Within the next decade, farming as we know it is expected to be revolutionized by the use of self-driving tractors and robots that can perform time-consuming tasks now done by humans.
Sales of major farm machinery have been in a continued slump amid weak prices for key crops such as corn and soybeans, but the ever-present need to control farm costs and increase output will eventually drive farmers to adopt autonomous technologies.
"They (farmers) are a pretty cautious bunch, which is understandable," said Kraig Schulz, co-founder and CEO of Autonomous Tractor Corp., a small private company based in Minnesota that is developing AutoDrive technology for tractors. Its technology is aimed at turning existing tractors into semi-autonomous machines.
Experts say the first wave of autonomous tech in ag will go primarily to higher-value crops, such as tree nuts, vineyards and fresh produce. Also, some suggest that the big tractors could be replaced with self-propelled autonomous implements, such as sprayers in row crops, orchards and vineyards or with other robotic equipment for other specific tasks on the farm.
All told, Goldman Sachs predicts farm technologies could become a $240 billion market opportunity for ag suppliers, with smaller driverless tractors a $45 billion market on its own. Tens of billions could be spent on advanced tech for major farm uses such as precision fertilizer, planting, spraying and irrigation, Goldman predicts.
Rising costs for farm labor and falling costs for self-driving technology also will provide further catalysts for the shift.
On Monday, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law a bill giving farm workers in the state — the nation's largest agricultural producer — historic overtime pay.
"This is going to have a serious effect on farming out in California," said Schulz, who expects rising labor costs to be an opportunity for autonomous and even semi-autonomous equipment to replace some of the human labor needed in farming.
"Rising labor costs would certainly be a positive for adoption of automated processes," said Jerry Revich, an analyst at Goldman Sachs.