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Smart farming helps meet demand for sustainability and greater food production

By |2019-12-05T15:46:38-07:00Dec 5, 2019|Business, Technology|

In rural areas, satellite internet provides the critical connections modern agriculture needs

In their state-of-the-art central Wisconsin greenhouse, lifelong farmers Ryan and Pam Walker annually grow up to 90,000 heads of organic lettuce – plus smaller quantities of tomatoes and cucumbers. Their business, ColdSnap Aquaponics, combines aquaculture – raising fish – with hydroponics — cultivating plants in water.

The fish create a nutrient-rich source of water that, after passing through a biological filtration process, hydrates and nourishes the plants growing in floating rafts. The water then circulates back to the fish tanks and restarts the process. It’s scientific, smart and sustainable – using 10 percent less water than conventional agriculture. It’s also almost completely silent.

For all that happens under its high-tech roof, the greenhouse is hushed and calm. On a typical day, the only sounds are the soft bubbling of water that cycles through several water tanks – housing for the 1,500 fish whose waste fertilizes the produce – and the occasional whir of the building’s roof and side curtains as they automatically adjust to the changing outdoor temperatures.

“I like this for the peace and quiet,” said Ryan Walker, who is also a fifth-generation cranberry grower.

This peaceful space is highly sophisticated. Computers ensure the interior stays between 72 and 75 degrees. Sensors determine when the roof and sides should open to bring in more natural light, closing them when it rains or the outdoor temperature drops. The sensors are sensitive enough to respond to passing clouds – the side curtains rising as the sun emerges to warm the building, falling as a cloud obscures the sun.

This technology is important in central Wisconsin, where cloudy skies are common and temperatures range from 4 to 82 degrees – a range too extreme to grow produce year-round.

“Without technology, we couldn’t grow lettuce at this scale,” Ryan Walker said. “The building is reacting so much during the course of the day; you’d have to manually operate that.”

And for farmers to meet future demands for food, scale is what it’s all about.

An estimated 1 billion people worldwide are currently hungry or malnourished, and by 2050, Earth’s population is expected to grow by more than 2 billion people. To keep up with that growth and feed those who are now hungry, crop production must increase 60 to 80 percent – all while protecting the environment.

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Feeding the world with smart farming

Technology and smart farming methods are critical to that formula, but rural areas where farms are often located are typically underserved by traditional internet providers. Even so, farmers are finding ways to connect.

They are most often turning to satellite. Seventy-five percent of farms say they have internet access today, and 26 percent use a satellite service to connect. DSL is the second most-common choice at 22 percent.

While internet-based technology may be relatively recent to agriculture, farmers have a solid history of boosting food production. Between 1948 and 2015 – even as the amount of agricultural land and farm labor declined – total farm output more than doubled.

Those increases sprang from innovations in animal and crop genetics, chemicals, equipment and streamlined processes, all of which increased production without greatly increasing labor or costs.

Today’s farmers range from the Walkers above with their high-tech greenhouse to those who use technology to improve outdoor planting.

In southern Wisconsin, corn and soybean farmer Kevin Kroll drives a tractor equipped with a GPS unit and automatic steering to ensure straight rows during planting. That maximizes use of each field, and – because crooked rows mean some plants likely will be crushed by farm equipment – makes for easier cultivation and a thorough harvest.

“Because planting is more precise, we’re farming now by the foot instead of the acre,” Kroll said.

Planters are also available with varying seeding rates, which means they distribute the seeds based on the historical yields, soil properties, topography and other factors. With all this data, farmers can create a prescription, or map. When planting corn, for instance, a variable rate planter will drop more seeds in highly productive areas and fewer in less productive zones. The same technology can be applied to fertilizer.

Seeds themselves have gotten smarter, with some designed to help them withstand drought, and protect them from insects, weeds and herbicides.

“The technology in seed is such that in 2018 we’re producing 170 to 180 bushels per acre nationally,” Kroll said. “Back in the mid-70s, it was close to 100. It’s almost doubled.”

For small farmers like Kroll, these yield boosts can make a critical difference to his business.

“The profit margin per-acre is razor thin, so I’m always trying to keep my costs down,” he said.

The satellite connection

Viasat is helping push the shift toward smart farming in the right direction by helping rural communities stay connected. Since satellite internet is available almost anywhere, it enables farmers in even the hardest-to-reach locations to take advantage of the Internet of Things (IoT) and other smart farming technologies.

Viasat Business Internet offers reliable high-speed service throughout most of the US. Its prioritized connection for businesses mean critical business applications, such as precision farming, inventory management, credit card processing, high-speed file transfers, Voice-over-IP and email are preferred on the Viasat network.

For more information about how Viasat Business Internet offers the best connectivity for agribusiness, visit www.viasatbusiness.com.

Learn more about Viasat Business Services

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About the Author:

Jane Reuter
Jane Reuter has a long history as a newspaper journalist in Colorado. She works as a corporate communications writer out of Viasat's Denver office.