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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

Extreme weather adds to crop issues

This year’s extreme weather, caused by climate change, is impacting crops to extremes that farmers haven't seen in their lifetimes.

Catch up quick: Prolonged heat waves and droughts have caused this year's corn, soybean, almond, honey, citrus and avocado production to crash and prices to skyrocket.

2 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Scoop: Beto plans Texas comeback in governor's race

Former U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke speaks during the Georgetown to Austin March for Democracy rally on July 31, 2021 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke is preparing to run for governor of Texas in 2022, with an announcement expected later this year, Texas political operatives tell Axios.

Why it matters: O'Rourke's entry would give Democrats a high-profile candidate with a national fundraising network to challenge Republican Gov. Greg Abbott — and give O’Rourke, a former three-term congressman from El Paso and 2020 presidential candidate and voting rights activist, a path to a political comeback.

Texas doctor says he performed an abortion in violation of state law

Pro-choice protesters march down Congress Avenue and back to the Texas state capitol in Austin, Tx in July 2021. Photo: Erich Schlegel/Getty Images

A Texas doctor disclosed in an op-ed in the Washington Post Saturday that he has performed an abortion in violation of the state's restrictive new abortion law, which effectively bans the procedure after six weeks.

Why it matters: Alan Braid's op-ed is a direct disclosure that will very likely result in legal action, thereby setting it up as a potential test case for how the abortion ban will be litigated, notes the New York Times.

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