How can technology improve agriculture and address the challenges currently facing farmers? Panelists addressed this question at the most recent Coffee, Coaching & Connections event hosted by the New York State Center for Food & Agriculture at the Cornell AgriTech campus.

The panelists included Yu Jiang, assistant professor of the School of Integrative Plant Science Horticulture Section at Cornell AgriTech; Jenn Smith, Grow-NY program director at the Center for Regional Economic Advancement; and Tess O’Mara, director of partnerships for Vivid Machines Inc. in Toronto. The moderator was Cathy Young, executive director of the NYS Center of Excellence for Food & Agriculture at and a Cornell Institute for Food Systems Faculty Fellow in Food Science.

Digital agriculture includes sensors, robotics and AI, Young said, which will help grow the world’s food supply.

O’Mara explained her company’s multi-sensor device that attaches to a tractor. While mowing between orchard rows or performing other farm chores, the farmer is scouting without any additional effort.

“The sensor can detect the size of every apple from blossom to fruit,” she said. It also counts fruit. This helps farmers more accurately assess and predict their harvest. They need not drive every row, either. Driving every third row suffices to achieve an accurate harvest estimate.

Using tech like this, farmers can plan their labor needs and reduce food waste. “We can also develop models for early disease detection,” O’Mara said, which can help farmers know when and what to apply to avoid losing a crop.

An obstacle, however, is farmers’ typically slow adoption of new technology. “Producers have companies come in and say ‘I can do this,’” she said. But without proof, farmers can be reluctant to embrace new technologies.

To combat this issue, she asks only for a block of an orchard to compare her company’s data to the farmer’s data. Sometimes, the farmer’s data isn’t available until the harvest. Despite this, “we are 95% accurate with some varieties,” O’Mara said.

Word-of-mouth has proven to be one of her best advertising methods, as farmers share with colleagues how her company’s machines helped save time and increase their accuracy of harvest prediction.

“It’s a ‘show me’ situation,” Young said.

Addressing issues can be pricey, though. “Adoption of technology is avoided because of cost,” Young said.

She believes that a study of farm restraints and pain points could help reveal the advantages technology could offer farmers.

(L – R) Cathy Young, executive director of the NYS Center of Excellence for Food & Agriculture, moderated the panel of Yu Jiang, assistant professor of the School of Integrative Plant Science Horticulture Section at Cornell AgriTech; Jenn Smith, Grow-NY program director at the Center for Regional Economic Advancement; and (remotely) Tess O’Mara, director of partnerships for Vivid Machines Inc. in Toronto. Photo by Deborah J. Sergeant

She listed other obstacles to adoption of technology in agriculture: access to broadband internet and the availability of a workforce trained to support technology. Gradual introduction of tech and Extension’s work to bring research to farms represent two ways to help overcome those obstacles.

“As we continue, there will be more opportunities for people to be profitable and grow a safe food supply,” Young said.

She lauded the efforts of Grow-NY, which with Empire State Development awards monetary prizes for food and ag-based start-up companies that bring innovative solutions to these sectors (as well as jobs to NYS). This year marks the fifth year of the program, and the 20 finalists were recently announced.

There were a total of 323 applicants from 49 countries. The top prizewinner will receive $1 million, followed by two $500,000 and four $250,000 prizes for the runners-up.

One example is FaunaTech, an India-based firm. Their technology can detect biomarkers to ensure meat is safe for human consumption. Young also mentioned, a California company whose tech offers real-time monitoring of weather and soil properties. Yet another, Crover, is a Scottish company that has developed robotics to monitor the environment in stored grain, including humidity and temperature, factors in mold formation and pest attraction.

“All of these qualify as digital agriculture,” Smith said.

Jiang presented what his group at the Cyber-Agricultural Intelligence and Robotics (CAIR) Lab is working on.

“We’re looking at the whole food supply chain. It takes 20 to 30 years to introduce a new cultivar of apples,” he offered as an example. This may be too slow if a new invasive pest, disease or weather challenge arises to threaten the crop.

What’s also tough is that every location presents challenges unique to its microclimate. Jiang proposes that robotics can help farmers reduce labor demands by “repeatedly doing the same job with consistency.”

Harvesting represents one example. Imaging technology can determine fruit ripeness and harvesting accuracy. He views precision agriculture as not just related to planting but every aspect of raising food.

“Ag becomes a potentially much more hospitable environment,” Smith added. “You don’t have to have grown up on a family farm or on the land. It opens doors for everyone to participate in a healthy food system.”

Jiang offered an example of how technology can meet a need in the food chain. Welch’s in Westfield, NY, needs to sample grapes on each of the 50 trucks arriving from area growers each day. The task is time and labor intensive. Traditionally, it would take 10 to 15 years from prototype to usable equipment.

“Now people want to adopt in a year or two,” Jiang said. “As a researcher, I can be smart enough to develop something to meet their needs.”

One of the obstacles O’Mara has overcome is the short test season for her firm’s products (March through November); however, working with farms in the southern hemisphere has skirted that issue.

Obtaining funds has become more of a problem in the past three years as interest rates have increased and more investors want to see both a connection between the developer and the grower and some tangible results.

Jiang wants to see more researchers cultivate interdisciplinary teams to use technology to meet ag challenges. He recalled a plant pathologist referring to a plant as “asymptomatic,” which made him think the plant was healthy; however, that only meant that any disease process was not visible.

“We have to think of how we can cultivate this mindset to be more integrative” with others’ expertise, Jiang said.

O’Mara believes that agriculture technology is drawing more attention from growers and value-added food processors.

In a Q&A session, the panelists discussed the stigma associated with AI and robots taking jobs away from people. Jiang pointed out that many of the jobs AI can do involve repetitive actions or manual labor – positions growers struggle to fill – and that tech generates jobs for people developing, maintaining and repairing the technology.

“We must be considering whether we are preserving jobs on-site or jobs in general,” he added. “In New York, it’s hard to get people to do those kinds of repetitive jobs.”

Each month, the NYS Center of Excellence for Food & Agriculture hosts free Coffee, Coaching & Connections sessions in Geneva featuring guest speakers and panelists in the food and agriculture industries.

by Deborah Jeanne Sergeant