming to 802.11 standards), or, within another couple of years, by a single deployment of a WiMax system (conforming to 802.16 standards). By networking all of these devides, a farmer can observe the conditions throughout his or her fields from a single computer monitor. Then, adjustments can be made.

Water sprinkler systems, irrigation systems, heaters, pesticide dispensers (aerators or sprinklers), and other equipment that manipulate the growing environment should also be equipped with wireless networking communication devices. With a few clicks of a computer mouse, the farmer can control these, turning them on or off, regulating their flow, and establishing automated timed operations. In so doing, one person is able to manage an entire farm, reducing labor inputs, and is able to do so much more assiduously than if they had to be physically present to make observations and adjustments.

Networked cameras will also be useful during the harvesting phase, as they can help in deploying combines and personnel more efficiently, identify ripe crops for top priority harvesting, locate receptacles that are ready for collection, and aid in the overall oversight of the process.

By utilizing a wireless system, there will be no need to beware of disrupting fiber, cable, or other wired systems, when the field is prepared for the next year's planting season, in cases of fields which require tilling, as opposed to those with trees or vines. Wireless devices, which are above ground, or marked with above-ground stakes, can easily be retrieved prior to field preparation (a procedure which would not even be necessary for tree and vine situations).

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The software and system could be configured to integrate with other systems that the farmer uses, such as inventory control, supply chain, and marketing software, to provide a one-stop-shopping interface for all of the farmer's business needs. Integration with this information could also improve the farmer's timing for its on-site operations.

The Federal government could provide funding to small and/or family farms for these systems (and training on them) via direct outlays (possibly using the ARRA funding) or tax benefits. Such a program would be cost-efficient, as they would ultimately cost less over a sustained period of time than annual price supports, and the political benefits would be incalculably great. Rather than engaging in political warfare over the subsidies and supports granted to large conglomerates, the Federal government would reap the benefits of aiding disadvantaged farms, while not impairing the program that is near and dear to the larger companies.

For these technology systems to be of maximal benefit, small farmers must have a reliable and affordable high-speed Internet connection to enable their "digital inclusion".  For this reason, the $2.5 billion of ARRA funding to the Rural Utilities Service will play an enormous role.  It will greatly accelerate the incremental progress that had followed the 2002 initiation of a USDA loan program to extend broadband to rural communities, which was largely ineffective.  Most of the funds in that program had not been allocated, funds were limited to connecting the farms and communities to the Internet, and the loans had to be repaid. The impact of the new ARRA funding will be profound if it can be used to also provide hardware, software, and applications at the farm, as discussed here.

Similar to small farmers who are engaged in crop farming, those engaged in livestock farming could be provided similar benefits. Although some of the requirements are different, as livestock are mobile, require monitoring against diseases, and present additional challenges, the technology can be adapted to these situations and be equally, if not more, meaningful.

In essence, this approach would provide a win-win situation that would place the US at the vanguard of modern farming, in a manner that could be replicated in other countries, especially those with chronic food shortages. At the same time, it will also provide the added benefit of boosting the economic development of our nation's technology sector.

 
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