USDA seeks technologies to take farming into the future

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If you went to the average contemporary farm, you’d be hard pressed to fine a hoe or a rake. But you would find information systems, GPS, and artificial intelligence driving operations. As part of its Agriculture Innovation Agenda, the Agriculture Department is looking for technologies and practices that can help U.S. farm productivity increase by 40%. The request for information is open for another two weeks. USDA’s Under Secretary for Farm Production and Conservation Bill Northey had an update on Federal Drive with Tom Temin.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Mr. Northey, good to have you on.

Bill Northey: Good to be with you Tom.

Tom Temin: Just briefly give us the big picture here of the Agriculture Innovation agenda that USDA is pursuing.

Bill Northey: The agriculture is amazingly productive, and certainly has responded to increases of population and demand in the past. And we have further increases of population demand coming in the future. But I think society is also looking to make sure that we conserve our resources when we’re doing to improve your environmental footprint. So the goal of the agenda is to say we need to increase productivity 40% by 2050, and in that same period of time, decrease the environmental footprint by 50%. So I’d certainly think we have great opportunities on the increasing the productivity side, real challenges on reducing the footprint, but agriculture has done that and needs to be focused, and we want to be a help here at USDA.

Tom Temin: So now there is a call to I guess, industry, academia, all of the above for technologies and practices. Tell us what’s going on there.

Bill Northey: Yes, we’re looking for practices that we can help promote, practices that maybe private industry or universities have advanced and maybe need a little more research, but in many cases are ready to go technologies, technologies that are ready to get on the farmer’s fields. Our part of USDA here is Natural Resources Conservation Service, where we help provide some incentives for farmers for adoption of conservation friendly practices. We’d like to be able to understand those practices and how they can benefit both the productivity and the conserving of our resources and improving of water quality and the other environmental footprints that agriculture has up there. To the extent that we can have those and understand those, we can promote those and increase the adoption that farmers have of those good environmental productive practices.

Tom Temin: And are these information technologies could help? Or are they new types of fertilizers or irrigation systems that use drip? I’ve heard about that for many years. Give us some examples of the kinds of things that might come to play here.

Bill Northey: Certainly there are all of those things. So absolutely irrigation technologies that’s more efficient in the way that it used water. In some cases, there’s sensors in the ground that will let that system be able to manage the water in a way that’s even more sophisticated than individual producer can be able to manage it from afar. There’s going to be information technologies about productivity, there’s going to be even things like improving the way that we limit tillage and maintain soil structure and increase cover crops out there. Maybe some different kinds of cover crop planting, cover crops are crops that are typically planted in between the commercial crops. We grow corn in the summer, and then often that land rests until the next year, if we can get a crop growing on that land in between. It protects that land from erosion, also adds carbon to the soil and creates some real benefits. But we need ways to more efficiently get those cover crops planted hand on that land.

Tom Temin: And if you look at industries from agriculture to aviation, hundred years on, 150 years on, weather is still a big limiting and dangerous in some cases factors for both aviation and agriculture. Do you envision technologies and practices that could mitigate the effects of weather and make farms maybe a little more, if not totally, but somewhat more impervious to the vicissitudes of weather?

Bill Northey: Really do. Certainly if we could just predict the weather and know exactly what each year was going to be, we’d know exactly what crap and what seeding rate and when to plant that grass. But what we need is that resiliency so that whatever the weather brings that year, that that crop is best situated to be able to respond to the growing conditions. And so I do think cover crops can be one of those things that add resiliency, more carbon in the soil organic matter. So we’re going to need crops too that are more drought resistant, fertilizer technologies that can respond to a dry year and a wet here and not lose those nutrients off the farm. Certainly being as efficient as we can while making sure that we’re as productive as we can. So, resiliency to unpredictable weather and potentially changing weather or climate conditions is very important for us to be able to add to the farmers toolbox.

Tom Temin: Something in your title struck me. Are there other countries that may have practices and technologies that just for whatever reason have not been adopted in the United States? And are you looking at those also?

Bill Northey: Absolutely. There are places in the world that have done a great job around irrigation technology. The Israelis have done a great job, other countries that have real growing challenges maybe mirror some conditions in the Arizona desert or California’s Central Valley. And so technologies, drip irrigation, for example, has come from some innovation that’s happened overseas, and then often it does need to be adapted to our conditions over here. So it’s not just that we can borrow technologies and bring it over and put it in place the exact same way. We need to be able to do some research, understand it, let farmers try it. And so those technologies that happen other places are absolutely potentially beneficial for us here. But I also think that things that we do here will help producers in other countries too as they meet the same challenges. Technology is very important for agriculture to continue to have access to. And we certainly are advocates for improving technology that manage our environmental systems, as well as increase the productivity.

Tom Temin: Both my kids went to land grant state universities, they didn’t study agriculture. But on all of those campuses, if you wander off the beaten path, suddenly you come to where the agriculture is, and there’s goats and pigs and pens and cattle and different things growing. Is the academic agriculture community in tune with all of this, do you get that sense?

Bill Northey: I do believe so. And they all have been contributing their own parts through the years to some degree. One of the things we want to do with this is bring folks together to help focus the effort around those things that are have the best chance of being successful. So here at USDA, we do have connections with the university community organizations that provide some dollars of support to them, some gathering, some understanding of the problems, bring the universities together. There’s no single University out there that’s going to create all the technology about any one of these practices. But together, if they’re all working on the same kind of focused area, let’s say it’s around cover crops, so let’s not repeat the exact same research on each campus, but let’s make sure that we’re looking at all the things through the roles of various researchers on campuses. They really are focused and I think very ready for the federal government to be a coordinator. The private industry is very interested as well. They do a lot of research, they look at things that are often have a commercial value to them. And there’s a lot of things out there that still need the support of a university community, the federal government, and to be able to figure out what the private industry is coming with for technologies, I think will help us focus the public research in the right way as well.

Tom Temin: And the Request for Information people can have to when to submit ideas at this point.

Bill Northey: November 9th is the final day for the requests for information.

Tom Temin: Alright. Bill Northey is Under Secretary of Agriculture for Farm Production and Conservation. Thanks so much for joining me.

Bill Northey: Thank you, Tom.

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