Nov 24, 2015
How will vegetables be grown a century from now?

When asked what commercial vegetable fields might look like in the future – even up to a century from now – those who’ve studied them closely gave a wide range of answers.

Tim Waters, an associate professor and vegetable specialist with Washington State University Extension, said vegetable fields will get larger and larger, with fewer laborers required per acre. If current weather patterns continue, production areas will shift. Some existing vegetable fields might be covered with homes in 50 years. Wherever vegetables end up being grown there will be a greater emphasis on technology, with more cameras, sensors and highly sophisticated irrigation systems.

Tim Elkner, a Penn State Extension educator, said plants will be more compact and grown at higher densities. There will be substantially greater use of cover crops. Engineered field drainage will greatly reduce standing water and soil erosion. Genetic improvements will make plants more water- and nutrient-efficient.

Changes in climate, labor and consumer attitudes might push food systems to be more regional, said Robert Hadad, a Cornell Cooperative Extension vegetable specialist. Greater emphasis on locally grown will extend seasons, help reduce dependence on imports and contribute to higher prices for crops. Hadad also expects more dedicated habitat areas for pollinators and beneficial insects.

Every aspect of vegetable production will be more precise, said William Lamont, professor of vegetable crops at Penn State University. Seeding and transplanting operations will involve more robotics, and there will be greater use of plasticulture.

Vegetable fields in the future will probably be very industrial, laid out for labor-use efficiency and reduced runoff of fertilizer waste, said Steve Fennimore, a weed specialist with the University of California. Nutrients and tail water will be captured and recycled. There will undoubtedly be more organic production, which will require greater attention to pest management.

Ron Goldy, a vegetable production educator with Michigan State University (MSU) Extension, predicted that many crops currently pollinated by bees will become parthenocarpic (produced without fertilization). There will be more use of compost, which will improve soil quality and better use waste materials. Genetic improvements and protected culture will increase yields. On the other hand, premium specialty markets will develop for heirloom vegetables produced the “old fashioned” way.

Zsofia Szendrei, an MSU associate professor and entomologist, said farmers will increasingly have to deal with climate change, which will probably boost overall pest pressure by allowing a greater number of invasive species with more frequent generations.

Plastic, glass and water

Lamont said more crops will grow under plastic and glass structures and will be irrigated with drip because of its efficiency.

As vegetable and small fruit production systems get ever more intensive, Elkner sees more and more of them growing under greenhouses and tunnels. The combination of greater and more reliable productivity and higher-quality produce will drive the trend.

Waters said the cost of greenhouses and plastic tunnels will be lower, allowing more production in non-traditional areas. Most crops will be irrigated with highly efficient drip or micro sprinklers.

Steve Bogash, a Penn State Extension educator, said plastic mulches will constantly evolve. Some mulches will be compostable. Irrigation tape will last until specialized chemicals or enzymes are introduced to degrade it. He also predicted an increase in water reuse. Even in the mid-Atlantic and Northeast regions, where water is relatively plentiful today, concerns about quality and nutrient pollution will drive growers to highly technical water management systems.

Goldy said fresh vegetables will largely be grown under protection, especially if food safety regulations continue to get stricter. They will be watered from the bottom, with excess water and nutrients recycled. Processed vegetables will continue in field culture, but with vast genetic improvements.

Hadad said the allocation and cost of water will be huge issues. Irrigation will be more advanced and efficient, because in many areas of the country, such as California, water availability will be critical.


Waters said harvest of fruits and vegetables is more mechanized each year. This trend will continue, to the point where few crops will be harvested by hand. Crops that are limited in acreage will be the last to convert to mechanization. Hand weeding in organic production will continue well into the future, however, since duplicating the sophistication of the human eye will be difficult.

Alyssa Collins, director of Penn State’s Southeast Agriculture Research & Extension Center, said we will see a constant evolution in food safety technology, including sensors and related equipment to cull the produce that exceeds accepted tolerances.

Bogash said robots will be able to train, prune and tie tomatoes and peppers, as well as harvest them. Field sensors will monitor water requirements, nutrient and pH levels. These sensors will tie to computer-operated fertigation equipment, which will manage crop nutrient levels on a constant basis.

Goldy said mechanization will increase for some crops, but it will be hard to replace hand labor for something like fresh zucchini, which has to be evaluated for size and cut from the plant. Tomato harvest will be mechanized using color-detecting technology and robotics. In order to aid robotics, plant architecture will be different. This will be accomplished through breeding and improved training. GPS technology will be used to identify and mark areas of the field that need specific help. GPS also will be used to automate field equipment – tractors will be self-driving, for example.

Hadad said new types of monitoring equipment will provide specific, timely data on a crop’s transpiration, water and other needs. Automatic fertigation injectors could kick on at the exact time of need. Mechanization will become more efficient, and perhaps more affordable for things like soil preparation and harvesting.

Lamont said use of robotics will be commonplace. Robots will do the spraying and will be heavily involved in harvesting – those with the newest scanning and computer technology will be able to harvest more efficiently and accurately. Deciding which varieties to grow and in which fields will continue to need the human touch, however. Technological advances we can only imagine will run other tasks.

“Technology that is now in other areas will migrate into vegetable production, and we will see a revolution in the farms of the future,” Lamont said.

Fennimore said we will see more mechanized harvesting, weeding and transplanting. High-value crops for high-end restaurants will still be harvested by hand, however, and tasks such as installing and repairing irrigation systems will be too diverse to mechanize. There will be better disease detection and monitoring – such as sniffers that detect pathogens and drones that scout for insects – for more timely sprays.

Elkner said “executive functions,” such as responding to scouting reports or choosing varieties, will remain a human activity.

Pest control

Waters said weather stations and sophisticated modeling technologies will synchronize pest and pathogen cycles, leading to greater control. More pest control products will be applied via irrigation systems, and the pesticides used will be less toxic and more targeted to specific organisms. Additionally, genetic modification of plants will significantly reduce the amount of pesticides that need to be applied. Monitoring for insects and diseases will be done with cameras with recognition software, observed from a computer or mobile device.

Collins said we can expect real-time pest diagnostics that provide instant analysis, reducing the time between detection and treatment. Drones will be used for scouting, as well as spot-treating fields early enough in an infestation to reduce the need for whole-field applications.

Bogash said use of biological control will increase rapidly, as more and more bacteria, viruses and fungi that can manage pests effectively are identified. Elkner added that biologicals will not only be selected from the wild, but also genetically engineered to increase efficacy and environmental safety.

Goldy said chemical pesticides will be targeted for specific pests. It may also be possible to breed non-virulent pests and release them to breed with the virulent population, thus reducing the threat for some species.

Lamont said “Star Wars-type” technology will monitor pests and diseases, and robots will spray or release beneficial insects as needed.

Fennimore said we will still use pesticides but have more options, such as robotic weed removal and soil-disinfesting devices.

Szendrei said companies are already developing insecticides that interfere with insect genes, and this mode of action could take over traditional chemical pesticides. She hopes monitoring for insects will be more advanced, so that insect management will happen only when needed.

Urban farming

Lamont said the urban agriculture trend will continue to grow, and vertical farming will become more commonplace as technology makes it more efficient and economical.

Goldy said urban farming will change from what it is today – from small, first-time growers to larger industrial approaches using vertical technology for crops that are amenable to it (such as leafy greens). Production areas will be closer to consumption areas, but won’t necessarily be in the inner-city lots we see today. Abandoned factories might be used for vertical farming.

Bogash said urban farming will continue to grow. More rooftops will be utilized, as new construction will include space for produce production. Tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers will be a small part of this trend, but greens of all kinds will be grown ever closer to their markets.

Fennimore also said urban farming will focus on short-cycle crops like leafy greens.

“It’s hard to grow cherries and table grapes in a greenhouse on the rooftops of Manhattan,” Fennimore said.

Technology company Philips is betting on the growth of urban/vertical farming around the world. Philips established an enclosed farm at Japan’s Osaka University last year. The Tokyo facility grows several leafy vegetables and herbs in a multilayer system lit by the company’s GreenPower LED modules. Philips has a similar project in the Netherlands.

Waters said urban farming will be more of a niche for wealthy consumers. Middle- and lower-income families will not be able to afford food grown on a small scale near their homes, unless they grow it themselves. Feeding people with large corporate farms will always be less expensive.

Matt Milkovich

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