South Dakota State University is well known for its leadership in agricultural research and innovation. This work often depends on active collaboration with researchers in other fields. Faculty in the Department of Sociology frequently work with their colleagues at SDSU and other universities on cutting-edge research efforts, including as part of SDSU’s commitment to precision agriculture.
Precision agriculture is a farm management approach that employs data-based agricultural technologies and practices to generate site-specific farm recommendations. Despite potential economic and environmental benefits, precision agriculture’s adoption among farmers has remained low. Seeing the need for enhancing farmers’ trust in precision agriculture, an interdisciplinary group of researchers from SDSU and the University of Vermont came together to investigate responsible innovation in these technologies.
Maaz Gardezi, assistant professor in the Department of Sociology and Rural Studies and affiliate faculty in natural resource management, is one of the principal investigators on a recent National Science Foundation (NSF) grant focused on testing a responsible innovation approach for integration precision agriculture technologies with future farm workers and work. This $3 million grant was awarded in October 2020 and is set to take place over the next four years.
With 26 personnel on the team this collaborative group includes individuals from South Dakota State University and the University of Vermont. Gardezi stated, “The reason we chose Vermont is because very different agriculture is practiced there.” The state of Vermont has more small-scale, organic and dairy farms compared to South Dakota, which gave the project a strong mix of agricultural systems and labor to investigate in relation to precision agriculture.
This project evolved as the result of another smaller grant, also awarded by the NSF. In 2019, a team of 6 investigators, led by Gardezi, conducted a planning grant to scope the overall social and ethical risks and benefits of precision agriculture for the future of agricultural work. “We conducted 6 focus groups and asked people from various walks of life what the future implications, both social and ethical, of precision agriculture might be,” explained Gardezi. The results of this project were then used to develop a proof of concept that would assist in identifying priorities for the current larger grant project.
Currently, Gardezi and the rest of the team are setting up a “living lab,” which have 25 South Dakota farmers and 25 Vermont farmers do experiments. Gardezi said these experiments help identify what preferences and concerns farmers may have when it comes to artificial intelligence (AI) technologies being developed. “It is a bottom-up approach to designing technologies where we learn from users,” stated Gardezi.
This project is providing opportunities for students as well. Gardezi said there are currently 10 graduate students who will be trained over the four years of the project in South Dakota and Vermont. “The graduate students include students from plant science, agriculture and biosystems engineering, computer science, public policy, sociology and others, which creates a unique mix,” stated Gardezi. The goal is to involve undergraduate students in summer programs as well, offering plenty of research and experiential learning opportunities.
Gardezi is hopeful that this project will have a significant impact on South Dakota and Vermont and the future of precision agriculture. “What we are trying to do is establish an incubator for responsible innovation, which is working with these technology developers upstream, helping them make responsible decisions early on in the developing stages of technology instead of much later when the technology is adopted by users,” said Gardezi. The approach of this project is especially unique, as users, organizations and technology developers are all brought into one collaborative conversation about technology development in precision agriculture.
“At the end of this project, we will be able to carefully operationalize what the criteria are for assessing technology,” explained Gardezi. Along with technology assessment criteria, this project will help collect evidence for approaches to enhance the sustainability of agriculture. “At the end of four years, hopefully the models will help farmers reduce the use of nutrients, like fertilizers, or they will be able to increase productivity so there are environmental and economical benefits too.”