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Meeting in the middle: farm technology and consumers

I feel incredibly lucky to live and work in the Kansas City area. We are at the heart of the country, and I’ve always thought of this area as the crossroads where cultures converge — this is where urban meets rural, agriculture meets business, and tradition meets modern technology.

Last week, I had the opportunity to attend a panel at Middle of the Map Fest, a music, forum and film festival, which discussed just that. The panel, called Hungry for Technology, brought together panelists from various agriculture and technology backgrounds to discuss why modern agriculture is crucial to meeting growing global food demand and how farmers are using new technology to make food more accessible through safe and efficient farming practices.

Bruce Brinkmeyer, manager of insecticide products for the animal health division of Bayer HealthCare, moderated the panel. Panelists included Andrew Fansler, a first-generation grain farmer from Shelbyville, Ind.; Brian O’Banion, director of sales and business development for Farmobile; and Dale Blasi, a beef specialist at Kansas State University.

Brinkmeyer started off by discussing the limitations of modern farming. With less than 2 percent of the population directly involved in farming and less than 2 percent of the earth available for agriculture production, feeding a hungry and growing population is becoming increasingly difficult.

“The available earth to produce food isn’t going to increase,” he said. “If the population really does explode to 9 billion by 2050, that [extra food production] can really only come from better use of technology and smarter ways to get things done.”

Technology is already the driving force that makes it possible for such a small farming population to feed the world, and the thought-provoking presentation served as a reminder for how often consumers take that for granted.

The average American spends less than 7 percent of his or her income on food, Brinkmeyer said. This gives us a unique food situation in our country — that number nearly doubles in other first world countries, like France and Japan, and can reach as high as 40 or 50 percent of income in developing areas of the globe.

Americans are lucky to have a reliable food production system that provides us with safe, quality nutrition — a system that is made possible by advanced technology, Brinkmeyer explained.

That technology is also what will make it possible to feed a growing global population, the panelists agreed.

As farming operations become more concentrated, farmers are becoming more innovative, using technology to more efficiently and sustainably produce large quantities of food. Fansler suggested technology can also be used to help consumers reconnect with the agriculture community.

“Technology plays a key role in letting consumers understand what it is we’re doing on the farm,” Fansler said.

“People think we as farmers pollute everything we touch by using fertilizers, chemicals and manure. In all actuality, it’s the complete opposite,” he said. “We live there. We raise our families there. We have made our lives there. We are probably the best stewards of the land in the world. We don’t pour concrete on it. We don’t put sewers in it. We don’t do these things that are destroying the land. There are fewer and fewer of us every day, and more and more of you every day. Technology helps us tell our story.”

Telling that story is increasingly important, especially as farmers begin incorporating new technology on their operations. Fansler already uses drones to help him monitor crop growth, and remote sensors allow him to check that equipment is working properly while he’s away from the operation.

This technology might sound foreign and scary to everyday consumers, who don’t always fully understand modern farming practices and have voiced concerns about genetically modified organisms and other scientific and technological advances in food production.

“People are afraid of change,” he said. “It takes a while to accept technology. It’s a phenomenon that’s existed in every aspect of our society.”

Much like the city that hosted Middle of the Map Fest, it seems modern agriculture is at a crossroads. People are becoming more removed from the farm, yet increasingly interested in where their food comes from. Farmers are expected to meet growing global demand for food while using the same amount of land and conserving resources.

The result is a population that is hungry, not only for food, but also to know where their food comes from — and it will take the help of technology to feed them.

Source: Dairy Farmers of America

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