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How 5G promises to revolutionize farming

February 28, 2020, 2:00 PM UTC

Over the next several years, superfast 5G mobile networks promise to shake up a variety of industries, particularly those on the cutting edge, including technology and automotive. But 5G, the wireless successor to today’s 4G, may also revolutionize the farming industry, which has long been slow to adopt new innovations.

Wireless sensors connected through 5G could monitor field conditions and detect when crops need watering, pesticides, or fertilizer, experts say. It could also help with tracking livestock and guiding agricultural drones and self-driving tractors.

“5G has the potential to have a transformative effect on the global economy through a number of different verticals, and farming certainly is one of the most prominent ones to consider,” says ABI Research analyst Leo Gergs.

The end result for agriculture, in theory, would be improved crop yields and higher-quality produce. But actually making the promise a reality is unlikely to be quick or easy.

While major wireless carriers Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile are racing to install 5G, they’ve so far focused only on metropolitan areas because of their high concentration of potential customers. It will take years before their 5G networks are widely available in rural areas, meaning most farmers will have to wait.

“5G will probably not have a tangible impact on farming for three to five years,” says Bill Morelli, an analyst with IHS Markit.

Many farmers have already installed sensors in their fields that are connected using 4G, which operates at up to 100Mbps. In comparison, 5G speeds of up to 10Gbps are expected. The difference allows for faster connectivity between devices along with enabling more devices to connect to a single cell tower.

“Sensors are already used in farming to measure and report upon environmental conditions such as rainfall, water content, nutrients in the soil, and ground temperature,” says Simon Forrest, an analyst at Futuresource.

Upgrading to 5G could increase the impact of the technology by improving connection speeds and allowing for devices to more effectively communicate. For example, it would allow farmers to install more sensors to track more data points and help them run their operations more effectively.

One of the big questions is over the impact 5G will have on agricultural jobs. Unskilled labor could see the biggest impact, according to analysts.

Currently, there are 2.1 million agricultural workers in the U.S., according to ABI Research, with the average farm employing about 45 people. Those numbers will fall over time as farmers add more technology, according to Gergs.

“5G will change the nature of jobs in farming and agriculture substantially,” Gergs says.

By 2035, the number of agriculture jobs is expected to shrink to 1.78 million, Gergs says. At the same time, farms will employ an average of only 27 people.

But Morelli is unsure that more technology, including 5G, will actually impact the number of farm jobs overall. He acknowledged that different roles will be in higher demand, likely data analytics and farm management, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into a lower headcount.

“Smart agriculture in general is about allowing farmers to be more informed and efficient; it’s not specifically about eliminating jobs,” Morelli says. “There will likely be some transition, as with any technology transition.”

Whatever the case, the stakes are high. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that the planet will need 70% more food in 2050 than it did in 2009 because of a rising global population. Advancements in farming will be a big contributor.

“Technology must be applied to the problem,” says Forrest. “Connectivity is essential, and therefore 5G in agriculture is inevitable.”

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