For farms far from the reach of broadband, 5G networking promises to open up a new world of precision farming.
As the operators of a 480-acre organic dairy farm in Wisconsin, Amanda and Adam Heisner manage about 100 cows. The cows graze on grass, then they’re milked, and the milk sits in huge refrigerated containers until it is trucked out every other day. It’s a lot for the couple to keep track of and manage, and things can easily go awry. If the temperature of the milk rises a degree or so too high before they notice and tweak the refrigeration, they have to discard it.
In our wired world, there is a way to avoid this problem: sensors connected to the Internet that can track the temperature, alert the Heisners on their smartphones, and automatically turn down the refrigerator.
But the Heisners can’t use this kind of agricultural technology because the cellular signal at their farm, in Mineral Point, about an hour southwest of Madison, is too weak. “Right now we can use [technology] to see what happened after the fact,” says Amanda Heisner. “But we can’t use it to be preventative at all.” Nor do they have sufficient bandwidth to make it worth investing in forthcoming virtual-fence technology—much like invisible fences for dogs, only the boundaries can be moved at will—which would hugely benefit an operation that relies on the ability to manage free-ranging animals.
“Right now we can use [technology] to see what happened after the fact. But we can’t use it to be preventative at all.”—Amanda Heisner, farmer
Heisner Family Dairy would be an ideal beneficiary of the 5G technology that now looms on the technological horizon. The new networking standard, now being gradually rolled out, offers dramatically improved speeds and lower latency, or lag time. Experts believe it is capable of ushering in newer, more efficient, smarter operations in virtually every industry—and farming is a potential early adopter.
“Farming is already highly automated, but this will allow farmers to orchestrate the automation under one roof,” says Anshel Sag, an associate analyst focusing on mobility and virtual reality for Moor Insights & Strategy. “It could allow them to do more with less labor and be more efficient than they ever have been.”
It’s hard to overstate the potential benefits of 5G deployment for a transforming planet where food insecurity is a fast-growing worry. A 2019 report from the United Nations argues that climate change is already putting a severe strain on humankind’s ability to feed itself. “Every generation has fewer and fewer farmers, and someone has to grow our food,” Sag says. “So it’s going to have to become more automated.” That’s where 5G comes in.
R.J. Karney, director of congressional relations for the American Farm Bureau (AFB), says that many rural farms, located far from reliable cellular coverage, now operate on the fringes of the technological revolution. That’s what makes 5G so compelling: farms can invest in their own high-speed wireless networks and connect them to the wider Internet—and the power of cloud computing and other services—via fiber or cable landlines.
In this way, farmers could enjoy the benefits of 5G before many city folk, and would be able to run all sorts of Internet of Things (IoT) devices securely and speedily, with virtually no lag time. They could then dedicate parts of the network, in a process known as network slicing, to different purposes—designating one low-power slice for crop sensors and another for actuators (like refrigerated holding tanks and virtual fences), for example.
Sag sees larger operations tapping into even greater advantages because of their scale. Low-latency slices could be used to boost automation and efficiency, running autonomous tractors and planting and harvesting machinery, for instance. Other slices could be used to deploy drones to map crops or go searching for missing cattle, transmitting back a video feed.
That last one would be a valuable tool for Anita Hand, who runs the 50-square-mile Hand Ranch with her brother in vast, sparsely populated Catron County, New Mexico. Hand has grown frustrated with the 4G service in her area, which has deteriorated to the point where she can’t participate as a bidder in livestock auctions because the poor connection compromises her ability to enter bids. “If I don’t have an adequate connection, I’m missing opportunities to buy breeding stock,” she says. “With 5G, if there were a reliable connection and there were products that helped, we’d definitely be interested.”
Down on the farm
The AFB’s Karney says that he now spends much of his time pushing for the expansion of broadband to rural areas—and that when present-day needs are overlaid onto the technological advancements already available elsewhere, the potential for greater rural connectivity through 5G deployment is unmistakable.
Farmers are already using broadband-enabled GPS applications to useful ends—using drones and other equipment to gather data about particular tracts of land and then working with certified crop advisors to optimize the use of water, fertilizer, and nutrients, and to minimize their environmental impact, he says. IoT farm equipment can then download data about a particular piece of land and operate accordingly. Precision agriculture is already making the smart farm a reality.
The arrival of 5G will propel all of this agricultural technology forward at warp speed. John Deere is investing in artificial intelligence and has already developed autonomous tractors that, with adequate connectivity, can be programmed to execute a specific, data-driven planting strategy. Google-funded Abundant Robotics has developed robots that vacuum ripe fruit from branches. Fields and orchards equipped with sensors that detect the need for more water could trigger an automated irrigation system.
The arrival of 5G will propel all of these applications forward at warp speed.
“There are a lot of great benefits that we hear about, because connectivity is so critical,” Karney says. “Having that capacity will go a long way. The question is how quickly it works its way to rural America.”
Time will tell
There’s the rub: This will take some time. The first 5G networks are just coming online, and the first phones enabled for the network have just been launched. But industry experts expect that by 2025, 5G will be widespread.
Sag says it also remains to be seen how quickly farmers will be able to invest—the extent to which the industry is already leveraged is an issue—but he envisions a future in which a company like John Deere, for example, might lease to farmers a bundle of 5G-enabled equipment, and provide them with the weather, soil, and other data needed to make the best use of the equipment.
5G is coming—that much is clear. For the sake of feeding the planet, let’s hope it plants itself on farms as soon as possible.