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Silicon Valley cultivates a life on the American family farm

When Dorn Cox is preparing to take goods from his family's farm to local restaurants, he simply opens an app on his phone to peruse the orders placed by more than 75 restaurants ranging from Manchester, New Hampshire, to Boston. He can then load his truck with the perfect number of blueberries, just the right amount of grain and no more meat than necessary.

Cox is one of several New England farmers using an app to coordinate weekly deliveries to restaurants, providing chefs with ingredients that are freshly picked the day before they arrive. The technology has simplified the ordering process for customers and cut out the middleman for deliveries, allowing small farms to provide services typically associated with larger, corporate operations.

"It's given us some of the advantages of the big guys," said Cox, farmer and agriculturalist working at Tuckaway Farm in Lee, New Hampshire. "Any farm at any scale can participate in this shortened supply chain."

"Agriculture isn't rocket science. It's actually quite a bit more complex." -Dorn Cox, head of research and development, Tuckaway Farm

The app is just one of the ways Cox is using technology to increase efficiency and raise profits at the family farm. He is also exploring the use of drones to gather aerial data and environmental sensors to collect temperature, humidity and soil moisture information. He uses software to analyze that data and guide agricultural decisions, like when to have an animal graze over certain land or apply nutrient sprays on particular crops. New technology can even be used to send automatic text alerts to farmers in the field when a situation requires their immediate attention.

"All producers are realizing that agriculture is now a data-driven industry," said Daniel Schmoldt, a program leader at the National Institute of Food and Agriculture. "They need to adopt as much technology as they can to both collect and analyze data."

With an undergraduate degree in international agriculture and world development from Cornell, a doctorate in natural resources and Earth system science from the University of New Hampshire and a background in software, Cox has embraced research and technology as a way to manage the intricacies of running a farm.

"Agriculture isn't rocket science," said Cox, head of research and development for Tuckaway Farm. "It's actually quite a bit more complex."

A farmer uses a tablet to access DuPont Pioneer's data analytics services.
Source: DuPont Pioneer
A farmer uses a tablet to access DuPont Pioneer's data analytics services.

The agricultural industry is looking for more people like Cox to tackle that complexity.

As farming becomes increasingly data-centered, industry players from family farms to large-scale growers are turning to experts in engineering, software development and data science to help guide their decisions. Silicon Valley is slowly making its way onto the farm, with coders, analysts and entrepreneurs eager to use their skills in the agricultural sector.

"The complexity of agriculture lends itself to folks who are also interested in software and systems," Cox said.

Countless start-ups, like Food Origins, which uses the Internet of Things to provide precision harvest data; and AquaSpy, which uses data to guide irrigation decisions, are starting to fill the ag space. Investment in food and agriculture technology start-ups reached $4.6 billion in 2015, nearly double 2014 levels, with particular boosts in irrigation technology, food e-commerce and precision agriculture using drones and robotics.

Agricultural giants, like Monsanto, DuPont Pioneer and Syngenta, are also investing in agtech. Monsanto acquired The Climate Corp., which provides real-time data on farm conditions for more than $900 million in 2013. DuPont Pioneer offers data analytics services through a digital platform to help farmers maximize yield and reduce risk. Its Encirca Services are used by more than 2,500 farmers to monitor about 2 million acres of land, said Eric Boeck, marketing director of the service.

"It's a bright future for technology and farmers that use it," Boeck said.

Opportunities abound for high-skilled workers

As the agricultural industry embraces technological advances, it is demanding a new, highly skilled workforce. Many of the initial jobs are being filled by workers coming from outside the traditional farming industry: Silicon Valley entrepreneurs in software, big data and hardware; experts in drone and satellite imagery; research scientists from leading universities. But there is a growing need for more employees with agricultural expertise in addition to technology skills.

A report published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Purdue University found that there's high demand for college graduates with agricultural degrees. An average of nearly 60,000 high-skilled ag and related job openings are expected annually over the next five years, with only about 35,000 grads in food, ag, renewable resources or the environment graduating each year to fill them, according to the study. About 27 percent of these job opportunities will be in science, technology, engineering and math. The strongest job market is expected for plant scientists, food scientists, sustainable biomaterials specialists, precision agriculture specialists and water resources scientists and engineers.

Employment Opportunities in Agriculture, 2015-2020

Management and Business 46%
Science and Engineering 27%
Food and Biomaterials Production 15%
Education, Communication and Governmental Services 12%

(Source: USDA and Purdue University study)

Mike Gaul, career services director at Iowa State University's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, said students must master the logical thinking and analytical skills of computer science and STEM fields in order to be competitive in the agriculture industry.

"A lot of companies are craving problem-solving skills," he said.

Iowa State has seen a growing number of students turn to agriculture degrees in recent years as they look for job security. The university's largest class yet —more than 1,000 students — graduated last year. Across the country, the number of bachelor's degrees awarded in agriculture and natural resources has increased about 48 percent over the last decade, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

"The breadth and depth of careers in agriculture right now is truly amazing," Gaul said. "People are starting to realize there are some amazing careers out there, and it's much more than the traditional what we call cows, plows and sows."

About 80 percent of graduates from Iowa State's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences land jobs within six months of graduation.

"If you come into college and embrace the opportunities given to you, I don't care what you're studying in agriculture; you will find a job," Gaul said.

The college degree is key.

AgCareers.com saw a 26 percent increase in job postings in 2015, with a record high of 81,386 North American jobs.

Breaking down the digital divide

Growing up on the family farm isn't enough to make it in agricultural anymore. Whether students are looking to genetically alter seeds or work in the field, many positions require some type of formal training.

"Frankly, I believe if you're going to stay competitive in today and tomorrow's agriculture, you have to train and be on top of things both in technology and the business world," said Marcos Fernandez, associate dean at Purdue University's College of Agriculture.

About a quarter of agriculture students at Purdue go on to pursue advanced degrees. These students often land technology-centric positions afterward, becoming lab managers or lead scientists, Fernandez said.

"Merging of life sciences and big data is happening very quickly," he said. "Any student that understands the two will be in a very good position to do great things."

This increasing emphasis on high-skilled workers is raising concerns for some about a digital divide that could alienate traditional farm workers.

"There are a lot of barriers to entry," said Cox of Tuckaway Farm. "It doesn't suit a lot of people who are getting into agriculture and don't necessarily want to come at it from a technical side."

"Many farmers don't know what the cloud is." -Aaron Magenheim, AgTech Insight CEO

But when farmers leave the agtech industry to Silicon Valley, there can be significant misunderstandings.

Aaron Magenheim, CEO of consulting company AgTech Insight, says outsiders to the industry often fail to address the true challenges growers face. They are too focused on the tech aspect and not enough on the agriculture.

"I don't think people should be betting as heavily as they are on Silicon Valley," Magenheim said. "We have to get a lot more people from the industry involved in building and preparing the technology before it's ready to go to the grower."

That requires overcoming a gap between farms and tech start-ups.

"Many farmers don't know what the cloud is," Magenheim said. "They might know how to open an Excel spreadsheet or open their email, but talking about APIs and SaaS [software as a service] models doesn't even compute for them."

One way to close this gap is through open-source software and online forums that provide an alternative to higher education, Cox said. He co-founded a web-based farm-management software platform and helped develop the Farm Hack community. As these online tools become better, everyone in agriculture will be able to incorporate technology more seamlessly into their operations.

"If we're successful," Cox said, "that technology fades into the background."

Agriculture will benefit from technology without being overrun by Silicon Valley.

By Aneri Pattani, special to CNBC.com