The farm of the future is being created in a lab — a drone that can spot a single bug in an acre of strawberries, a robot that blasts weeds without spraying tomatoes, a gas capsule that keeps vegetables crispy and fresh while they’re in the mail.
Technology can help us curb the trend of importing more and more of our food.
If we completely outsource farming, someone else sets our prices, chooses our meals, and can even withhold food as a weapon against us.
We’re fighting back by equipping our farmers with gadgets that do some farm jobs faster and better than people can. Other nations have cheaper labor and fewer environmental restrictions on farming.
To keep up with our international competitors, we must out-invent them.
The University of Florida’s Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering is already one of the nation’s finest, and it has a new leader who’s spent many hours with Miami-Dade farmers.
Kati Migliaccio worked for a decade at the UF/Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Tropical Research and Education Center in Homestead.
She’s attuned to the specific technology needs of the local agricultural community, one of the state’s most productive.
Migliaccio and her team have worked on smartphone apps and soil sensors that advise avocado and papaya growers when to irrigate and when they can save money (and water) by shutting off the tap.
Sometimes too much irrigation comes from the sky, causing flooding that ruins crops.
So Migliaccio’s team has also sunk wells in groves and vegetable fields to get the subterranean data needed to figure out how to manage too much of what is usually a good thing.
Migliaccio’s job as the UF/IFAS engineering leader is to bring the future to farmers faster. Her success will be essential to Florida agriculture.
Agricultural technology is as important as ever.
Already foreigners have a whole lot of control over your fruits and veggies.
More than 95 percent of our asparagus is imported.
So are most of the blackberries, peppers and tomatoes consumed by Americans.
Florida fields are harvested almost entirely by immigrant labor.
That’s not a bad thing. Market forces give us the best price in the produce aisle.
But if we don’t stay competitive in agriculture internationally, we risk becoming too dependent on other nations’ food.
What keeps us in the game is innovation.
That’s where the gizmos and gadgets come in.
And a land-grant university’s mission is to put those tools and the know-how to use them into the heads and hands of Floridians.
Miami-Dade Water & Sewer funded work by a team that included Migliaccio to investigate how to save local homeowners money by reducing how often they water their lawns and landscaping.
Migliaccio has walked in Wayne Worthley’s avocado grove in Homestead to get his input to perfect the avocado app.
She’s a scientist who has the customer in mind. Her direct customer is the grower.
Her indirect customer is the person who ultimately buys the fruit – you.
Right now your food is on the brink of the kind of change that came to your music 30 years ago. Remember vinyl? How about cassettes? Within 10 years of its introduction, the compact disc passed records and tapes in sales.
Florida farmers need to get mp3s years ahead of their competitors to offset and override the other market forces that make some foreign produce so cheap.
Technology isn’t the only way to give Florida an edge, but it will have to be in the mix to keep fresh-from-Florida food on your plate, your neighbors employed in food production, and green spaces in South Florida instead of more pavement.
Public science serves the public. In this case, it supports an agriculture, natural resources, and food industry that employs nearly 200,000 people in Miami-Dade and accounts for $19.5 billion in annual sales.
Jack Payne is the University of Florida’s senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources and leader of the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.