WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — John Deere’s chief economist believes the world is entering a new age in agriculture — one unlike anything the industry has seen before.

An era of precision farming is at hand, and many technologies will be used to make managing farms a more exact science.

J.B. Penn spoke at Purdue University’s annual James C. Snyder Memorial Lecture. The event is put on by the Agricultural Economics Department in memory of Snyder, a distinguished professor.

Deere & Co. CEO Samuel Allen and vice president Charles Stamp were among the guests, along with students, professors and alumni.

“It’s increasingly clear that another technological era has begun,” Penn said. “It’s an era that lacks a widely agreed upon name, but will involve the use of complementary technologies.”

These technologies will include computers, satellites, software, monitors, sensors, probes and other communication devices.

As a result of high-precision farming, farmers will be able to improve resource use, increase efficiency and cut unit costs — all while reducing agriculture’s environmental footprint.

Penn expects this new period to feature enhanced reporting and compliance capabilities, better machine usage and improved risk management.

“Today we are beyond the laboratory stage for entirely autonomous machines,” he said. “The benefits of all of this data only now are beginning to be fully realized, but promise to hold enormous potential for greatly enhanced managerial ability, on and off the farm.”

Challenges Exist

While the future of agriculture looks bright, there are many challenges to face, Penn said.

Availability of adequate rural broadband and data ownership, use, storage and location are a few of the issues that need to be addressed.

“Almost certainly, more (issues) will emerge,” Penn said. “It could even hasten change in the already evolving traditional owner/operator farm model.

“The data-driven possibilities could mean new management models appear. These changes are not often rapid, but they do respond to better tools and technologies and will likely lead to the end of the dominance of owner/operator traditional model.”

Economic issues, including the U.S. role in world agricultural development, also will need to be addressed.

Over the past 12 years, the structure of the global grain market has changed, and it continues to change, Penn said. The two main reasons for this shift are the unit cost of production and the cost of marketing between the farm gate and consumer.

“Today farmers in Brazil, Argentina and the Black Sea region are eagerly adopting advanced technologies on the farm,” Penn said. “At the same time, investments in essential infrastructure … also are growing.

“Together, the result is increased competitiveness and a shift in source of supplies for growing local markets. The recent extraordinary high-price period promoted other grain producers to expand and vie for export growth markets.”

As the world enters what Penn expects to be a period of more moderate prices, expansion in foreign countries may or may not continue growing at such a fast rate.

In order to feed more people, productivity must be increased everywhere that farming is practiced — not just in top-exporting countries, he said.

Penn shared a video of what the future of farming may look like. In it, irrigation systems could be managed at the tip of a finger, on a digital interface. A smartphone photo of a corn plant could digitally diagnose the health of that particular stalk.

This video is available to watch at www.youtube.com/watch?vjEh5-zZ9jUg.