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Is autonomous farming a trend on the horizon?

How new technology on the farm – such as autonomous tractors – can help with workforce challenges.

John Oncken
John Oncken, co-owner and CEO of True North Equipment, is photographed in the company's facility in the industrial park in Grand Forks, N.D., on Friday, Feb. 4, 2022. He says anyone working in agriculture has the same workforce shortages as other sectors, maybe more so. That makes it the perfect time for farmers to make the leap into something new. Autonomous tractors can help.
Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald
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In early January, John Deere revealed its new autonomous tractor. It’s a big, green machine that can do everything you’d expect a John Deere tractor can do – sans driver.

“Autonomy is no longer just a concept or a demo,” Jahmy Hindman, the company’s chief technology officer, declared on stage at a Las Vegas technology conference. “It’s real, it’s ready, and it’s helping farmers today.”

John Deere’s pitch is simple: the world’s population is expanding, and farmers need all the help they can get to match food demand. That makes new farming tech – which lets farmers squeeze extra efficiencies out of fixed labor and land – a major premium. Marketing copy for the new tractor (available later this year) highlights farmers’ ability to get it working, walk away and “focus on other tasks.” It makes it all sound simple: set it up and send it to work, and let its stereo camera sensors do the rest.

John Oncken is the CEO and owner of True North Equipment, a John Deere dealer straddling the border of Minnesota and North Dakota. He argues that anyone working in agriculture has the same workforce shortages as other sectors – maybe more so. That makes it the perfect time for farmers to make the leap into something new.

“We’ll see them this fall. And I think into 2023, it’s going to be those that see the value of it and aren’t scared of that next step in technology who are going to be the ones that innovate into that space quicker,” he said. “It has the potential to shift the way ag production is done today.”

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Mark Watne is the president of the North Dakota Farmers Union. He absolutely thinks you’ll see them in the field soon.

“I really do think they’re for real,” Watne said. “I think you’re going to see them in a little smaller setting, in the sense that they’re not going to be an extremely large tractor that’s not pulling a 60-foot air drill, but they’ll be a small tractor that can run 24 hours a day and do a specific job.”

Their introduction comes as workforce shortages roiling the country find their way to agriculture. In October, American Crystal Sugar’s beet harvest had to press through a shortage of truck drivers and plant workers. A senior official for trucking company Transystems said at the time that they were so short on drivers they couldn’t meet customer demand.

And on the farm itself, labor shortages could get worse. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that the agricultural labor sector will show “little or no change” between 2020 and 2030, maybe even backsliding by about 1% – despite an average growth rate across other sectors of about 8%.

“The core challenge we have, especially in Northern Plains agriculture, we have really seasonal labor needs,” said Frayne Olson, an agricultural economist with NDSU. The short growing season isn’t the real pinch, he argued – it’s the spike in labor needs at planting and harvesting, combined with a lack of a well-trained labor pool to help staff the big, expensive machines that make it work. Not just anybody can show up to the farm and help, he said.

“You jump in today’s tractors, today’s combine, and you look at the instrument panel and say, ‘this is like a spacecraft,” he said.

This is the kind of conversation that’s been going on for years at Grand Farm, the farm tech research site near Fargo. Brian Carroll, Grand Farm’s director, imagines a future with more than just autonomous tractors; one of the site’s current projects explores how to track produce from seed to consumer. Blockchain – the same ledger technology behind cryptocurrencies — is one way to help get it done.

“Why that’s important is by connecting the grower to the consumer, consumer behavior can start to drive and monetize different behaviors,” he said. “...A good example is if you look at some soybeans, there are markets that are out there that will pay a premium if it knows where the soybean is being processed, how it’s being handled and what quality it is, what the protein level is as well. The only way that you’re able to pass that on to the grower is through traceability.”

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This is all part of the farm of the future. But it’s not here, exactly, just yet – and it’ll take some buy-in from farmers to make it happen.

When it comes to the autonomous tractor, Olson said he doubts the technology will promise a life of luxury anytime soon – with farmers sipping coffee indoors while their machines do all the work. Early buyers, he pointed out, will be making an expensive bet on the value of farm tech. That means autonomous farming is only likely to come to the big, deep-pocketed farms first.

In other words, there are those that want to jump in, Olson said, and “those that are going to wait and say ‘I don’t have the finances or the time and effort to be the guinea pig.’”

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