In 2021, iSEE helped establish the I-FARM, securing seed-funding through the Campus as a Living Laboratory program. The project was later fully funded in 2022, thanks to a three-year, $3.9 million grant from USDA NIFA.
Naveen Uppalapati, a National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) Research Scientist on the I-FARM Operating Team offers answers to some Frequently Asked Questions about the I-FARM.
What is the I-FARM?
The I-FARM, short for Illinois Farming and Regenerative Management, is an 80-acre agricultural testbed funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) for three years and $3.9 million. I-FARM researchers test new synergistic, sustainable, and regenerative practices for growing commodity crops and raising livestock.
I-FARM researchers will begin to study the implementation and adoption of novel farm management practices enabled by a wide range of digital technologies developed at the University of Illinois. These technologies include autonomous robots and remote sensing powered by artificial intelligence. Before I-FARM technologies can be brought to production farming, researchers must evaluate their benefits in production settings and mitigate any costs or risks.
How can autonomous robots help farmers?
The I-FARM’s autonomous robots can aid in cover crop planting and spot reseeding, scout under the crop canopy, implement variable rate nutrient management, and perform mechanical weeding. Additionally, they can assist with pest monitoring, targeting spraying, and harvesting delicate crops such as berries.
I-FARM researchers envision that low-cost, compact, and intelligent agricultural robots will enable the large-scale adoption of sustainable farming practices. This research project aims to make robots more accessible and profitable for farmers.
What technology does the I-FARM use to collect data?
From satellite remote sensing to proximal soil moisture sensors, the I-FARM employs a large variety of data collection technology. Stationary trail cameras collect dense temporal data about canopy structure and leaf color, while drones capture images from above the field. Along with traditional data collection, I-FARM robots collect plant trait data and are equipped with cameras for the precision management of livestock.
How do researchers measure the success of I-FARM experiments?
For an I-FARM experiment to be successful, it should improve sustainability on the farm while remaining practical for farmers. This past year, researchers measured the impact of autonomous cover crop planting (cereal rye) before the harvest of the commodity crop (corn). The success of this experiment will be based on how well the cover crop emerges and reduces soil erosion compared to traditional planting on cover crops after the commodity crop is harvested.
In the long run, the I-FARM aims to develop a team of autonomous robots that a single person can operate simultaneously. This will increase the efficiency of using the robots for individual farmers.
What are the deliverables of the I-FARM project for farmers?
The I-FARM offers demonstration days for farmers to meet with researchers, engineers, economists, and farm managers who study our testbed. Farmers can interact with autonomous robots, advanced equipment, and computational systems. Demonstration days provide farmers with detailed information on how the technology works and how it integrates sustainability and profitability.
As part of I-FARM outreach efforts, researchers are developing a multi-faceted training program called I-FARM University. This program aims to familiarize farmers with AI-based digital agriculture technologies and increase their comfort with the testing and adoption of these technologies.
What are the deliverables of the I-FARM project for industry?
I-FARM researchers hope to commercialize the digital technologies developed on our testbed. The I-FARM testbed is open for collaboration with outside industries so those industries can utilize our team’s technology, equipment, space, and expertise.
What barriers exist to the adoption of I-FARM solutions?
A significant hurdle for the I-FARM team to overcome is the current cost of implementing these technological solutions. Much of the technology employed by the I-FARM is not produced in bulk or available commercially. If we can scale these technologies up, they will become more affordable for farmers.
The other complication is that the new technologies developed at the I-FARM testbed are constantly improving and evolving monthly (or even daily). Because of this, farmers looking to implement our solutions face a steep learning curve.
How do we incentivize people to adopt I-FARM solutions?
Many farmers understand the benefits of regenerative and sustainable farming practices but need assistance adopting novel digital technologies. More farmers will become comfortable with the new technology through I-FARM outreach and engagement.
Our technologies are also scale-neutral, meaning they are beneficial at both small scales and large scales. Therefore, farmers can try out the technology in a small portion of their farms first and then adopt it to more significant portions of their fields.
Additionally, the I-FARM plans to create a decision support system by providing fact sheets based on data collected from the I-FARM testbed. This system will explain regenerative practices’ long-term costs and benefits to encourage more farmers to implement them. The data will be available online and promoted at events attended by the I-FARM team.
How will I-FARM research impact conventional agriculture practices?
Our team hopes that conventional agriculture will be redefined so that environmental health — from soils to ecosystems — is as highly valued as crop yield. Hopefully, many more farmers will adopt digital technology to enhance regenerative farming practices.
What's next for the I-FARM?
Thanks to the new NIFA grant, the I-FARM will incorporate more regenerative practices powered by digital agriculture on the testbed. Over the next two years, the team will collect reliable long-term data to fully evaluate the testbed experiments’ success. Researchers will focus on improving I-FARM technology, making it more robust and accessible to farmers.
I-FARM researchers hope to involve more industry and farm stakeholders in our experiments, and technology development, to implement sustainable management decisions, improve farm productivity, and enhance farm profitability.
— Article by iSEE Communications Intern Lucy Nifong