Artificial intelligence is key to the evolution of Florida agriculture

Modern Robot with artificial intelligence harvest organic plants in an urban greenhouse. New technologies in agriculture
Agriculture is one industry that relies on innovation.

While much of the focus this Session has been on regulating emerging technologies, the budget season is an opportunity to invest in research and new technology that can help solve significant challenges we face as a state.

Agriculture is one industry that relies on innovation. Given the sector’s importance to our domestic food supply and national security, investment in research and technology for agriculture is essential.

“The long-term sustainability of Florida agriculture is dependent on emerging technologies and innovations. Through research, we can identify solutions to address farmers’ greatest challenges, like increased productivity, environmental stewardship, workforce shortages, and emerging pests and diseases,” says Chair of the Florida Ag Coalition Jim Spratt.

Last year, the Florida Legislature invested roughly $10 million in the University of Florida Institute for Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF|IFAS) Center for Artificial Intelligence. The center is a research hub exploring how artificial intelligence (AI) can be used to strengthen the state’s agriculture industry. The state’s premier land grant institution is pursuing another tranche of funds this Session to continue this important work.

“The Florida Legislature’s continued support for AI research through UF|IFAS is a smart investment in the evolution of agriculture and the future of Florida. We must continue to foster innovation and embrace new technologies with policies that advance -not hinder -the American entrepreneurial spirit.”

In the Sunshine State, agriculture is a $160 billion industry that supports more than 2 million jobs. Florida agriculture is critical to our national security as the primary source of fresh produce for American families on the East Coast during winter. Without Florida farmers, Americans would depend on foreign countries for the essentials we need the most.

Generally, small, independent farmers cannot afford to invest in research and technology alone, but they can benefit immensely from UF’s research. Continued funding for the center is integral to the long-term sustainability of the Florida ag.

To learn more about AI and ag, Florida Politics asked five questions of Dr. Damian Adams, Ph.D., association dean and professor in the Office of Dean for Research and the Florida Agricultural Experiment Station. His specialty is artificial intelligence.

  1. Floridians don’t always think of agriculture as “high-tech.” In what ways is agriculture using emerging technologies?

UF/IFAS faculty are harnessing artificial intelligence (AI), digital farming practices (e.g., using advanced sensors), robotics and other high-tech tools to solve common grower problems. We are working to address labor shortages through automated harvesting, new pests and diseases through machine vision and hyperspectral imaging coupled with AI, and the constant need to reduce costs and stay ahead of market shifts with AI-assisted advanced precision plant and animal breeding that is much faster than traditional methods and addressing other production challenges using advanced digital twin modeling.

UF has hired more than 110 faculty members in AI — 16 in UF/IFAS alone — and UF has the world’s fastest supercomputer in higher education. Many Florida producers will look to advanced agricultural technologies (AgTech) to improve their competitiveness and address their most pressing problems, and we believe UF/IFAS will be leading the way in providing those solutions.

Some current examples include a technology that uses aerial and ground images and analyzes them to find and control pests and diseases; a system that separates ripe versus bruised fruit and counts fruit trees for insurance purposes, dramatically reducing the time to file crop insurance claims; and an ‘invisible fence’ to keep cattle on ranches, manage where the cattle are grazing, and allows wildlife to cross freely, but cattle stay put.

  1. Ag has faced significant challenges in recent years, from the spread of pests and disease to labor shortages. How is AI helping this critical industry overcome these challenges?

The warm, humid weather we face in Florida brings on a plethora of pests and pathogens. AI plays a significant role in how farmers deal with those pests and diseases. For example, AI technology is used to control weeds, help breed new, disease- and pest-resistant varieties, and improve the design of production systems that are more resilient to disease and pest threats.

Growers also use precision weed sprayers, which ensure they target only the weeds. This saves the grower money and time and also minimizes herbicide use. Labor shortages are a major challenge that can be addressed in part through automation, including AI-assisted robotic systems and advanced AI-assisted simulations to improve the design of production systems and using AI to predict harvest windows and labor needs, which can help with scheduling the right amount of labor at the right time.

  1. What are the emerging technologies UF is currently researching that we can expect to see put into practice over the coming years?

UF/IFAS researchers already have many new tools in the field, such as Agroview, which uses aerial and ground images and AI-based modeling to predict citrus yield harvest with 98% accuracy.

We have faculty focusing on precision ag and robotics, developing ways to care for crops more effectively using less labor. Our plant breeding team is busy developing accelerated precision breeding methods to bring new varieties to the market earlier. This is important because new cultivars can offer growers crop benefits like disease resistance and higher yield. We have projects that are tackling post-harvest problems like product decay. The effect for the consumer is to have more fresh vegetable options in the store.

AI can even be used to help develop better flavor in crop varieties. By learning flavor preferences and what factors contribute to them, models can be built to predict what varieties consumers would be more likely to buy. Better-tasting foods are arguably among the most important attributes for consumers, making the flavor an essential target for researchers.

The UF/IFAS Launching Innovative Faculty Teams in Artificial Intelligence (LIFT AI) grant program features a wide variety of projects looking into the future of agriculture.

More information here.

  1. Fear often surrounds the unknown. How would you respond to those who fear the implementation of AI across Florida’s agriculture industry?

The world is changing at a fast pace — too fast, it seems. AI and robotics certainly are part of that change. Recent advances in computing power, data availability, and connectivity have heightened the potential for AI to drive significant changes throughout society, including how we grow food. The disruptive potential of AI is difficult to overstate. I’ve heard it said that AI is today what the internal combustion engine was in 1900 or the computer in 1960. Significant changes are coming, and UF/IFAS faculty are ready to harness the power of AI and focus it on positively solving real-world agricultural problems and helping our producers stay ahead of the challenges on the horizon.

  1. How does government support UF’s research in AI for Florida’s agriculture industry?

Florida’s support of agricultural research has enabled many of the innovations we have discussed here to move forward. However, research takes many forms. For example, current research is helping to update fertilizer rate recommendations for major crops all over the state to maximize harvests and right-sizing amounts used.

There are a wide variety of funding programs at federal agencies that can support our AI work, notably including the USDA, the National Science Foundation (focused more on fundamental discoveries than application), the U.S. Department of Energy (biofuels), and the U.S. Department of Commerce (workforce development). We also rely on state and direct support from commodity and industry groups for much of our work.

Leaning into AI and AgTech is a heavy lift, but we have great partners, and UF/IFAS faculty and stakeholders are up to the task.

Peter Schorsch

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises Media and is the publisher of, INFLUENCE Magazine, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. Previous to his publishing efforts, Peter was a political consultant to dozens of congressional and state campaigns, as well as several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella. Follow Peter on Twitter @PeterSchorschFL.


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