Recently my wife Phyllis and I were visiting my son and his family. As I was eating breakfast, I watched a Shark robotic vacuum moving back and forth, following a programmed map of the floors powered by IQ Navigation. This started me thinking about how much technology is ingrained in our daily lives and to ponder where it will be in the future. We also visited Mount Vernon, home of George Washington.

It seems every time I pick up a magazine I see stories about electric tractors, autonomous sprayers, precision planters, robotics, drones, etc., being introduced into agriculture. Throughout the history of agriculture, we have seen a progression of advancements as agriculture went from subsistence agriculture to a market-driven international enterprise that supplies us with the foodstuffs that we have come to expect and, in many instances, take for granted.

Back in the days of George Washington, an improvement in the plow was a major technological advancement, and we have continued since then to see improvements in implements used on farms. In those days, mules, oxen or horses supplied the horsepower that powered the various implements and manual labor supplied the rest. Throughout history, inventors continued to develop new machinery for the farm. We moved from animal power to steam-powered tractors and threshers, etc. When the petroleum industry came into its own, we transitioned to tractors and equipment powered by that fuel. The tractors and a lot of ag equipment became larger and larger with more horsepower. The vegetable farms were always more labor intensive, and while the tillage equipment might have increased in size on the larger vegetable farms, overall the equipment remained on a smaller scale. Think of the Allis-Chalmers G tractor, the Ford N series tractor, the Farmall 140 or Cub or the BCS wheeled tractor, with all their hosts of implements, used by smaller growers around the country.

When personal computers arrived on the scene, they became an integral part of the business of vegetable farming. Efficient recordkeeping, GPS mapping of the entire farm and individual fields, invoicing, etc., are just a few of the activities performed by the computers. I continue to worry about making sure that the computers are backed up so that information will not be lost. I grew up with paper records and carbon paper. Now one’s smartphone has the power of computers, and they are used by younger generations without a second thought. I always thought using them for diagnosing a potential problem in the field was a great tool. And think how many photos are on one’s smartphone. These can be used for advertisements and later in newsletters. Fields are now laid out using GPS so that fertilizer applications can be refined and applied based on soil test results instead of using a broad-brush approach.

I believe drones can be used in assisting spotting or diagnosing a problem in a field. I always liked to get into the air in a small plane and fly over a large field to really see the differences reflected in the crop stand that weren’t as apparent from the window of a pick-up truck. The drone can send back real-time photos of the crop, noting thin stands and unhealthy looking plants, and as technology continues to improve methods of ascertaining diseases, insect infestations, nutritional disorders, etc. In the future, spot spraying can be applied by drones, making applications of pesticides even more refined and targeted.

When I was growing up, “protected culture” meant large glass greenhouses made of metal or wood frames. My grandfather had a small wooden-framed glass greenhouse in Philadelphia where he grew off-season vegetables and flowers for his own enjoyment. As the plastic industry developed after World War II, we began to see the emergence of metal- or wood-framed greenhouses covered with two plastic sheets with air introduced between the layers to better insulate the structure – and we saw an explosion of production of vegetables and flowers in these structures. We saw hydroponic, soilless media and in-ground production systems develop and become more sophisticated. More recently we moved to a single layer of plastic over pipe frames called high tunnels/hoop houses that do not provide the environmental control of a full-blown greenhouse but do increase the growing season.

In the large greenhouse range, we have seen the introduction of robotics for planting, harvesting and packaging produce, computer monitoring and operation of precision water and fertilizer applications, monitoring of the atmosphere and constant scouting for pests and introduction of biological controls. As we seem to be moving into more large indoor farming systems, we will see more and more use of robotic systems and even more developments in the indoor lighting arena. Technological advancements will permit growing systems to be incorporated into repurposed factories and buildings in inner cities that will produce certain crops that can be available to the urban communities, minimizing their transportation.

Yes, the continuum of technological advances continues in agriculture and vegetable production. Sometimes it may seem suited to the larger producers, but I believe that it will also find the smaller producers in size-appropriate technology. If folks continue to want fresh, nutritious and healthy fruits and vegetables we will continue to see individuals with a better idea on how to supply and market those products at a profit continue to push the technological envelope. I will continue to keep my hoe and a file in the back pocket of my overhauls just in case technology doesn’t come through and I need to go back to the basics.

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