For more than 10,000 years, farmers have had the responsibility to feed the world. But at an accelerating pace, that job is getting bigger and more challenging.
Farmers need to find ways to produce more food, and do it with fewer resources, says J.B. Penn, chief economist for John Deere.
The United Nations projects the world’s population will reach 9.7 billion people by 2050, about 2.4 billion more mouths to feed than there are today.
“Everyone’s going to have to produce more food, in every part of the world,” says Penn. He estimates global agricultural output will have to increase by as much as 70% in the next 35 years.
The challenge: Feeding the world with fewer resources
Farmers everywhere will have fewer resources. They will have less land, as farmland is lost to development each year. Also, as the residential and industrial demand for water increases, farmers will have to make do with less.
But more than anything else, farmers worry about the lack of skilled labor. “All over the world, farmers tell us that this is their greatest concern, Penn says. “Urbanization is depleting much of the skilled labor in rural areas.”
That presents both a challenge and an opportunity for John Deere, according to Penn. “Farmers have to buy tractors instead of hiring people,” he says. But he added it’s not as simple as selling tractors.
Meeting the needs of a diverse, global customer base can be difficult. In the advanced economies of North America, South America, and Europe, farms tend to be very large and technologically sophisticated. In the emerging economies of Africa and Asia, most farms are much smaller, and farmers are generally poorer and with less access to technology.
“We have to make the most efficient machines for a farmer with 1,000 or more acres, while at the same time developing products for farmers with just a few acres,” Penn says.
For farmers in North America, South America, and Europe, incremental improvements are the key. This is where precision agriculture systems, like what John Deere offers, are having a positive influence. “We have guidance systems and data-enabled farming that allows farmers to be very efficient with seeds, pesticides, and fertilizer,” says Penn.
The opportunity: Helping Smallholder Farmers Overcome Barriers
For farmers in emerging economies, the challenge is very different. Though the farms are much smaller, there is opportunity for exponential increases in productivity. Farmers often use primitive methods, producing very low yields. “A smallholder farmer may be producing only 1.5 tons of maize per hectare today, but the potential is to produce up to 10 tons,” Penn says.
However, according to Penn, smallholder farmers face many barriers to achieving that potential. “Besides needing improved technology, these farmers lack access to support systems such as extension and market information services and often, basic infrastructure is lacking,” he says. He adds that many face other challenges too, such as access to financing, limited business acumen, and in some cases even illiteracy.
To overcome these barriers, John Deere is taking a different approach. “We’ve modified our business model and are training our customers,” says Penn, “not only on how to use and service a machine, but also basic agronomics and farm business management.”
Working hand-in-hand with nonprofit organizations like TechnoServe, John Deere is helping to train farmers on modern agricultural practices. “We teach them how to manage two crops, proper fertilization, and correct harvesting,” says Penn. Through the Deere Smallholder Council, the company also helps farmers gain access to affordable financing and sets up mentoring programs so farmers can help each other.
As the issue of hunger grows along with the population, Penn believes that companies like John Deere will need to support the smallholder farmers in developing nations, as well as the large, advanced farmers. “We need to look across the entire spectrum,” he concludes. “We are trying to serve farmers all over the world and help them to be more efficient and productive.”
A smallholder farmer may be producing only 1.5 tons of maize per hectare today, but the potential is to produce up to 10 tons.”