Ever thought of ditching it all and move into farming? Great idea. But if you considered replacing your computer with a hoe, think again. Because if there ever was a moment to go into agriculture, this is it. As long as you know lots about AI….
“Broccoli or cabbage leaves to nibble as snacks. Not because they are good for you, but because they taste so nice that they make you forget potato chips and other junk food”.
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Matt Barnard arrives at our appointment at the Web Summit in Lisbon — the coolest startupper event in the world — sporting a tech engineer look: polo shirt and sweater, Marine-shaved hair. What he says, though, has New Age echoes.
“Nutritious, tasty, locally-sourced food should be a right for everyone”, he says. “And my dream, as an agriculture worker, is to cater for a healthier world “.
Yes, Matthew Barnard is, in fact, a farmer (“and son of farmers too”, he proudly adds). And the reason why it is difficult to imagine him with a hoe and a rake is that his way of doing agriculture is very, very high tech. And, as such, something that people talk about in the stock exchange more than down at the market.
COVER PHOTO: Infarm, the Berlin-based startup that creates vertical farms near the large cities to bring km 0 food
The food startup he founded, Plenty, currently consists of two super high tech vertical farms
(one south of San Francisco and the other in Laremie, Wyoming) and has attracted last year the interest of the Japanese giant SoftBank, of Eric Schmidt (president of the board of directors of Alphabet) and of the patron of Amazon Jeff Bezos. Result: 200 million dollars of investments. And it is to be thought that it is only the beginning: last January Barnard even landed in Davos.
“Plenty does not really have farms. Rather, we consider our growing spaces like training centers for the application of artificial intelligence to crops”, he explains.
The “farmers” who work for us are data analysts, chemists specialized in the perception of taste, designers, engineers, machine learning experts”.
At Plenty’s, vegetables grow on vertical poles, with LEDs providing the equivalent of sunlight. There is no soil because crops are fed with nutrient-rich water, while the very high level of environmental control eliminates the parasites issues. Vertical farms are nothing new. But, according to Barnard, Plenty is the first farm to thoroughly apply artificial intelligence and science to it.
“We have tested the effects of irrigation, minerals, humidity levels and changes in lighting on crops for six years”.
“The recipe is never generic: it varies from plant to plant, and even for the same type of crop there are changes during the life cycle. Thanks to this research approach we are now able to perfectly engineering the environment, and produce unparalleled.organoleptic qualities. Not surprisingly, at the moment we serve starred restaurants. But the dream is to bring top quality, affordable and locally sourced vegetables to everyone’s tables”.
Is this the future that awaits us? It would not be bad.
And, in fact, what Barnard is doing in the United States is also happening in Europe.
But according to Marco Perona, scientific director of the Smart AgriFood Observatory and professor at the University of Brescia, it is not a path that suits Italy. For a precise strategic choice.
“A mega-investment such as the one that was put into Plenty is light years away from what we would like to see happen in countries like Italy.
The production of fruit and vegetables through unconventional and super-technological crops made inside buildings, through LED light, has the explicit objective of locating production as close as possible to the big cities, where consumption is concentrated.
This will certainly favor lower production costs and a much more rational and economic logistics. Yet it goes in the opposite direction of the European logic (that is strongly supported by Italy): which is to support territories, the Controlled Origin Foods, and the Protected Origin Foods”.
No AI-controlled farms in Italy, then. But this does not mean that our agriculture workforce is giving it all up when it comes to Agriculture 4.0
which allows rationalization and improvements in production, also from the point of view of quality.
As Stefania Gilli, IoT (Internet of Things) manager for the Vodafone business sector, says “ Italian farmers are very open to innovation. Even when compared to other manufacturing industries entrepreneurs who should be already up to speed with Industry 4.0. solutions”.
Gilli has been working for years with CIA (Italian Farmers Confederation) and with the AGIA. (Association of Young Agricultural Entrepreneurs) on the topic of Connected Farms, and she knows her audience well. “ Today’s farmers are entrepreneurs. They are intellectually active, young and curious. They believe in quality, in building competitiveness and in defending the made in Italy values. And they know technology can help them do all this “.
After prices of IoT solutions started to drop, even small farms can now afford a connected weather station, sensors and a Big Data storage and analysis system.
To provide forecast models to the farmer, for example, a small weather station connected to sensors, powered by a solar panel and equipped with a modem with an IoT Sim that sends data from the cloud to the cloud analyze in real time.
“Thanks to these data that allow us to carry out accurate forecasts, the farmer can rationalize irrigation, take preventive action in view of weather problems, customize phyto-sanitary treatments. For example, if dryness and wind are expected, it makes no sense to spray verdigris on the vines. If excess water is coming, it is better to spray the anti-mold.
IoT allows all this, but also to intervene in real time on the machinery, before a failure or to avoid inefficiency.
And to better plan investments based on peak activity. We are talking about very substantial savings in terms of water and products. But IoT also reduces the costs of insurance and the digitization of typically traditional instruments.such as the country notebook, the tool on which the farmer must note the phytosanitary treatments on the land, which allows for a certified photograph in real time of the situation of the territory without necessarily having to visit a surveyor”.
IoT also helps in animal care.
For instance in silos that contain grains, a sensor can automatically activate the input of hot or cold air to prevent them from becoming wet.(which is very harmful to chicken). While thanks to a device applied on the cows’ tail (called Moocall and uses Vodafone technology), breeders are alerted with a text message when the cows are about to give birth, to locate the animal and measure the contractions until the time of birth, knocking down of calf deaths by 30%.
Even for organic agriculture, technology has become a plus that is difficult to give up.
“It serves to monitor the tracking of food, the methods of preservation and wrapping, the timing in which it remains still, stored, after the harvest”, concludes Gilli.
What to expect in the future? A bit like Perone, Gilli agrees that beyond realities like Plenty, or the use of very innovative technologies such as drones.(“drones are popular also in Italy, but they are particularly useful on large agricultural areas”) there will be “above all of an increasingly marked development of data analysis, a shift from precision agriculture to a decision-fueled one where generated data can help make informed decisions for food production of high quality”.
Meanwhile, as evidence of the fact that AgTech is getting younger and younger, two young entrepreneurs, Lorenzo Cilli and Valerio Carconi, have just created Youfarmer, a CoFarming platform that allows everyone to adopt an organic garden in nearby farms. Food, once grown, gets delivered to the city via pick up points on directly at home. It sounds a bit low tech, compared to the computerized green expanses of Plenty, but maybe it has a more Italian flair…
Originally published at http://www.designatlarge.it on June 3, 2019.