Producers share thoughts on AI in agriculture – Bryan-College Station Eagle

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Travis Senter is a third-generation farmer in northeast Arkansas. His father, who is 20 years older, can’t turn on a computer, but has lots of questions when it comes to the family business and usually asks his son for answers. It might take Senter up to an hour to compile the data needed to get his dad an answer.

That’s where Senter believes artificial intelligence could bridge a gap for his father and other producers. If his father could use an interface, like ChatGPT, to insert data and ask a question, answers could come in a more efficient manner.

This is a similar problem Senter said he believes producers like himself face: they have an excess of data without an effective way to use it to sort, manage and utilize it for the benefit of their operation.

Senter shared these thoughts as part of a five-person panel of producers during the AI in Agriculture and Natural Resources Conference at Texas A&M University on Tuesday. Panel members posed their opinions to AI industry members and students on the challenges and opportunities producers like themselves face in adapting to digital agriculture technology.

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“Some of the things I wish and hope AI can give us is the ability to us get this information and we then can feed it into something that will give us a usable answer,” Senter said.

Panel members believe there’s a number of ways AI could make things easier and their operation more profitable.

Plainview resident Todd Straley owns a cotton gin and also runs a farm and ranch. At the top of his list is for AI to find ways to tie together weather and climate patterns to planning data that could help farmers like him predict crop yields.

“I can use that both on my farming operation to know if I need to keep my foot on the gas or if it’s time to back off,” Straley said.

Kelly Whatley married into farming. She lives in south Texas, and farms and ranches across three counties with her family. Whatley said because there’s limited time to look at market reports and trends, she wishes there was a method to decide when the time is to make decisions during the year.

“We need to increase our yields and we need to increase our margins,” Whatley said. “Anything that takes away from the margins, especially, it’s not going to get used. Our margins are so slim anyway.”

While there are a number of burgeoning benefits for AI in different fields, including agriculture, the panel of producers also shared some chief concerns about integrating it into their operations right now.

Labor demands are a key issue Straley sees right now and he’s not sure AI can solve that problem, but rather change the labor required for the job.

“Going forward as technology changes, we’re going to be relying on people to have a better understanding of a broad scope of things and that is something that our education system today is not set up for,” Straley said.

Internet access continues to increase, but farming and ranching are still often conducted in some of the nation’s most rural areas. Lacey Vardeman and her family have 18,000 acres to run cattle and 10,000 acres for farming cotton in the western part of the Texas Panhandle near Lubbock. They’re so remote there’s no internet.

“Rural America does not have the internet bandwidth to deal with this,” Straley said. “As we’re talking about having spray drones out there and relying on internet access to get information, trackers relying on it, and even a lot of areas that do have what we think is high-speed internet, there’s not enough bandwidth to get this done.”

Cost-benefit analysis is also something producers are currently weighing with where AI is at in the agriculture field. Whatley said while she knows AI technologies cost money to develop, they also cost farmers money to use and sometimes that cost doesn’t outweigh the benefit.

“We’ve got to see a concrete definite return on investment before we are willing to risk part of our yearly budget to adopt that technology,” Whatley said.

Questions over trust linger, too, as some farmers are reluctant to give over heaps of information about their land and operations. Multiple panel members said they trust universities more than industry or government entities right now.

“University, I think, is the place where the data tends to not be skewed because you’re after it for a different reason than industry,” Straley said.

Robert Strong, an associate professor in A&M’s Department of Agricultural Leadership, Education & Communications, said AI can be the great equalizer for land-grant institutions such as A&M to compete with food systems institutions. He added he’s hopeful about the future because of the number of students interested in AI-related fields and issues.

“We have to step up our game because there’s others who bring a lot of intellectual, human and social capital to this conversation and in my experience, their efforts are very targeted and they’re laser-focused,” Strong said.

Amid concerns and looming questions about AI’s place in agriculture, the producers were optimistic about how emerging technologies can help their field.

When Whatley was a freshman at A&M over 30 years ago, she went to a basement computer room and sent an email message to her friend at the University of Tennessee. She said at the time she couldn’t envision what technology would become and how it would connect the world.

“I think we can’t even fathom where AI will even take us on the farm, take people in the world,” Whatley said.

Bob Walker, a farmer in west Tennessee, was unable to attend the panel, but recorded a video message. He believes farmers and innovators must be willing to work together and think outside-the-box to explore more applications of AI in agriculture beyond sprayers and drones.

“I do believe there will be many who will be slow to adopt, but those will get left behind rapidly,” Walker said. “I think exciting times are ahead for us in agriculture with the help of AI to steer us along a new path.”

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