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Are New Technology and High Entry Costs Putting Farmers Out to Pasture?


Recent reports are showing a changing demographic in agricultural fields. Younger farmers are finding it harder to get an operation started than in past decades, and new technology completely automate tractor driving, eliminating some need for farmers in the field.

First, about the technology. Until now, automated tractors didn't hold a candle to human capacity when it came to working the fields. It takes a lot of skill and precision wield a tractor with farming accessories hitched onto it. But now, the technology has improved precision of autonomous tractors, which could make them a more cost-effective alternative than an actual farmer.

Erik Hostens, project engineer for Flanders’ Mechatronics Technology Centre, describes the complexity of creating a self-operating tractor that operated with the accuracy as one driven by a farmer (via Science Daily):

"Only experienced tractor operators have the skills needed to work a field with precision," [said Erik Hostens, project engineer for Flanders' Mechatronics Technology Centre]. The job of an operator is really quite complex: he observes the tractor's current position, makes a judgement based on terrain conditions and the route to be followed, and, based on all this, decides the speed and orientation of the tractor. All these actions had to be integrated into the automated steering system. The system registers positional changes in real-time with a GPS and adjusts itself accordingly."

Popular Science also reported that another company -- Jaybridge robotics, in partnership with farm equipment manufacturer, Kinze -- had created a similar automated tractor. This tractor would specifically be used by corn and soy row farmers during harvest. The tractor drives alongside a combine collecting the harvested crop.

Watch how it works:

And here's a more technical explanation of the technology:

In addition to new technology changing who's in and who's out of fields,the number of older farmers is growing with few young people building operations, even if they want to. NPR reports that high entry costs to start a farming operation and lack of loans are creating stopping blocks for those interested in the farm business. NPR describes the situation:

Matt Wildman [... is] a 22-year-old University of Nebraska student about to graduate with a degree in agriculture economics. He wants to land a job with an agriculture company or start his own fertilizer business.

"The biggest challenge, at least in my position coming out of college with no assets to my name, pretty much, no money, and trying to get a loan for $50,000 or $80,000 or more just to start a business — it's not going to happen unless you have a co-signer," Wildman says. "My parents are willing to co-sign on something right now, but it's got to be something that's going to [have] cash flow itself — it's got to be able to work."

Veteran farmer Haser says most of his money is tied up in his operation and not accessible, so he has sage advice for any new farmer.

"If you want to die rich, then become a farmer, because that's about all you're going to do as far as on the rich factor, is you're going to die that way," he says.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the number of farmers under the age of 35 is down 33 percent in the last decade. The number of farmers age 60 and older has grown 19 percent.

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