Over the past century, mechanization has helped farmers produce more food more efficiently, but what about today? Can things like robots, drones, sensors and big data analytics help them feed a fast-growing world population? In the first of a two-part series on advanced agricultural technology, award-winning producer Brandon Batten, of Four Oaks, discusses the present and future of ag tech on his family farm.
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Dee Shore (00:06):
Making a profit farming isn’t easy. Often there’s just a tiny difference between what it costs farmers to produce a crop and what they’ll get paid for it. To compete on the world market, they’re trying to make money by raising yields. And to save money by reducing costs. Over the past century, mechanization has made a difference. But what about today? Can things like robots, drones, sensors and big data analytics help?
I’m Dee Shore of North Carolina State University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. And in a two-part series for Farms, Food and you, we consider the role of new technologies on the farms of today and tomorrow. Next time we’ll hear from two NC State faculty members at the leading edge of technological innovation and education. But in this episode, we focus on the practical experience of an award-winning producer who uses new technology on his family farm.
Dee Shore (01:12):
Brandon Batten has lived agriculture all his life. He grew up on Triple B Farms in Four Oaks in the southeast corner of Johnston County. He’s the farm’s production manager. The farm produces a number of conventional North Carolina commodities, including tobacco, sweet potatoes, soybeans and beef cattle. Despite his traditional farming background, Batten isn’t a traditional farmer. And he hates farming stereotypes.
Brandon Batten (01:42):
As a young farmer in 2021 now, Old McDonald is my worst enemy because that plants a seed of what a farmer is supposed to be. And that’s not what I am. I still very much care about the land and the crops that we produce and our livestock. But I’m using technology. I have a smartphone, I have an iPad. My tractor can drive itself. And we’re doing a lot of things to supply that safe, affordable and abundant food that everybody enjoys at the grocery store, that without this technology, we wouldn’t be able to do.
Dee Shore (02:14):
In addition to helping run the family farm, Batten started a small agricultural technology business in 2018. Through Flying Farmer, he’s using a drone to help other farmers with needs ranging from scouting large acreages for crop damage, to providing insurance documentation in the wake of floods, droughts and diseases. Flying Farmer is still a fledgling business, but Batten has already delivered results for other farmers. And he’s seen results on his own farm.
Brandon Batten (02:46):
We’re using the drone to make decisions such as fertility. We’re deciding when and how much fertilizer and especially, where to apply that fertilizer. We may not need fertilizer on a whole field. And the drone helps us decide the zones or areas of the field that need it. We’re using the drone to make some irrigation decisions, to locate plant stress and put our water where it is needed most or will do the most good. Other technologies we’re using are the GPS-based guidance system in our tractors. We have standard accuracy all the way up to the RTK sub inch on our equipment to put the seed and inputs where they need to be, reduced overlap and operator fatigue and allow us to operate more efficiently.
We’re also using some software technology. We use a cloud-based recordkeeping program that I can access from my cell phone or iPad. My dad and uncle have the same program so we can log activities or logged things we see in the field. And it’s all uploaded to the cloud. It makes recordkeeping a lot more streamlined and a lot more efficient, as opposed to having a pocket notebook that you write down everything in and then you have to find on the dash of the pickup truck when it’s time to figure out what you did.
Dee Shore (04:05):
Deciding which farm technologies to adopt can be tricky because it’s not always easy to determine how much a particular tool will mean in terms of savings or return on investment. Batten was fortunate to secure funding for a drone through Ag Ventures, a grant program administered by NC State Extension and paid for by the North Carolina Tobacco Trust Fund Commission. He says it’s hard to put a price on the monetary return.
Brandon Batten (04:34):
If they saved me time, they saved me money because my time is valuable. As we’ve grown, we have one full-time employee, myself, and my father and uncle, that work on the farm. So we’re doing a lot of different things every day. And anything that I can save time on gives me time to focus on something else. So that would be the biggest return on investment. The drone, I’ve just finished up my third year with it so I feel like I’m just getting enough data to really start showing that return over time. So I’m hoping that now I can start talking about what I have done or what I have saved as opposed to what I think we can do or think we can save.
A lot of this technology just makes me able to manage more. Physically, I can look on my phone and see how much it rained at a farm 15 miles away, compared to driving 15 miles, checking a rain gauge and making sure it was emptied last time and then driving back home. Little things like that add up over the length of a growing season. We were covering more acres with the same number of people and the same amount of equipment. And by having these GPS guidance technologies, if we can reduce overlap even 5% or 10%, that’s a tremendous amount of savings for chemicals and fertilizers and time, and wear and tear on equipment, and fuel. It goes all the way through to everything we do. Optimizing that efficiency for our scale is what we try to do.
Dee Shore (06:01):
When it comes to deciding which technologies to adopt, Batten considers two questions.
Brandon Batten (06:07):
The first question I would ask is, can we afford it? There’s a lot of technology we could use on our farm that would cost a significant amount of capital investment that we haven’t done yet just because we haven’t been able to justify that cost. The second question similarly would be, can we not afford to do it? In other words, do I have to do this to stay relevant in the industry? Is it a traceability thing that I’m going to have to be able to sell my product, even if it’s expensive, but I have to have it to be in the marketplace. That’s something else to consider. Return on investment doesn’t always just equal dollars and cents. It can be a time saving. It could be something to differentiate me from some of my competitors.
The way we evaluate all of this new stuff is just because it’s shiny, and pretty and new doesn’t mean that we have to have it. Can it make us money or save us time? And if so, how much? And how long will it take to pay for it? A lot of industries look at return of investment over several years, three, five, seven, even 10 years. And in agriculture, that’s an eternity. Our markets and things can change so fast that anything much over three years can be a little risky if you can’t get your money back that quick. And then, like I said, can we afford not to do it? My grandpa had a saying, basically the saying was, don’t waste a dollar, but spend a dollar if it’ll make you $2. So don’t just buy the technology because it’s new. But if it’ll make you money, then invest in it and put it to use and get that return.
Dee Shore (07:43):
I asked Batten what he hopes the next five to 10 years will bring as far as new farm technology goes.
Brandon Batten (07:50):
I hope widely available broadband internet would be next. I’m talking to you today and the connection may drop, or it may not. I’ve done a lot of Zoom meetings where it has dropped out sitting in my farm office. But being able to utilize the data we collect requires a high-speed connection. When I fly a farm on my drone, I have to add a day’s time to my turnaround for my client just to upload the data because our internet connection is so slow. My normal procedure would be, I would go fly a field this afternoon, come home, start uploading the data overnight. Hopefully by tomorrow this time, it’s completed. And then I can start doing my analysis. And that’s just where we live. Sometimes seven miles away in town, the speeds start at three times what I would dream of having.
Dee Shore (08:41):
Batten also looks forward to widespread adoption of blockchain technology in agriculture. Blockchain allows data to be securely stored globally on thousands of servers, making it difficult to hack. It has implications for all sorts of industries, including agriculture, where it could be used to enhance smart farming, agricultural insurance, the traceability of products in the food supply chain, and more.
Brandon Batten (09:08):
I think next you’re going to see a lot of blockchain technology and traceability, especially in fresh fruits and vegetables—being able to trace that product from the grocery shelf back through the supplier, through the packing shed, even to the individual field that it was picked from. And I think that will help with food safety concerns and with consumer concerns. Say if we have a lettuce recall as we saw this summer with romaine, you don’t have to pull all the romaine off the shelf. You could trace that contaminant back to that farm and then still have romaine available in the marketplace. And you don’t hurt all the romaine growers that may not have had a problem.
Dee Shore (09:49):
Batten also sees promise in making it easier for farm equipment to communicate and share data with other devices.
Brandon Batten (09:56):
There’s a lot of proprietary systems still with different brands and different manufacturers. And I hope that in the future, that we can come to some agreement where all of these different equipments will be able to communicate with each other so we can utilize this smart technology without having to upgrade a tractor that’s working fine, but it may not be the newest tractor. I think we’re going to see some robots replacing farmworkers, doing things that robots haven’t normally done. Maybe harvesting, or tilling or even some field operations. There’s already been some work done with autonomous tractors and things like that, that you can put in the field and they just go. But again, these things require connectivity through some form or fashion.
Dee Shore (10:40):
Beyond that, Batten says it’s hard to say. But he says the time is right for more widespread adoption and for more innovation.
Brandon Batten (10:48):
Technology in agriculture is no different than technology in any other facet of our lives. It’s just a way to make our jobs easier and allow us to be more efficient and provide more with less. And that’s the struggle of the modern farmer. The modern farm is operating on such a slim margin that we have to be as efficient as possible. There’s no doubt that the advantage of this is agriculture is playing on a world field. We compete with growers all over the world. And no doubt, most of them can do it cheaper than us for a variety of reasons. So in maintaining this efficiency through mechanization and all of the technology we have available, allows us to still be competitive in a global marketplace.
Dee Shore (11:30):
With the global population rising, Batten doesn’t like to think of what might happen if efficient and new technologies aren’t developed to make that possible.
Brandon Batten (11:39):
The food prices would go up and there would be a lot more shortages than there are now. Less than 2% of the population’s involved in production agriculture. And that frees up the other 98% to do something else, engineer software or cure diseases, fight this pandemic, or look for cures for cancer or things like that. Because they’re not worried about where their next meal is coming from.
Dee Shore (12:05):
Thanks for listening today. And we hope you’ll join us again for the next episode of Farms, Food and You. To learn more about the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and our podcast, visit go.ncsu.edu/farms. While you’re there, share your thoughts. We’d love to get your ideas and to hear what topics you’d like for us to explore in the future.
About Our Guest
Brandon Batten manages production on Triple B Farms, a three-generation operation in Four Oaks, North Carolina. Batten also owns Flying Farmer, a company that provides aerial imagery and GIS solutions for spatial data analysis for farmers and land managers. The award-winning farmer holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in biological and agricultural engineering from NC State.
This post was originally published in College of Agriculture and Life Sciences News.