Ben Huber knows a thing or two about agriculture. And he understands the important, ever-evolving role that technology plays in the industry.
Huber grew up on a dairy farm in northern Illinois. Today, he helps his wife’s family farm soybean and corn in Mt. Carroll, Ill., and serves as a member of the Wisconsin Farm Bureau. In 2019, Huber was awarded the Wisconsin Farm Bureau’s Young Farmer and Agriculturist Excellence in Agriculture Award.
Huber also manages the agronomy department for Insight FS, a company that aids in soil management and crop production, and provides feed, energy, agri-finance, seed and turf products and services to customers around Wisconsin and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
“I have been around farming and agriculture for my entire life,” Huber said. “If you are looking for a career that deploys the principles of S.T.E.M. everyday, look no farther than the ag industry.
“Farmers and agriculturalists work hard every day to make sure our land and water resources last for generations to come,” he added. “There are many aspects of S.T.E.M. we use that help us do that, but without technology advancements we couldn’t do what we do today.”
Myriad technological tools are reshaping agriculture in Wisconsin and around the world.
Huber said these tools help agriculturalists decrease labor needs, see what can’t be seen with the naked eye and track data that will help farmers make more informed decisions regarding their crops.
According to the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Production, Wisconsin agriculture contributes over $104 billion to the state’s economy each year. The state is home to almost 65,000 farms.
Ultimately, Huber said the agriculture industry uses these technologies to help their businesses grow and become more efficient. With new technologies come new costs, but Huber said the benefits tend to outweigh those costs, and the changes advancements are going to keep coming.
“The ag industry will continue to collect more data layers to help make better decisions, and to document agricultural practices,” Huber said. “Autonomous technology and machine learning will also be a new frontier that Wisconsin farmers will utilize in the coming years, as well as using more remote sensing to make faster management decisions.”
Advancements over the years
Though some tools are tried and true for farmers, the industry has seen significant advancement in technology over the last few decades. These advancements began with the “Green Revolution” of the 1960s, when new irrigation and crop management techniques were developed to help plants thrive.
Rotary combines were introduced into the industry in 1975. Genetically modified crops came about seven years later. In 1994, farmers were able to use satellites for the first time to help track and plan crop growth.
The introduction of more advanced mobile devices and new software in the early 2000s made farming more accessible. Now, new devices and methods are making data collection more comprehensive than ever before.
According to the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, a branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, modern farms work far differently than they used to.
“Today’s agriculture routinely uses sophisticated technologies such as robots, temperature and moisture sensors, aerial images, and GPS technology,” it says on the NIFA website. “These advanced devices and precision agriculture and robotic systems allow businesses to be more profitable, efficient, safer, and more environmentally friendly.”
These tools allow farmers to target the specific areas of their fields that require extra water, fertilizer or pesticides, rather than blanketing their entire field. This results in a higher crop yield, decreased waste of water and other products, reduced environmental impact and increased worker safety.
New technological advancements in the industry also enables “more reliable monitoring and management of natural resources, such as air and water quality,” and gives farmers greater control over their entire operation. Farmers benefit from increased efficiency and safer work conditions, while consumers benefit from lower product prices.
Looking to the future
Dr. Garry Running, a professor of geography and anthropology at UW-Eau Claire, has taught his students about the benefits of crossing science and technology with agriculture for several years.
Running started taking his students out to the Henning work site in 2016. There, he requires his students to analyze soils and write up reports for the Hennings, a family of local farmers.
The soils collected and analyzed by his students are also sent off to a lab where they are placed in a laser particle size analyzer, a machine that counts and measures sediment sizes and types. With this information, Running’s students are able to make land use recommendations to the Hennings.
Methods like this can help farmers select the best plots of land for growing specific crops, thus saving them time and resources. Additionally, the exercise allows students the opportunity to do work that has real-world implications, preparing them for similar jobs after graduation.
“I think geography impacts agriculture all the time,” Running said. “We are going to have 9.6 billion people to feed in 2050. We can’t plow up any more ground. The fingerprint of agriculture can’t be bigger — actually has to be smaller. So we’ve got to be able to do better with our soils, and have better crops, and be much more efficient with all of the resources we use to get the crops off the ground.
“And that’s going to take people in biology that are studying genetics and building new plants,” Running added. “And that’s going to take people in the geospatial technology world, making the equipment more precise, more efficient. And it’s going to take soil scientists and geomorphologists figuring out how we maintain soil quality … Everybody’s got a seat at the table for this one.”