Farmers for decades have relied on gut checks and generations-deep knowledge to make crop decisions. This tradition of land stewardship has meant preemptively wiping out an entire field to thwart what might be, for example, a small localized pest problem.
But agriculture, like many industries, is increasingly digitized. More farmers are turning to technology, including tablets and real-time data-monitoring tools, to make pinpointed decisions about crops — down to the exact row location in a massive field. "So instead of farming a field, technology allows us to farm a sub-inch within the field," said John May, president of agricultural solutions for Deere & Co., the farm equipment maker.
So-called precision farming is a growing agricultural trend that harnesses a wide swath of data, including soil information, seed data and weather analytics. Sometimes also referred to as precision agriculture or "site-specific ag," for short, the strategy allows farmers to analyze and adjust nearly every aspect of their operations.
Growers essentially are able to manage large fields as if they were smaller, micro fields and subsequently tailor water, nutrients, seeds and other inputs to smaller sites' specific needs. The end goal is boosted efficiency and higher land productivity — or growing more food on the same amount of soil. This is a big goal for many researchers and scientists as the planet will exceed 9.7 billion by 2050 from around 7.3 billion, according to United Nations figures.
Adding to population pressures, China's ruling Communist Party last week said it will ease family planning restrictions and allow couples to have two children after decades of a one-child policy. It's early in the game to gauge whether the policy change will have an immediate or big impact on China's population of 1.4 billion people.
"The cultural and social norm of a smaller family size has been ingrained in the current generation," said Ryland Maltsbarger, an agricultural economist at IHS. Any cultural shifts about family size could take decades to unfold. "I am a little skeptical that the social norms would shift that quickly just because of the government's announcement," he said.
Meanwhile, China's growing middle class and mass migration to cities already are influencing the kinds of specialty crops American farmers grow and prioritize. Higher Chinese earners are stockpiling their kitchens, still filled with pork and vegetables, with more wine, almonds and milk products from California, the nation's largest agricultural producer and exporter.