The year 2050 – the mid-point of the 21st century – is fast becoming a familiar yardstick: the point at which the world’s population will peak, or the target date for economies to adapt to net zero carbon. But what about agriculture? More specifically, what about those who work in agriculture? Powernews muses the Farmers of Tomorrow…
If a typical career in farming lasts 45-50 years, then over the next 15 years around one-third of farmers will retire from the land. Thus, by 2050 – 30 years hence – a majority of today’s farmland will be in the hands of someone new. These farmers of tomorrow will be taking on an awesome responsibility as the steady rise in the world’s population creates an unprecedented demand for food.
Just who will be the typical farmer of tomorrow? What skills will they need to have? How will they differ from what we’ve come to see as the ‘traditional’ farmer?
For years, farmers have become farmers because it’s ‘been in the family’. Farming is a resource-intensive business, requiring land, labour, capital, skills and knowledge – which means entrance into farming with no previous experience has been unusual.
The law of diminishing returns also comes into play: farming’s long hours and decreasing returns have created less enthusiasm amongst the next generation for succession. In the US, the average age of a farmer is 571; in the UK, 602; in Kenya it’s 603; and in Japan4 – a country known for its ageing population – the average age is 67.
Yet there’s an increasing number of so-called ‘first generation’ farmers – and what’s really changing things, according to the James Hutton Institute in Scotland5, is that around one-third of these new entrants are women. Indeed, figures from the UK’s Office of National Statistics6 reveal that in 2018 about 17 percent of farmers were women, up from seven percent in 2007-2008. The trend is reflected in university agricultural courses too, where women students now outnumber men almost two to one – and indeed the UK’s National Farmers Union elected its first woman president, Minette Batters, in 2018.
By 2050, the whole idea of what constitutes a farm may take a very different form. While fields of crops are unlikely to disappear completely, there’s growing interest in ‘vertical farming’, or controlled environment agriculture (CEA). More than just greenhouse growing, CEA is heavily dependent on technology. New developments in LED lighting allow growers to develop ‘light recipes’ tailored to the needs of each crop; improved photosynthesis leads to increased yields. Meanwhile, sensors monitor temperature, moisture, humidity and even the colour of developing fruits, providing outputs for artificial intelligence to make decisions on watering, ventilation and harvesting – perhaps by robot.
The effect is to maintain the best possible growing conditions throughout the life of the crop, optimising the use of precious resources such as water, energy, light, space and labour, and allowing farmers to extend the seasons of crops to facilitate year-round cultivation.
Agricultural researchers and entrepreneurs alike argue that CEA offers a tremendous opportunity to reduce some of the environmental impacts associated with modern farming, with its reliance on land, resources and inputs.
It’s also a radical departure from ‘normal’ farming, one that’s attracting the attention of young entrepreneurs, new to farming. According to the 2020 Global CEA Census Report7, 49 percent of respondents were new to farming, 79 percent were under 40 and 88 percent were under 50.
Tomorrow’s farmer is likely to have more than one string to their career bow, combining agriculture with multiple streams of income from other employment. Indeed, two-thirds of the young farmers counted in the 2017 US Census of Agriculture8 listed their primary occupation as something other than farming
As with CEA, it’s the rapid advances in technology – the burgeoning ‘agritech’ industry – that’s making this possible. For example, the emergence of reliable robotic milking systems has already allowed dairy farmers to adopt a more flexible working day: they no longer need to be physically present in the parlour to milk the cows two or three times a day. In the UK, around one in ten dairy herds now has an automatic milking system installed9, but that figure’s as high as 40 percent in the Netherlands.
One of the most exciting developments for the future farmer will surely be how machinery like tractors and its implements will communicate. While the adoption of ISOBUS has been valuable in standardising connections and interfaces, with the standard in place, further opportunities arise.
Tractor Implement Management (TIM) is an ISOBUS-based system giving an implement control of a tractor for functions such as PTO, ground speed, steering, and lift, by communicating with the engine ECU. Using TIM, an operator no longer has to repeat ‘stop, open door, close door, start’ while making round bales, for example. The tractor and implement do it automatically.
TIM also brings mechanisation a step closer to autonomy: the driverless tractor. But completely driverless machines, while appealing in terms maximising labour resources for tomorrow’s farmer, can present practical problems in moving machines from location to location.
As reported in our Improving Methods of Agriculture article, to resolve these challenges, a ‘hybrid tractor’ could emerge with both driver and driverless modes, with an operator driving it to the field before switching into a pre-programmed driverless mode to complete a task with a TIM-enabled implement, allowing a future farmer to focus on another job in the meantime.
Traditionally farming has required skills beyond agronomy or animal husbandry – whether as a mobile mechanic when machinery breaks down in the field, or the ability to use the farm workshop to knock-up a solution to their unique problem. But in the future, farmers are likely to have to know more about connectivity than con-rods.
Agritech uses technology – sensors, monitors, collection of data, machine learning, internet connections, artificial intelligence, drones, robotics, and so on – to improve farming’s efficiency and profitability. The future of agriculture will rely on agritech – but the effectiveness of that agritech will rely on a competent operator.
That’s significant. Millennials are the first generation who have not known a world without computers – and the success and entrepreneurial spirit of the agritech sector is largely down to millennials. To them, technology is more or less invisible: it just exists, in the same way that a fixed telephone line wasn’t a thing of wonder for Generation X, or the internet for Generation Z.
So too it will be for farming by 2050. The farmers of tomorrow will be ‘hands-on’ only in the sense that they’ll have all the controls for their farm readily within reach, remotely accessible and, in the main, controlled by a ‘bot’ deploying artificial intelligence to assess and make decisions on the multiple streams of data being returned from the field and from the CEA units.
And how about all those autonomous tractors and field units performing the seed drilling, weed zapping, biostimulant applications and eventual crop harvesting? Electric, hydrogen, fuel cells? As power solutions evolve in agriculture, Perkins will continue its legacy of agricultural innovation and development to meet the needs of the farmers of tomorrow.
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