The Future of the Farm

Forward-thinking farmers, researchers, and entrepreneurs work to make agriculture more profitable and sustainable in Georgia and beyond.
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Photography by Stephanie Eley, Illustrations by Aldo Crusher

 

Knapp Boddiford’s ranch-style house sits on a slight rise in the earth, overlooking some of the 2,300 acres where he and his father grow peanuts, corn, and cotton in Screven County, 25 miles north of Statesboro. It’s here, on a computer in his kitchen, that the seventh-generation farmer analyzes data from the fields.

Boddiford is part of a growing contingent of farmers achieving greater results by combining innovative technology with time-honored agricultural traditions. 

On a sunny December morning, he sits in front of a large monitor and logs into Trimble, an agricultural data management program. He pulls up the map he created with his GPS-equipped tractor. Each colored section of the kaleidoscopic map represents a different management zone, meaning each responds differently to water, fertilizer, and seed because of its soil type, elevation, and grade.

He clicks again and colorful stripes appear. These are Veris readings, taken from testing the soil’s electroconductivity. “Higher moisture, quicker electroconductivity,” he explains, looking up from the screen. “The darker spots are heavy soil. Pink is light and sandy.”

With the AgSense app to control his irrigation system, Knapp Boddiford can devote a little more time to Koda the dog.

It’s quiet season at Boddiford Farms, a time to prepare for spring planting. Two farmhands are up the road replacing chains on the peanut combine, a 20,000-pound machine that harvests 25 acres a day. Winter is also the season when the Boddifords study data to inform their decisions on planting, watering, fertilizing, and spraying. 

Boddiford sends soil samples to the University of Georgia annually and receives a detailed nutrient report, along with the university’s recommended treatments—applications like nitrogen, phosphate, and lime. He uploads the data to his zone map, syncs it to the computer in the cockpit of his spreader, and starts the engine. The machine reacts to the map, stopping, starting, and slowing its output, according to the data. It’s one of the many technologically advanced tools at his disposal that were unavailable just 25 years ago.

“You’re getting very precise,” he says, pointing to a strip of green on the screen. “That’s only 75 feet wide, but if you treat it as that was treated,”—he points to the red zone next to it—”you wouldn’t be using that soil to its fullest potential.”

The Boddifords rotate crops—peanuts one year, corn the next, then cotton—to maintain soil health and reduce erosion. Boddiford can also sync the map to the planter, telling it how many seeds to lay in a zone, based on its growing potential. The GPS-equipped John Deere grain combine and cotton picker, which retail new around $630,000 and $1.1 million respectively, measure yield as they go, creating another data layer. The knowledge of the land he garners by analyzing these layers enables him to run the farm more efficiently, lowering costs, reducing environmental impact, and increasing output. 

In 2019, after using soil sensors to confirm one zone was overly moist, he installed drain tiles—perforated pipes that help soil displace excess moisture—and increased corn yield from 50 bushels per acre to 250. “That was some of the best yield I had in the whole field,” he says. 

Knapp Boddiford with his GPS-equipped John Deere grain combine.

From timber to cotton, poultry to peanuts, agriculture is Georgia’s number 1 industry. Chris Chammoun, director of agriculture technology at the Georgia Department of Economic Development’s Georgia Center of Innovation, has been aiding the industry for years, increasing awareness of Georgia Grown products, recruiting ag-tech companies from other states, and working as a liaison between university researchers and farm agribusinesses of every kind. 

Two areas dominate agriculture technology, he says: integrated precision agriculture (the use of data and automation in commercial row crop farms) and controlled environment agriculture (greenhouses and other indoor growing facilities).

This wealth of farming, combined with a growing population, skilled workforce, and innovative research from several state universities, makes Georgia a hotbed of agricultural technology, Chammoun says. Affordability is another major factor according to Chammoun, who referenced lower taxes, competitive wages, and fewer regulations than some other ag-forward states like California.

 

A Trellis soil moisture sensor with a rain gauge in a row of Georgia peanuts

Maximizing the Outdoors 

Variable rate irrigation, a crucial element of integrated precision ag in use across the globe, was developed by University of Georgia researchers in the early 2000s. A farmer with a modern, center-pivot irrigation system can water the areas that need it, rather than the whole field—all from a smartphone.

The system reacts to data collected by soil sensors. One producer, Trellis, is based in Peachtree Corners. In 2015 founder Liz Buchen, a Georgia Tech aerospace engineering grad who comes from a family of North Dakota wheat farmers, identified a need for affordable, easy-to-use sensors. She found her stride working with universities, especially the University of Georgia’s C.M. Stripling Irrigation Research Park in Tifton.

“When farmers try something new, they want to know that the university in their state has tried it and given it a seal of approval,” she says. 

Now, Trellis has users in 25 states. Farmers report increased yields of 10 to 30 percent and irrigation costs lowered by as much as half. A solar-powered Trellis base station at the edge of the field regularly collects temperature and moisture data from sensors and then uploads it to the cloud, where a farmer can access it from anywhere. Farmers can rent Trellis sensors for $125 a month. It’s a welcome upgrade from earlier, more expensive models whose data must be read with a dedicated handheld device. “Younger farmers taking over their parents’ farms adopt the technology very quickly,” says Trellis’s director of business development, Peter Knezevich. “They’re not going to go into a cornfield in the middle of June with a hand reader.”

But moisture is just one variable in a farmer’s information matrix. The next step, Buchen says, is data integration, “so that farmers don’t have to open so many apps.” Trellis is working with T-L Irrigation Company, a major manufacturer of pivot irrigation systems, and John Deere’s Operations Center, a farm management software application that allows farmers to manage their entire operation.

 

Trellis found Liz Buchen at the company’s Peachtree Corners headquarters

Cultivating Indoors

“In Georgia we can grow from the mountains down to the coast,” says Chammoun. “A to Z—apples to zucchini—I always say.” One thing that’s missing, he notes, are leafy greens. Nearly all of the country’s lettuce is grown in California and Arizona. If you’re eating a salad in Georgia, he says, chances are it was shipped here from the West Coast. 

That could soon change, thanks to innovative growing methods. In a climate not conducive to large-scale lettuce row cropping, controlled environment agriculture provides a solution. Plus, instead of one lettuce crop a year, you get 12. 

The potential is huge, according to Grant Anderson of Better Fresh Farms in Metter. “My idea was to create year-round access to local food,” he says, standing in front of five temperature-controlled shipping containers modified to grow leafy greens. 

Inside his climate- and light-controlled “farms,” vertical rows of lettuce, kale, and collards reach peak flavor without risk of blight, drought, flood, or contamination. Situated in a warehouse in a county with 25,000 acres of traditional Georgia row crops, Better Fresh Farms stands at the crossroads of established and unprecedented agriculture. “I’m not putting another lettuce farm out of business,” Anderson says. “I thought I could fill a gap that’s not being met in Georgia, and become a source for hydroponic information.”

Better Fresh grows food hydroponically, meaning without soil. Nutrients are applied via water, in a process that uses 90 percent less of it than row cropping. “There’s no runoff, no chemical applications. You’re never going to see anything leaching into the local water system,” Anderson says.

His company supplies greens to restaurants in Savannah and Bluffton, South Carolina, and to several South Georgia specialty grocers. The Candler County school system and Candler County Hospital are customers. So is Metter’s IHS Pharmacy lunch counter. “If you want produce and like what we do, and you’re within about 200 miles, we’ll come to you,” he says. 

In a city-owned storage building off Main Street, he’s spent the past two and a half years farming in shipping containers outfitted to grow food hydroponically. Running full tilt, a single, 40-foot container can yield an acre’s worth of lettuce in a year. That’s 12,000 pounds of salad.

With grants and investor funding, Anderson hopes to fill the 7,000-square-foot space with container farms designed for maximum efficiency. In Better Fresh Farms, he sees a way to invigorate the local economy and put better, fresher food on plates around the state. He’s grown more than 75 varieties of produce—everything from eggplant to chervil—but primarily rotates eight varieties of lettuce, three varieties of kale, collard greens, mustard greens, and radishes.

The Georgia Grown Innovation Center, an incubator for agribusinesses, anchors the other half of the building. It’s a partnership between the City of Metter, Georgia Southern University’s Business Innovation Group, and Georgia Grown, a state-backed marketing effort to increase awareness of products grown or made here. It was created to support agribusiness entrepreneurs like Anderson, and its client list provides a snapshot of just how many kinds of businesses the industry encompasses: a logistics company, a skincare line, a cattle ranch and butcher shop, a chef, a florist, a cookie bakery, and a commercial apiary. 

Head grower Miguel Puebla at Pure Flavor’s greenhouse in Fort Valley

Metter is Georgia’s first Georgia Grown City, and, Chammoun hopes, a model for melding the state’s agriculture history and its future, which has exciting prospects.

One-hundred miles west, one of the South’s most innovative greenhouses rises from a former soybean field in Peach County. It’s phase one of a $105 million, 75-acre growing facility and distribution center owned by the Ontario-based company Pure Flavor.

Massive greenhouses like this, where temperature, irrigation, nutrition, and light are precisely controlled, allow for commercial-scale farming year round. Inside Pure Flavor’s greenhouse, tomato plants dig their roots into pulverized coconut husks while a sophisticated water recycling system transfers excess moisture to other plants, reducing waste. Twelve months of the year in Fort Valley, Pure Flavor grows long English cucumbers and tomatoes on the vine for distribution across the South.

 

“The ability to include a high-tech operation, nestled in between peach trees, pecan trees, and an extensive variety of row crops, demonstrates how adding an additional layer to the agricultural economy can further strengthen the region,” says Chris Veillon, Pure Flavor’s chief marketing officer.

Long English cucumbers growing at Pure Flavor’s greenhouse in Fort Valley

Other greenhouse growers have made similar investments in Georgia in the past few years. Last year, North America’s largest greenhouse lettuce grower, Minnesota-based Revol Greens, acquired Athens, Georgia-based BJ’s Produce, its first-ever East Coast greenhouse. Also in 2021, California-based Pete’s solidified plans to open an $18 million farm in Warner Robins. “It’s advancing faster than I think anyone saw,” says Chammoun.

But Georgia will always be predominantly a row crop state, he notes. “To put it in perspective, we grow about a million and a half acres of cotton,” he says, behind Texas’ 5 million acres. “We’re the largest peanut-growing state, with about 800,000 acres of peanuts. Pure Flavor, which is the largest controlled environmental ag facility in Georgia, is 25 acres.” In Georgia’s diverse ag ecosystem, there’s room for both traditional and next-generation growing methods.

Innovative technology and the rapidly changing ways in which we grow food are proof, according to Chammoun: “Farming’s not just a guy on a tractor.” 

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