Steve Erickson
Project Manager

The Key to the Fourth Agricultural Revolution? Reconnecting With Our Roots

What Is Agricultural Technology and Why Is It Becoming a Thing?

Agriculture and technology aren’t typically two words seen next to each other, kind of like friendly and hornet or peaceful and tornado. They’re opposites in many ways. Agriculture brings to mind images of cows grazing in a pasture, corn fields blowing in the wind, and small towns with grain elevators and streets filled with old Ford and Chevy trucks. Technology on the other hand, makes one think of iPhones, electric cars, and Silicon Valley… you know the place where people live in a truck in the company’s parking lot or rent a bunk in a shared room for $1,200/month. And yet, it’s technology that has driven improvements in agriculture since the practice began 12,000 years ago.

Agriculture, is the single greatest factor in the rise of modern civilization and the many innovations in agriculture continue to have a profound effect on our society. Faced with the challenges of an estimated 50% increase in food demand by 2050, an increasingly urbanized society, and world-wide reduction in the number of farm workers, the agriculture industry is once again ripe for innovation — enter Agricultural Technology, better known as AgriTech.

AgriTech is the application of technology to agriculture with the goal of improving profitability by increasing the productivity of labor, efficiency of resource utilization, and reduction of costs along the value chain. It can encompass physical products such as remote sensors and equipment, as well as digital services such as online marketplaces and data analysis applications.

Up to this point, the agriculture industry hasn’t been a leader in terms of the utilization of information technology and there are some large obstacles to overcome, not least of which is the reluctance of those in the industry to adopt technology into their current operations. The tide is turning though. With a growing influx of investments into the industry from venture capitalists and angel investors, coupled with the efforts of innovative engineering companies and entrepreneurs, we’re headed towards a very different looking agriculture industry in the next 10-20 years.

However, revolutionizing agriculture will require those in the tech industry to not just make cool gadgets and gizmos that farmers can use… anybody can do that. We need to reconnect with our roots and get to know our farmers — only after understanding what they really need can we actually create valuable innovations and technology that will reshape the agriculture industry.

So, Who Am I and Why Am I Writing About Agricultural Technology in Seattle?

I grew up in semi-rural Minnesota, meaning my family lived in the country and I would frequently bike 4 miles past corn fields and horse farms to my friend’s house, but my parents commuted to the Twin Cities for work. Although my parents both grew up on farms and we lived in the country, we definitely weren’t farmers. In fact, I’m the first generation in my family to not participate in agriculture at all. 

Western Minnesota June 1967 (Left) and July 1991 (Right)

This was due to multiple factors, the primary one being the financial challenges my parents’ families experienced as a result of farming supply price shocks, inconsistent weather, and fluctuations in crop prices. These challenges led my parents to the greener and more consistent pastures of working in corporate America, which in turn meant that I didn’t grow up needing to milk cows, tend horses, bale hay, drive a tractor, or wake up any earlier than 6:00am. I became disconnected from my family’s agrarian roots and therefore became disinterested in agriculture. Frankly, this is a story that I share with many Americans.

Presently, I work at Synapse Product Development, an organization which is a relatively recent entrant into the agritech industry as engineering and innovation consultants. When I was asked last spring to join our agritech team, I was initially reluctant to do so. At the time, I hadn’t read or known about the innovation taking place in the industry and naively thought that nothing new was happening in the field.

Since then, I’ve had the opportunity to work on several agritech projects, most notably one involving vertical farming. As the project manager, it was amazing to participate in requirements gathering and brainstorming sessions, and see the ingenuity and out-of-the-box thinking displayed by the engineers on my team. Although all but one of the engineers lacked experience in agriculture, they all displayed a tremendous level of passion in the project. We were able to lean on our client’s experience in agriculture to cover the gaps in our knowledge, while we utilized our high-tech backgrounds to develop an innovative system for growing plants in warehouses. It was the passion of my team and this project that really spurred my interest in AgriTech.

Why Do I Care About Agriculture Now?

In the past 10 months since starting the vertical farming project, I’ve done a substantial amount of reading on the innovation taking place in the agriculture industry and have had multiple conversations with my family about it. My dad recently said to me about my growing interest, “it’s not surprising, it’s in your blood." That statement definitely made me reflect on my heritage and how much I owe to the generations that came before me, people who immigrated to this country and worked the land to provide a better future for their children and grandchildren.

In order for this transformation to happen, we have to think about the overall experience — not just the device— and create technology solutions that address the needs that farmers and other users of the end-products actually have.

What I’ve now come to love about this field is the potential for technology to improve agriculture in multiple ways, all the way from the family farmer in Minnesota, through distributors and retailers, and ultimately to end consumers, like you and me. I thoroughly believe this end-to-end transformation will lead to: 

  • Less food waste as a result of shorter and more efficient supply chains
  • Less pollution due to more efficient use of chemicals and fertilizers
  • Reduced impact on the environment associated with decreased consumption of natural resources
  • Reduced land usage following an increase in indoor and / or urban growing
  • Enhanced productivity and safety through the use of automation, robotics, and artificial intelligence
  • Higher quality food at lower prices due to improvement in agriculture economics
  • Lastly, higher profit margins for family farmers thanks to more efficient use of farm inputs and greater revenue due to a shortening of the value chain to the end consumer

But in order for this transformation to happen, we have to think about the overall experience — not just the device— and create technology solutions that address the needs that farmers and other users of the products actually have. Basic needs, such as being able to produce and sell goods at a profit so that they can continue to work and provide for their families, must be of paramount importance.

Let’s Get Started!

Although I wrote this blog post, I’m definitely not the only one at Synapse that has expressed enthusiasm about the next agricultural revolution. We have a growing group of individuals who are excited by the prospect of working with agritech companies to apply the latest technologies to agriculture, and by the potential for greatly improving the sustainability of our society. Agriculture will definitely look different in 10-20 years, more a science than the art my grandparents and previous generations practiced. We’re looking forward to thinking out-of-the-box, finding new uses for existing technology, and utilizing our engineering capabilities and experience to develop novel solutions that address the needs of those who will use it. In fact, we recently started an internal project to show off our capabilities and how they can be applied to agriculture. So, if you have the seed of an idea, reach out and we’ll help it germinate and grow — it’s time to make the next agricultural revolution a reality. 

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