Robots to run commercial farms and I still don’t have a real hoverboard

Exclusives from Urban Ag News

It’s hard to believe we are already in the year 2020.  For someone who was born in the 1970’s, it has been a bit of a let down.  I feel like I was promised flying cars, robots, hoverboards and bubble covered cities.  I must admit that I was most excited for the hoverboards, but unfortunately we ended up with a hoverboard that uses two wheels?  Complete let down.

Not all has been lost on me, however.  I am amazed at our ability to carry computers in our pockets and wear them on our wrist.  I have seen the rise (and fall and rise again) of “money” that I could not and cannot hold or easily spend (ie bitcoin).  And computer driven technology has completely changed the way I communicate, bank, shop, drive and run my small business.  

What do I think I will see next?  What do I expect to see next?

I am hoping to be amazed by the commercial agriculture and horticulture industries.  Always conservative and somewhat slow to move (for good reasons), I believe these industries will do their best to try and make some of those 1970-1980’s dreams and predictions come true for me.  From farms in buildings (no sunlight) and in bubbles (semi-closed greenhouses) to self driving tractors, harvesting robots and CRISPR; our food is destined to be “innovated.”  

2020 may provide a perfect setting as it may bring us closer to seeing a few concepts become a reality.  Here’s what will I be watching:

Commercially viable farms operated by “robots”

  • Fifth Season – Large Scale Pittsburg Vertical Farm that uses AI and robots to grow salad greens opens in 2020.
  • Root AI – To put harvesting robots in multiple commercial greenhouse farms in 2020. 
  • Iron Ox – Creating a centralized computer system capable of managing the entire farming operation will hopefully take the next steps to commercialization in 2020.

Large scale implementation of LED lit (sometimes), hi-tech commercial greenhouses producing food in the eastern half of the USA!  (The bubbles are finally coming closer to the cities and the people. And they will do this in a major way over the next five years.)

  • AppHarvest – To Open their first 60 acres of vine crop production in Kentucky in 2020.
  • Gotham Greens – To continue expansion in major cities across the United States.
  • Little Leaf Farms – To double in size in 2020 as it expands to multiple states near the east coast. 

Smaller local farms will focus on sustainability and the community while redefining the local food scene.

  • Greener Roots and Southall Farm Village, Tennessee – started as environmentally conscious vertical farms and has now expanded to the community minded commercial greenhouse.
  • Profound MicroFarms and Profound Foods, Texas – one time orchid greenhouse is now producing hydroponic herbs and vegetables destined for local markets.  Chapter two will include an innovative distribution model designed to bring local farmers closer to local consumers. 
  • Windy City Harvest, Illinois – led by the Chicago Botanical Gardens, Windy City will focus on education, production and distribution of fresh produce in underserved communities.

What I am excited to learn more about in 2020?  While I don’t think I will get to see true commercial implementation at large scale, I see farmers recognizing the need for solutions to food safety, labor and data at the farm ops level.  The use of AI will shift where we grow our food and how we protect our food.

  • AI and Data – AgShift uses AI to check food quality quickly and accurately.
  • Labor – too many concepts to mention.
  • Computers vs People- Autonomous Greenhouses International Challenge – better analysis of data continues to prove that higher yields can be achieved.

Now if we look even further into history and out into the future, maybe just maybe we are starting to see other predictions start to take shape, even if for different reasons than what was originally thought. 

‘In 1913, Gustav Bischoff, former president of the American Meat Packers Association, predicted that humans’ diets would consist of mostly vegetables as the years went on. Because of a shortage of meat, he told The New York Times, even the wealthiest people in the future would be vegetarians.”  Now we all know we are nowhere near a shortage of meat, but will the next round of innovations making big advances towards cell-cultured meats a sustainable trend of the future?  Endurance athletes, American football players and body builders are all showing interest in plant-based diets, so I guess anything is possible.

Hippocrates once said, “let food be thy medicine.”  Will rising health care cost (USA) drive us to rethink what we put into our bodies?   Can we actually prevent disease with food? My guess? We will see many companies try to create concepts that capitalize on this thought process.  The reality just might be that we need to use more common sense and that functional plants/foods possess additional phytochemicals with properties way beyond their innate nutritional value. 

Desmond Tutu stated that “people of conscience need to break their ties with corporations financing the injustice of climate change.”  Since farmers (even greenhouse growers) have tied their livelihood directly to the “sun” and water, will they be the first to force major change and significant shifts in the way we grow the majority of our food, the value of that food and the location of the farms?  Low margins and perishable goods combined with inconsistency in production make for bad business. This alone is reason for change, but will it be enough of a reason?

I obviously do not have any of the answers to these questions, but I am excited about being part of this innovative process and the creation of a new agri-system based on need, opportunity and growth.  

But back to where I started, would someone get me a real hoverboard?

Chris Higgins

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