The Smart Farm Initiative: the future of precision agriculture

UC DAVIS PHOTO / COURTESY

UC Davis transforms technologies, provides STEM education to farming communities

Technological innovation propels society forward in leaps and bounds, and one area that this is particularly true is in agriculture and farming. In the not-so distant future, highly-advanced drones and tractors, as well as other technologies, will be running farms and putting food in the mouths of billions.

At UC Davis, a team of professors have kicked off the Smart Farm Initiative. Lead by biological and agricultural engineering professor David Slaughter, the initiative strives to utilize and progress technology in agriculture to increase productivity and transform farm work to a STEM-based industry.

“We call it smart farm, which some people call it precision agriculture, and others call it agriculture 4.0,” said Ray Rodriguez, a professor of molecular and cellular biology at UC Davis. “And the reason I call it agriculture 4.0 is because people feel now we were in the fourth iteration of the industrial revolution.”

The third industrial revolution was defined by the pioneering of automation. What separates the fourth iteration is that not only is the technology automated, but it is interconnected and has the capacity for machine learning and artificial intelligence.

“It’s a hot topic,” Rodriguez said. “It relates to the future, it’s very important, it’s going to impact society in many different ways. We’re working with David with what we call a transformation of the agricultural work force from stoop labor, low pay, what I called life-shortening employment, to more of rewarding employment such a STEM-based workers that supports precision agriculture.”

One key part to this new wave of technologically driven agriculture is the development of the cyber physical environment.

“We want to bring digital fluency to K-12 to community college, to four-year institutions like the state colleges and universities,” Rodriguez said. “We can introduce new avenues and give them digital fluency which will allow them to work in this cyber physical environment.”

This cyber-physical environment consists of the connection between technologies and humans and how they work together. The technology, like the highly-advanced tractor Slaughter has pioneered, will have the capacity to learn and grow in certain environments which will greatly increase productivity and minimize costs.

Another key member of the Smart Farm Initiative team is Mary Lou de Leon Siantz, a professor at the Betty Irene Moore School of Nursing and the founding director of the Center for the Advancement of Multicultural Perspectives on Science. De Leon Siantz has dedicated much of her career and research to the wellbeing of the farmworker and agricultural community.

“I saw this as a tremendous opportunity for this population and the research I’ve done over time to strengthen the resilience of this population because they are working in rural parts of the United States, not just California, so this is going to have an impact across the country,” de Leon Siantz said. “I think the smart farm is a revolutionary concept that’s going to change how farm work is done permanently because we are using technology at a whole different level now.”

Though smart farm models consist of new technologies, displacing many manual labor jobs, the Smart Farm Initiative aims to prepare the community currently working in agriculture through reskilling. The vast majority of these communities are of Mexican heritage and live well below the poverty line. Through partnerships with many community colleges and four-year state colleges, they are creating a pipeline of STEM focused education, beginning with K-12, to elevate the farm workforce.

“We are aiming to prepare these children to participate in this kind of workforce and help the parents support the education of the next generation,” de Leon Siantz said. “And for parents themselves to retool, the opportunity to have certification, degrees, pre-college preparation, pre-school preparation.”

The program strives to integrate STEM curriculum into the current farming communities to reskill and prepare them for this major technological shift in agriculture. This proactive approach will adapt overtime to the specific needs of the families for current and future generations.

“We would like to establish a platform that can eventually be utilized by the state in the long run because the state is responsible for providing communities with the ability to become resilient and successful as this transformation occurs in their industry,” said Linda Katehi, a UC Davis engineering professor and the principal investigator for the Smart Farm Initiative. “I think it is the responsibility of the state from the moment we develop that platform with curriculum and assessment tools to take it on and try to sustain it.”

The initiative is expected to have a huge impact due to the current lack of educational opportunities in the Central Valley. With multicultural, interdisciplinary and multigenerational focuses, this hands on approach to the program creation aims to assure maximum effectiveness and retention.

“We also would like to have measurement methods, assessment methods for the curricula outcomes that are consistent, so we can measure consistently from one step to another,” Katehi said. “Then we can gather data that is compatible so that we can see exactly what is happening from this training and education and whether the programs we provide, we are able to see positive outcomes.”

UC Davis leads this initiative with about 20 partners, which include several California State Universities, community colleges, the Agricultural Natural Resources network and 4H. The 4H program teaches middle school and high school students about agriculture, rural and urban, through hands on experience.

“Our 4H program here at UC Davis has impacted almost 200,000 students in the last few years,” Katehi said. “Food is something so important and it’s something that people understand. Agriculture is not just about farming, it’s also about food processing, food transportation, food delivery. It’s such a huge industry and you don’t have to be a farmer to participate in it, and the whole industry is changing because of technology.”

As part of a collaborative process, Katehi hopes to integrate internship opportunities for students.

“Our goal is to go to foundations in the industry,” Katehi said. “In addition to the education and training and certificates, we want to have internship programs for the students. Experience is so important, if not more important than educating them.”

The goal is to be able to provide 50 internships by the end of the five-year program and use this to eventually grow a major internship center.

The future of precision agriculture through the Smart Farm Initiative aims to transform the manual agricultural labor to a high tech, STEM-based industry. Autonomous technologies and the educational programs proposed will provide opportunities for greater quality of life for these poverty stricken communities.

“This created the impetus motivation and the emotional buy in to connect smart farming and the transformation of the agricultural workforce,” Rodriguez said. “Putting these together is a win-win for everyone.”

 

 

Written by: Grace Simmons — features@theaggie.org