Future of farming: How new challenges are affecting agribusiness
All industries face change, but few more so than agribusiness and farming, which have undergone major transformations in the last two decades.
With developments in automation, regulation, and climate change, adapting isn’t easy, according to agribusiness panelists at the Nasdaq Entrepreneurship Center’s “The Intersection of Entrepreneurship & Climate Innovation” held in conjunction with the recent Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco.
“Agriculture is not for the faint of heart. It’s cyclical, it’s seasonal, and Mother Nature is fickle,” said Jeffrey Burch, managing director, Southwest Food and Agribusiness at Bank of the West.
In recent years, agriculture has seen accelerated automation and technological advancement, driven, in part, by labor shortages on farms, Burch said. “Farmers are having to find other ways of getting crops out of the fields, not as much by hand but by machine.”
Climate change spurs drought, wildfires
A major concern for farmers today is water shortages caused by major droughts in the West, according to Chris Terrell. Terrell is CEO and cofounder of Wexus Technologies, an IoT data platform that connects farmers’ utility data to track irrigation pumps, buildings, processing equipment, and solar arrays via cloud technology.
In his words, “It’s getting to the point where you can’t grow certain crops because you just can’t get the water. We need to find ways to grow crops that are less water-intensive or resort to dry farming. The amount of water we’ve been used to for 50-plus years is just gone. You have to do more with less. Climate change is directly affecting farming right now, not 100 years down the road.”
According to Terrell, a major reason is the shrinking snowpack, from California through British Columbia. “The entire snowpack has diminished by about a third. That’s going to directly affect everybody in this room. It’s where you get your drinking water and irrigation for crops. We have to figure out better, more efficient ways to use water.”
Another big climate impact has been growing wildfires. “The severity of the wildfires has affected the timing of harvests, with some crops running much longer than they normally would,” Burch said. “Wildfires are projected to be a major disrupter going forward, since they’re expected to only get worse.”Feeding a growing population
By the year 2050, the current world population of 7.6 billion is expected to reach 9.8 billion. Food production will have to increase dramatically to keep up with that growth, according to forecasts from the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization. At the same time, there will be little additional arable land available for farming.
“The challenge is how to feed more people with the dirt, water, and sunlight that we have,” Burch noted.
What are the biggest hurdles farmers face? The top three concerns in agriculture today are the labor shortage, regulatory burden, and water shortage. “You can’t get enough people to go pick the crops, “he said. “It’s back-breaking labor. Immigration policy is an issue, and there are a lot of failures there. We may need to focus on robotics as part of the answer.”
Another approach, says Terrell, is to develop more vertical growing and local urban farming.A resurgence in family farming
Burch noted that he’s seeing grandchildren of farmers with a renewed interest in agriculture, which is spurring innovation. “Now is the Golden Age of agriculture,” added Burch. “We have millennials bringing technology back to the farm. They are teaching their grandfathers how to improve it. Millennials are getting engaged.”
Today, agtech is definitely on the map. So is the rise of using drones on farms and IoT smart meters. “Don’t make farmers do more work. Help farmers do less and automate tasks,” he said.
In the last 12 months, Burch says he’s noticed greater enthusiasm in the investment community for sustainable agriculture and food production. His advice for entrepreneurs interested in delving into farming or agtech? “Go to an industry trade show. Visit a university that has a working farm. Be part of the conversation.”
Terrell added, “Just stop by a farm or a vineyard. Farmers are down-to-earth people who take a lot of pride in feeding the world.”