A robotic lens zooms in on the yellow flower of a tomato seedling. Images of the plant flow into an artificial intelligence algorithm that predicts precisely how long it will take for the blossom to become a ripe tomato ready for picking, packing, and the produce section of a grocery store.
The technology is being developed and researched at NatureFresh Farms, a 20-year-old company growing vegetables on 185 acres between Ontario and Ohio. Knowing exactly how many tomatoes will be available to sell in the future makes the job of the sales team easier and directly benefits the bottom line, said Keith Bradley, IT Manager for NatureFresh Farms. It’s only one example of AI transforming agriculture, an emerging trend that will help spur an agricultural revolution.
From detecting pests to predicting what crops will deliver the best returns, artificial intelligence can help humanity confront one of its biggest challenges: feeding an additional 2 billion people by 20502, even as climate change disrupts growing seasons, turns arable land into deserts, and floods once-fertile deltas with seawater.
Getting the most from every acre is not an academic problem. The United Nations estimates we will need to increase food production 50 percent by the middle of the century.3
Agricultural production tripled between 1960 and 2015 as the world’s population grew from 3 billion people to 7 billion.4
While technology played a role in the form of pesticides, fertilizers, and machines, much of the gains can be attributed to simply plowing more land—cutting forests and diverting fresh water to fields, orchards, and rice paddies. We will have to be more resourceful this time around.
AI Versus Grasshoppers
Pests have always plagued farmers. Some ten thousand years after the invention of agriculture, locusts, grasshoppers, and other crop devouring insects still eat profits and gobble grains that would otherwise feed human beings. But AI gives growers a weapon against cereal-hungry bugs.
Not long ago, a farmer in Texas checked the direction of the wind and reckoned a swarm of grasshoppers was likely to descend on the southwest corner of his farm. But before he could check his crops, the farmer got an alert on his smartphone from the AI and data company he hires to help monitor his farm.
Checking new satellite images against pictures of the same parcel over a five-year period, an AI algorithm detected that the insects had landed in another corner of the farmer’s field. The farmer inspected the section, confirmed the warning was accurate and removed the costly pests from his field of nearly ripened corn.
At NatureFresh Farms, the greenhouse tomatoes grow in a bed of pulped coconut husks. It’s a nutrient-free environment that allows the growers to completely control what goes into the plant. Sensors monitor the fruit’s progress toward perfect ripeness, adjusting light to accelerate or slow the pace of maturation. This kind of farming requires considerable processing power, and NatureFresh Farms uses Intel® Xeon® processors to power its AI algorithms.
With more than 2,500 nodes, the greenhouses are a glimpse into the future of farming, Bradley said.