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A John Deere tractor outfitted with Bear Flag Robotics' autonomous driving technology. Photo: Deere

Artificial intelligence and automation are the new farmhands as growers try to boost productivity amid soaring global demand for food, biofuels and other agricultural products.

Why it matters: Farmers one day will be able to manage their fields from their kitchen table, using a smartphone or tablet to drive machinery, inspect plants and irrigate or treat crops with fertilizer or insecticides.

Driving the news: Agriculture machinery giant Deere & Company last week acquired Bear Flag Robotics for $250 million.

  • The 4-year-old Silicon Valley-based startup develops autonomous driving technology that can be retrofitted on existing machines.
  • It's the latest step in Deere's long-term effort to automate farming.

The big picture: With the United Nations predicting the world population will grow to 9.7 billion people by 2050, the agriculture industry says it will need to double the amount of food, feed, fiber and bioenergy it produces.

  • To boost output, the industry can either farm more land — putting more pressure on the environment — or farm the land it has more productively.

Yes, but: There aren't enough farmworkers. Agriculture jobs are projected to grow just 1% from 2019 to 2029, slower than other occupations, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

  • Many farmers are turning to technology to fill the skilled labor gap.

Between the lines: Think of a farm as a huge outdoor factory with time-sensitive processes that need to run efficiently all year long.

  • Each step — preparing the soil, planting seeds, nurturing plants and harvesting crops — has a narrow window of opportunity.
  • "If you miss it because of a lack of labor or weather, it has a significant impact on the overall output of that crop," says Dan Leibfried, Deere's director of autonomy and automation.
  • "COVID-19 has highlighted how potentially fragile it can be," adds Bear Flag Robotics co-founder and CEO Igino Cafiero. "We're helping growers take variables off the table and increase output."

State of play: Deere first installed GPS technology in its machines in 1993 to create more precise maps of farmers' fields.

  • That led to self-guided tractors by 1999; farmers were still in the cab, but they could focus on other details, like planting.
  • By 2011, they started connecting those machines to the internet, giving growers access to telematics data to make better decisions, more quickly.
  • In 2015, Deere purchased Blue River Technology, whose cost-saving "see and spray" system uses cameras and deep learning to identify individual plants. If it sees a weed, it'll spray it with pesticide. If it sees an unhealthy plant, it can apply fertilizer.
  • Now, with the full autonomy that Bear Flag Robotics brings, farmers can till their fields with no one in the tractor.

What to watch: Despite the overall shortage of skilled farm labor, the BLS expects jobs for agricultural equipment operators to jump 11% between 2019 and 2029 — much faster than the average for all occupations.

  • As with automated trucks, it may well be a supervisory role.

Go deeper

Oct 7, 2021 - Technology

Labor shortage pushes winemakers to automation

Brad Goehring, operator of Goehring Vineyards in Lodi, California, uses robots to pick his grapes. Photo: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

A shortage of agriculture workers is forcing winemakers in the U.S. and Europe to turn to robots for their autumn grape harvest, reports the Wall Street Journal.

Why it matters: Pandemic-related travel restrictions have cut down on the availability of migrant workers, exacerbating an existing labor shortage in viticulture.

  • While crops like soybeans and corn are routinely harvested by machine, winemakers have been slower to make the switch for fear of damaging the grapes.
  • In some wine-making regions of France, like Champagne, there are bans on machine harvesting in favor of traditional handpicking.

Yes, but: New research at UC Davis shows that not only can vineyards safely replace manual laborers by switching to machinery, they can also make better-tasting wine.

  • “The new system entails different trellises so the vine is higher up off the ground, so it has better flavor, it has better color, which winemakers desire,” one researcher told CBS Sacramento.

What's happening: French manufacturer Pellenc told the Journal that demand for automated grape harvesters, which had been going up 5% to 10% a year, shot up about 20% this year.

  • The machines can be expensive — about $100,000 or more — but growers can recoup the cost over several seasons.

The bottom line: Labor shortages everywhere — including vineyards — are pushing producers toward automation.

Updated 33 mins ago - Politics & Policy

Facebook paying up to $14M to settle employment discrimination claims

Photo: T.J. Kirkpatrick/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Facebook has agreed to pay up to $14.25 million to settle allegations that it discriminated against American workers by reserving positions for temporary visa holders, the Justice Department announced on Tuesday.

Why it matters: The settlement represents the largest civil penalty and monetary award that the Civil Rights Division has recovered in the 35-year history of the Immigration and Nationality Act's anti-discrimination provision.

Updated 2 hours ago - World

Mapping repression in China's Xinjiang region

Data: © Mapbox, © OpenStreetMap; Map: Will Chase/Axios

A sweeping new report released today by an Australian research organization reveals new details about how the Chinese Communist Party — and specifically who within the party — is carrying out its campaign of repression in Xinjiang.

Why it matters: Uncovering the actual offices and individuals implementing the Chinese government's genocide and forced labor policies in Xinjiang can bring accountability and help international companies delink supply chains in compliance with U.S. and EU forced labor laws.

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