Courtesy of Cornell University

Researchers from many different departments are collaborating in the new Initiative for Digital Agriculture.

March 7, 2019

Digital Agriculture Initiative Breaks Ground

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Humanity is facing a difficult challenge: to “feed an estimated global population of 10 billion people by 2050,” states the website for the Cornell Initiative for Digital Agriculture, an initiative that hopes to tackle this challenge through sustainability and digital innovation.

The initiative is one of Provost Michael Kotlikoff’s eight “radical collaborations” — task forces that promote interdepartmental cooperation on modern issues. The CIDA Task Force is directed by Prof. Susan McCouch Ph.D. ’90, plant breeding and genetics, and combines agriculture with computer and information science through events such as hackathons.

“Dairy barns in our region are already heavily instrumented with censors and automation, but they struggle to make that worth the capital expense,” said Abe Stroock ’95, the Gordon L. Dibble ’50 Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering and co-associate director of the initiative.

“[By] taking the computer science method, [these initiatives] help to streamline and make more efficient the operations that are absolutely part of New York agriculture,” Stroock continued.

CIDA, which was launched last year, has active involvement from the College of Agriculture and Life Science, the College of Veterinary Medicine and the College of Engineering. The initiative hosted its first hackathon this weekend, with sponsors including Microsoft, Cargill and the Dairy Farmers of America.

And, as digital agriculture develops, Cornell hopes to continue pioneering the field.

“There are other universities that have digital [agriculture] coordinated programs, but nothing like ours,” McCouch said. 

McCouch said that Cornell’s Ivy-league status and range of highly-ranked colleges are essential to the future of agriculture.

“Having [all of the colleges] on this campus is exceptionally favorable for the kinds of interactions we’re trying to foment here, and the fact that we have full buy in and support from four Deans and the Provost, and that we’re now being pitched as the most exciting thing on campus by even some of the Provost’s offices, speaks a lot to how excited people are,” McCouch said.

Prof. Hakim Weatherspoon, computer science, cited CS 5412: Topics in Cloud Computing, which he said saw enrollment increase by more than 50 percent this year. Weatherspoon, part of CIDA’s leadership, attributed this increase to the digital agriculture initiative and the enthusiasm surrounding the topic.

“We’ve seen excitement at the undergraduate, masters, and the Ph.D. level as well,” Weatherspoon said.

Emma Volk ’19, who studies international agriculture and rural development in CALS, said that although she does not work with CIDA, she appreciates the vision. 

“I have yet to come across a research project that could not benefit from a multidisciplinary team,” Volk said. “You need people with the technical skills, the agricultural knowledge, and the first-hand knowledge and I am happy to see that there is a push to bring people with unique backgrounds together and develop solutions for farmers.”

However, Volk also stressed the significance of recognizing that “achieving these goals requires focus on individual communities and farmers.”

“One solution does not apply to every person or community,” Volk said. “It is important to keep in mind that there are multiple strategies that farms and communities have to consider in order to feed the growing global population.”

For those who are interested in studying digital agriculture, the future looks bright.

“I think it’s fair to say in CIDA we now are launching a curriculum committee and going to be developing and exploring ideas for expanding curriculum,” said Prof. Steven Wolf, natural resources, a member of CIDA’s leadership team.

Eventually, Wolf continued, that might take the form of a formalized major or minor in digital agriculture.

Additionally, the unique combination of agriculture and engineering is designed to help students entering the workforce.

“I really wish this was around when I was a freshman because I could have really benefited,” said Caroline Motzer ’19, who studies agriculture sciences. Motzer said she is struggling to find jobs she is interested in and qualified for based on her Cornell experience.

“Getting involved in this initiative will help undergrads in both the agriculture community and the engineering community be prepared for careers past college,” Motzer said.