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Research Highlights
Soy Think Tank: Researching Digital Agriculture

Research is helping farmers understand how to use technology to improve their operations. Photo: United Soybean Board

By Laura Temple

Data and technology are changing the landscape of farming. Unbiased research is critical to understand the value these changes bring to farmers, according to John Fulton, a professor in the Department of Food, Agricultural and Biological Engineering at the Ohio State University. 

“We are moving toward the connected farm, where people, machines, fields and other assets are connected to the internet,” he explained to a group of soybean farmers, researchers and industry representatives during the first Soybean Research Forum & Think Tank in August 2021, funded by the soy checkoff. “Digital agriculture includes precision agriculture, machinery automation, in-field sensors, data analytics and much more. And it is growing rapidly.”

Fulton cited investments in ag technology funding. He said the $26.1 billion raised by startups in 2020 included a 15.5 percent increase in investments in the ag and food technology sector. This segment of technology was expected to grow another estimated 20 percent in 2021, according to his projections.

For example, during the inaugural Soybean Research Forum & Think Tank, representatives from Inner Plant described how they are genetically adapting plants, including soybeans, to serve as living sensors that signal when there is a production issue, like lack of water or nutrients. 

“Such investments are creating new tools and technologies for farmers,” he said. “Today, more than 200 apps specific to agriculture are available. Research like what we are doing in the Ohio State Digital Agriculture program helps farmers make the most of these technologies.”

However, a few issues need to be addressed as digital agriculture continues moving forward. Fulton explained that rural broadband and internet access in remote areas must improve for the connected farm to be effective. He also noted that many questions and concerns about data access, ownership, use and privacy must be addressed. 

Beyond those big-picture issues, Fulton pointed out that farmers need to understand the value of specific technologies. 

“Ag tech investments fund research focused on product development,” he said. “While that work is critical, farmers also need unbiased research on the value and implementation of technology.”

To provide neutral perspectives that complement industry research, Fulton noted that Ohio State Digital Agriculture conducts and shares research about machinery automation, site-specific management practices or precision agriculturedigital agricultureremote sensingon-farm research and more. For example, research is finding that a combination of drone scouting and analytical tools can improve the speed and accuracy of weed detection and control

The Soybean Research Forum & Think Tank allowed soybean farmers, researchers and industry members to discuss overarching research priorities that would harness synergies between public and private efforts. The idea is that working together would help the soybean industry capitalize on ag technology. It would also help farmers more effectively adopt and implement digital agriculture strategies into their operations.