By Sandy K. Johnson

The U.S. has a shrinking number of farmers and a finite supply of land. So how is it possible that agricultural productivity continues to soar?

Part of the answer is science and research. Corporations (including Bayer, sponsor of this fellowship for journalists) spend billions on research to improve agricultural products and yields. Private foundations (such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation) also plow money into agricultural research.

Plus there’s the federal government, through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which collaborates with farmers and the ag industry.

The National Institute of Food and Agriculture spends $1.6 billion a year on agricultural research and education, much of it via grants to land-grant universities (a system that dates to the mid-1800s).

Thomas Shanower, NIFA’s acting director, described five technologies that are transforming agriculture.

•  Sensors/drones/satellites. As an example, he described a $4.9 million grant to Michigan State University to equip drones with three sensors to check nutrients, temperature and height of crops.

•  Machine learning/artificial intelligence/analytics. A grant to Florida International University is under way to predict the risk of a fungus, mycotoxin, in wine grapes.

•  Robotics, using automation from planting to harvesting and the labor issues in between. A $700,000 grant to the West Virginia University led to the development of an artificial pollinator that mimics the critical function of bees. In the end product, “If we can send the robots out there to harvest, rain or shine, it’ll be a great victory,” Shanower said.

•  Microbiomes, how microorganisms live together within an ecosystem. For example, Iowa State University is studying whether the natural bacteria in a growing environment can help prevent disease.

•  Gene editing. Methods like CRISPR can modify a plant or animal’s genetic material to “edit out” troublesome traits. “This could solve lots of problems,” Shanower said, but he acknowledged the questions about it.

If you want to drill down, Shanower suggested reporters go local:

Every county has an extension agent whose role is education for businessmen, farmers, gardeners – and even reporters. He said some research stations have collected data for more than 100 years, which would provide valuable historical perspective.