IoT on the Farm: Bridging the Digital Divide

By Mary Catherine O'Connor

Technology companies need to remember that their products are tools, not panaceas, for farmers.

Last week, I attended the Sustainable Foods Institute, a yearly conference sponsored by the Monterey Bay Aquarium. I've written many news stories throughout the past eight months about how the agriculture industry is starting to use IoT technology, for everything from adding intelligence to tractors to improving pheromone-based pest control in apple orchards. I recently wrote two pieces about the rise of the IoT in hydroponics, both in large-scale production and as an alternative approach to urban farming. And those are just the articles related to the raising of fruits and vegetables. I've also written about ranching—of both sheep and crickets. (Yep, crickets.)

But here's something that I did not understand about the growing interest in IoT technology in the ag industry until I attended that conference in Monterey last week: It's rather one-sided. Technologists tend to be more excited about the IoT on the farm than farmers and chefs are.

And to a large degree, that's understandable. On the surface, it seems as though growers and ranchers would welcome anything that could help them produce more quality product while reducing their reliance on water, chemical fertilizers and labor. But as I alluded to in my story about the Steinbeck Innovation Foundation, there is—at least in Central California—a divide between Silicon Valley and food producers.

I could sense the divide whenever technologists presented their ideas to attendees at the Sustainable Foods Institute conference. Perhaps I'm projecting, but it seemed as though the subtext to questions and comments from farmers was: What do the folks in Silicon Valley know about how to produce food? Didn't all those VCs already do enough damage by over-hyping Internet technology before the dot-com bust in the early 2000s? What damage can they inflict on the ag industry?

To me, it's quite clear that technology can and must take a larger role in food production. The global population will likely exceed the 9 billion mark in coming decades. Based on climate models, drought will continue to vex farmers in some parts of the world, while flooding will stymie others. Meanwhile, increasing severe-weather events will hamper all parts of the global food supply chain.

But ag tech has got to make environmental sustainability its primary goal. It has to fix, not worsen, the negative legacy that the green revolution and industrial farming have inflicted on our water resources, habitat, soil and pollinators—not to mention what it has done to erode animal welfare.

But before any of that is even possible, technology companies that think they can fix food production must approach food producers with humility and in the spirit of collaboration. Clearly, many of the folks who bet early and big on Internet technologies are now seeing the fruits of that labor, but that doesn't mean they're going to hit fertile ground on the farm on their first swing of the hoe.

Mary Catherine O'Connor is the editor of Internet of Things Journal and a former staff reporter for RFID Journal. She also writes about technology, as it relates to business and the environment, for a range of consumer magazines and newspapers.