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AI in agriculture? New MU center researches the future of farming

Soybean grow at Seidenstricker Farms, owned by Robert and Cathy Seidenstricker, in De Valls Bluff, Arkansas, on June 25, 2019.
Lance Cheung
Soybean grow at Seidenstricker Farms, owned by Robert and Cathy Seidenstricker, in De Valls Bluff, Arkansas, on June 25, 2019.

The University of Missouri launched a new center to explore the use of emerging technology in agriculture.

In February, the university announced the Digital Agriculture Research and Extension Center — a partnership between MU Extension, MU's College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture Research Service.

The center's goal is to help farmers become more efficient and sustainable by harnessing technology like artificial intelligence.

AI can help farmers make better decisions about how to spend their time and resources, according to Kent Shannon, co-director of the center. The center is exploring ways to train AI for agricultural use, like identifying weeds, diseases or nutrient deficiencies in a crop.

"You give (AI) a question, and then it gives you an answer," Shannon said. "We want the same thing from an agricultural standpoint."

Shannon said AI is being trained to provide real-time information about crop conditions. This drives down costs through more efficient use of materials like fertilizer.

Decisions about how to use resources are becoming more important for farmers, Shannon said. It's also important for Missouri. Nearly one-third of the state's economy is tied to agriculture.

A new MU report projects Missouri net farm income will decline by 18% in 2024, down from record highs in 2022. That's lower than the 25.5% expected drop in U.S. net farm income. Missouri is expected to fare better because drought reduced the state's cattle heard, driving up prices.

In addition to improving the bottom line, AI can also help farmers become more sustainable, Shannon said. Farmers can use AI to apply pesticide in targeted areas as opposed to their entire field, reducing the amount of chemicals used.

The MU Digital Farm is also part of the center. Located at MU's South Farm, its purpose is to demonstrate new technology while also serving as a research center.

Drones in the Field

Technology is nothing new to agriculture. Drones have been used in agriculture since 2010, according to Taylor Moreland, CEO of Agri Spray Drones. Located in Boonville, Agri Spray is the largest distributor of agricultural spray drones in the U.S., Moreland said. The company distributes Chinese-made DJI drones to a network of about 80 dealers. The company also sells drones directly to farmers in mid-Missouri.

Agriculture drones are in the early adopter phase, Moreland said. He said drones are on the cusp of becoming more widespread in farming. Agri Spray sold around 100 drones in 2021, Moreland said. That number jumped up to around 700 drones in 2023. Agri Spray hopes to more than double its 2024 sales.

Farm drones are big machines. DJI's Agras T40 is the most popular spray drone in the country, according to Moreland. It weighs around 200 pounds fully loaded and can carry about 10 gallons. The drones are mostly used for fungicide, Moreland said, which is a chemical that kills or controls fungi.

"Fungus application on corn is growing in demand. There's more and more farmers that want to do it," Moreland said. "Problem is, whenever it's July, how tall is the corn? It's about 10, 12 feet. How do you drive a tractor through there (to spray)? Well, you can't."

Drones are an alternative to helicopter and plane services that spray pesticides. At first, Moreland said he thought farmers would be the primary users of drones. Most customers are people who start their own spray business, Moreland said.

The Agras T40 costs around $30,000, Moreland said, but there are other costs to consider. It costs between $50,000 and $60,000 to start a spray business, Moreland said.

There are other barriers to agricultural drone use. A Federal Aviation Administration license is required to fly drones commercially. Agri Spray offers licensing support, training and a repair service, Moreland said.

Challenges to New Technology

Chris Chinn, director of Missouri's Department of Agriculture, said she's excited by the potential for technology to reduce costs and increase efficiency. However, Chinn said not every family farm may rush to adopt new techniques.

"Some farms are early adopters of the technology, and with us being from the Show Me State, some of our farm families are like, 'Show me the data,'" Chinn said. "I want to see that data to make sure that it does work before I make that high-dollar investment."

Some families may rely on the younger generation to explore new technology before using it. Another important factor is internet access, Chinn said. Farmers need internet access in their fields in order to use drones and AI. Some farmers still have trouble using GPS on equipment because of poor internet connection.

The Missouri Department of Economic Development has an Office of Broadband Development which is trying to expand internet access in the state. The office has more than $1 billion in funding dedicated toward broadband expansion, according to previous KOMU 8 reporting. Missouri currently ranks 42nd in the country for broadband access, according to the Missouri Farm Bureau.

Shannon noted that the research center is still in its infancy. He hopes its research can be used not just in Missouri, but the entire country.

"Technology is not gonna solve every problem we have, but if it can help us be more efficient at what we do," he said. "I think that's sort of the ultimate thing."

KOMU 8 is a full-powered NBC affiliate operating as an independent commercial property. As such, KOMU 8 is the only major network affiliate in the United States that acts as a university-owned commercial television station utilizing its newsroom as a working lab for students.
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