If hearing the word “farm” still evokes the romantic image of endless fields providing an escape from technology and from constant internet connection, it is high time to reconstruct this picture. The Internet of Things started to reshape agriculture, which meant 30 million agricultural IoT devices installed in 2015, according to Business Insider.

This transformation could not arrive in a better time. The world population is expected to grow from 6.8 billion today to 9.1 billion by 2050 requiring significant growth in food production, says UN report. In addition to the increasing food demand, shrinkage of arable lands and increase in drought are also alarming problems caused by climate change. Needless to mention, with the rapid population growth, sustainable farming is more important than ever before. Considering these aspects, it might not seem to be an exaggeration that precision farming and smart agriculture are the key for survival.

The very first and essential step is to increase the yield per land by taking guessing and uncertainty out of the picture. This means planting exactly as many crops as the land can sustain, using as little water and fertilizer as feasible for the healthy and rich yield. To achieve the best results, several sensors monitor the soil constantly, transferring data to the cloud. After analyses a carefully chosen program can suggest actions to optimize growth, or even adjust water and chemical dosage without human interaction. Constant monitoring also ensures spotting infected crops just in time to prevent spreading, ensuring healthy and safe-to-consume harvest while minimizing loss. Data collection synchronized with weather forecasts also equips farmers with high-tech armory in the battle against extreme conditions.

As an additional advantage, most producers on the market advocate user-friendliness including mobile phone based farm control, probably as a sign of learning from past mistakes. For instance, CropX calculates the number of sensors necessary for effective soil monitoring with the help of digital maps. The sensors can be installed by the end-user while a GPS enabled mobile app tells where to place the gadgets for the best results. After scanning the QR-code on the sensors, they connect to the cloud “giving voice to your field,” as the CropX webpage suggests, telling when your crops demand water. Farmobile has rather decided to connect to your equipment via a little orange box, that sends you instant information about planting, fertilizing, and harvesting statistics allowing you to adjust your farming methodology for the most profitable result. OnFarm offers a common platform to all the data collected from several smart sensors and monitoring systems promising assistance to farmers displaying statistics on a customizable platform.

Not only the application possibilities, but the numbers are impressive as well. According to Business Insider, USA, the world leader in smart agriculture, produces 7,340 kg of cereal per hectare of farmland in contrast to the global average of 3,851 kg of cereal per hectare. OnFarm also reported an average 1.75% yield increase among the users. The significant rise in production rates is undoubtedly great news when additional 2.3 billion mouths need to be fed in 30 years. Besides, the results are also promising as far as environment protection is concerned. OnFarm also observed 8% reduction in water used for irrigation and a decrease in energy usage translating to a $7 to $13 cost drop per acre, not to mention the chemical use optimized to the necessary minimum.

In addition to having a fair share in saving the world, energy efficiency and yield growth can be converted into profit. RCR Wireless News has safer estimations than OnFarm in terms of average yield increase is concerned, but they also forecast impressive results. Even the more modest 15% expected growth in yield is calculated to be $5 to $100 profit increment per acre adding up to $5,000 to $100,000 gain on an average family-owned farm in the U.S.. In addition to the increased yield, optimized water, electricity and the fertilizer consumption reduces production costs; while the automatized data collection might ease labor expenses as well.

Nonetheless, a booming harvest with reduced costs is not always sufficient by itself to achieve the highest profit possible. Accurate forecasts about the expectable yield in the right time are worth gold on a sensitive market, as it is revealed in an interview with Arable founder, Adam Wolf. While working with one of the world’s largest berry producers, he observed that knowing what to expect is crucial on the field to adjust your marketing strategy; and such decisions are often made on “counting perhaps 50 berries,” and a “little bit of math;” not exactly a method that can be called precision farming.

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If you counted more you should be marketing more, then they realize the week they harvest, ‘Oh no, we actually have 1.2 million tonnes in strawberries’ and you’re faced with either selling for pennies or leaving them in the field to rot

– Wolf summed up the hazards for ReadWrite. As a farmer, you need to know what is and will be happening on the field every moment not only for higher profit, but for food safety as well. This is more achievable than ever before due to all the remote data gathering possibilities and big data analyses.

The demand for information applies not only to crop producers, but animal farmers as well. Air quality, food and water supply can be constantly monitored and automatically controlled to ensure the best possible conditions for the animals. Livestock monitoring also facilitates the prevention of disease-spread; as symptoms can be spotted earlier, infected animals can be isolated and treated in time. IoT applications in animal farming range from poultry monitoring to optimizing oyster farm conditions. However, cows seem to enjoy the most popularity regarding IoT applications. They were even granted with smart wearables developed by companies such as eCow, and Anemon, so they can send a message to the farmer when they are in heat, or a calf is about to be born. These crucial events can be predicted based on the movement of the animal, temperature, and tale position. The prophesy sent straight to your phone can save tremendous amount of money, time, and effort, as sustaining a healthy and sufficient cattle population with the increasing dairy needs is not a piece of cake.

Nonetheless, ensuring that the message is received in time is not always without challenges, either let the sender be your cow in heat or your land sensor begging for water and nutrition. One of the most notable hurdles of IoT application in the rural areas is finding a reliable and affordable method for data-transfer. According to Enterprise Forward, more remote areas often struggle with broadband-availability, and are forced to turn to the costlier satellite communication. In addition, farms with more diverse product range may face higher costs, as a wider variety of sensors can monitor the more diversified crop and animal needs.

The European Union decided to foster the digital approach in agriculture to tackle some of the obstacles. The European Commission shared in its website that application of smart farming technology in Europe is merely 24% compared to the approximately up to 80% of U.S. farms. According to Maria Kernecker from Leibniz Centre for Agricultural Landscape Research-ZALF, the low adaption of the technology can partly be accounted for by “the gap between the needs, interests and expectations of the research and the farmer communities.” To tackle the problem, EU is investing €192 million in IoT research and innovation projects starting between 2014 and 2017. The initiative includes €30 million Euro research funding granted for the agricultural project ‘Internet of Food and Farm 2020.’ The project brings together 73 partners with the intent to “demonstrate the business case of IoT for a large number of application areas in farming and food, integrate and reuse available IoT technologies by exploiting open architectures and standards, ensure user acceptability of IoT solutions in farming and food by addressing user needs, including security, privacy and trust, and ensure the sustainability of IoT solutions beyond the project by validating the related business models and setting up an IoT Ecosystem for large scale take-up.”

EU is not the only one who considers precision farming and smart agriculture an urgent matter. According to GovInsider, countries across Asia enjoy government support to turn towards precision farming. In Malaysia, for instance, the government focuses on an IoT plan in agriculture aiming to boost production with 20% by 2020. One of the main initiatives is a common IoT platform that provides environmental data to producers, traders, and suppliers. In addition, sensors are installed to detect the right time to pollinate oil palm trees or monitor fish health in breeding ponds. The government even paid attention to consumers and local exporters, who can follow details about fruit by scanning a barcode. Philippians uses drones to chart where the lands need extra protection from natural disasters while satellites help to predict annual yield and prepare for pest attacks.

Probably it doesn’t come as a great surprise that Japan is leading in IoT application in agriculture. The very first robot farm is about to be lunched in Kameoka, Kyoto prefecture.

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The seeds will still be planted by humans, but every other step, from the transplanting of young seedlings to larger spaces as they grow to harvesting the lettuces, will be done automatically,

–explains JJ Price, the company’s marketing manager. Temperature, humidity, carbon dioxide levels, and light sources will also be automatically controlled. The applied technology will also be cost and environment friendly, as 98% of water supply will be recycled, while LED lighting will make sure that energy costs are reduced to a third. Based on the company’s predictions, the automatized precision farming will provide a significant boost in lettuce production: from the present 21,000 heads a day to daily 50,000 heads.

Even if the Japanese high tech farming is a far-away goal in many rural areas, there is a supportive environment to take the next step towards saving the world from hunger with technology; and in the meantime, creating more profit. Sometimes, additional custom software can help to make even more of the readily available solutions.

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