It often surprises people to learn that agriculture is the number one commercial employer in Maryland and an industry that statewide produces $2.2B in output each year. The Greater Baltimore region alone has over 3,750 farms spanning 430,000 acres and producing over $400M in output each year.
More widely known is the Region’s top rankings in the science and technology industry, with a #1 national ranking in workforce, and placing among the top three large metropolitan areas in density of workers in six of the most common IT job categories.
The continued growth of these two industries – Ag and IT – is central to the economic health of the Region as a whole. More importantly, over the last decade or so, these sectors have become integrated into a new sector due to the application of technology in farming to improve yield, operating efficiency and profitability for farmers and growers.
AgTech is changing how agriculture operates due to advancements in technologies that are being adopted as “standard operating procedures,” including use of devices such as drones, sensors and AI. Today’s growers are using aerial imaging, temperature and moisture sensors, robots and GPS technology, resulting in operations that are more profitable, efficient, safer and more environmentally friendly. An example of the efficiencies that can be realized is the use of drones to monitor water levels and irrigation leaks or voids from the skies. A grower can identify these issues within a fraction of the time it would take to drive hundreds of acres of crops for a visual inspection.
Rising global population growth results in the need to increase food production. Overlaying the need to preserve natural resources and conserve both land and water results in a dynamic that stresses the very resource-intensive agriculture industry to produce “more and faster.”
Several technological adaptations to farming are focused on addressing this challenging dynamic with the goal of maximizing crop yields while conserving water and land:
- Precision Agriculture: applying artificial intelligence (AI) and the internet of things (IoT) can provide farmers with more precise data that can help them adjust to often unpredictable variables that impact yield
- Robotics and Automation: incorporating these technologies can reduce the manual labor needed for farming, resulting in cost savings as well as increased yield by minizine human error. As noted above, the use of drones to monitor irrigation in water-scarce regions can significantly reduce water usage.
- Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA): commonly known as hydroponics, the cultivation of plants indoors in a water-based solution instead of soil in a controlled indoor environment allows for food production anywhere, anytime, including in urban settings.
An example of hydroponic farming is Gotham Greens, a fresh food and urban agricultural company. The company opened a 100,000-square-foot greenhouse in late 2019 at Tradepoint Atlantic in Baltimore County. Gotham Greens uses hydroponic growing techniques which enable it to supply produce year-round to customers including retailers and restaurants. As reported by the trade publication Progressive Grocer in 2019, “Gotham Green’s produce is grown using hydroponic systems in 100 percent renewable electricity-powered greenhouses that use 95 percent less water and 97 percent less land than conventional farming.”
In Carroll County, Catoctin Hemp is a CBD growing and processing company working with many farmers to help dry, extract, and formulate hemp plants into retail-ready products. An important tech factor in their process is an automated Butane extraction (BHO) machine. With this, the company can set precise recipes and run consistent batches of biomass extraction. The extraction technology allows Catoctin Hemp to capture as much of the plant’s natural profile as possible, resulting in effective, quality products.
Nearby, Catoctin Mtn Growers is a wholesale producer of bedding plants, vegetables, perennials, fall mums, poinsettias, and house plants under a 23-acre, state-of-the-art glass greenhouse. With grant funding from TEDCO, the company recently partnered with a LED lighting company in Maryland to install over 200 LED fixtures in their young plant propagation house. The improvement will allow Catoctin to grow more young plants and increase the quality of more light sensitive plants. They are also developing an outdoor boom to use on late spring annuals and fall mums. An irrigation boom offers many advantages to a greenhouse, but outdoor irrigation booms are a little more difficult and less readily available in the industry. The system Catoctin is developing will have automated irrigation schedules, belts for plant transport, and frost protection in early spring.
AgTech has been amplified in Harford County through the work of Dr. Sharon Stowers, Harford Community College‘s Scholar-in-Residence, in HCC’s agriculture project: Gathering at the Community Table: Celebrating Harford’s Farms and Food. The project created a collation of farmers and nonprofit agencies – the Farmers and Community Partnership of Harford County – to discuss and implement programing and projects for the community. Special projects include a GIS web-based interactive map, The Harford Farm Finder, that allows the public to locate farms in the county and what products they are producing and selling, and the film “Rooted in Agriculture.” In the film, Rick Holloway, of Holloway Brothers Farm, explains how he uses technology to farm: view the film here (film credits: directing and producing: Sharon Stowers, Ph.D., RD; production: Sympatico; film sponsored by: Farmers and Community Partnership of Harford County).
Across the country, investors are taking note of technology advancements that are making inroads into the Agriculture industry. Bloomberg reported that as of the end of 2021, investors had poured a record $7.8 billion into AgTech deals in 2021. They predict that the growing demand for climate-friendly investments, food security and productivity gains will continue to drive investment in start-ups as well as established companies focused on developing tomorrow’s technologies to address today and tomorrow’s food production challenges.
It is clear that Greater Baltimore is well-positioned for the growing AgTech sector to thrive.