Taiwan is an agricultural paradox. On the one hand, the subtropical island is ideal for growing anything from avocados to zucchini and is indeed largely self-sufficient in some important crops, say rice. It produces some of the most amazing fruit in the world. Big, juicy, delicious, and largely GMO-free. Anyone who’s ever visited will tell you that vegetables here taste better than almost anywhere else on Earth. Taiwanese farmers already export massive quantities of their world-class produce, primarily to Japan and local consumers are obsessed with taste, quality, and freshness of produce.

On the other hand, terrain and climate are anything but ideal for agriculture. Every year heavy flooding and typhoon winds wreak havoc on plantations; vegetable prices spike in the aftermath. Due to the small sizes of plots and often steep terrain especially in orchards, farming is still a labor-intensive process. Fruit is hand-wrapped while still on the vine, to protect it from all kinds of crawly critters. The climate isn’t just fertile for plants, it also attracts a lot of pests, which means that vegetables often end up in supermarkets with significant amounts of pesticide residue. Washed out over centuries of over-cultivation, Taiwanese soil needs more fertilizer than comparable countries in the same latitude. Finally, the small size of the country means that it will never be home to the kind of mega-farms (and thus economies of scale) that dominate the American Midwest or Canada.

Yet surprisingly, none of that matters, because the future of agriculture looks very different. In the coming decades, in order to feed a growing world population and deal with climate change and popular resistance to GMOs, agriculture will have to change a lot. The days of tilling the soil and relying on armies of immigrant fruit pickers are over; agriculture is increasingly becoming a lot more like manufacturing.

The future is called “smart farming”

What does smart farming need? Whether it is indoors in multi-storey hydroponic farms or small-size plots of land, whether underground cultivation or large-scale warehoused plantations, smart farming needs the following technologies:  solar technology (for energy needs), lighting technology (different plants grow best a different wavelengths), drone technology (modeling of terrain, soil, water, etc.),  IoT (smart sensors), semiconductors (to create those nifty sensors), software, in particular control software and data mining algorithms, and robotics (for planting and harvesting). Guess what? Taiwan is an industry leader in most of these technologies.

Agriculture is increasingly becoming a lot more like manufacturing. No country in the world is better equipped for this change than Taiwan.

Agriculture of the future is happening today. Crops from salads to sorghum can be grown in strictly controlled environments, continuously watched over by sensors and software, with ideal LED lighting, powered by solar energy, and pest-free to boot. Hydroponics and sensors combined allow Californian almond growers to save millions of gallons of waters. A firm in the UK is growing salads and similar leafy crops underground for London’s top restaurants. Not a snail in sight. Growth cycles have been reduced from 21 to 14 days. LED lighting is tuned so that all of the light they provide is used for photosynthesis and nothing wasted.

Automated, vertical farms with optimized soil and micro-climates are springing up from Sydney to Seville. Some employ bacteria and fungi to optimize crops and soil, eliminate pesticides and chemicals, and make the GMO discussion – for some crops at least – irrelevant.

Even outdoors, smart farming can significantly increase yields, lower water consumption and all but eliminate the need for expensive fertilizers and pesticides. Soil and water sensors deliver delicate data, which is mined and used to calculate the exact amount of water each square centimeter of field needs. Drones fly overhead and send back gigabytes of data per second. Intelligent netting deployed by robots keeps out the pests. Other robots automatically identify which strawberries are ripe for the plucking. [1]

Back to Taiwan and the small tech giants. Very few countries in the world are good at producing ALL the ingredients of this “Agriculture 4.0”. It is almost uncanny. Hundreds of Taiwanese companies deliver the components of intelligent farming to the world, from semiconductor chips to drones and robots, but no one on the island itself seems yet to have realized that smart farming could be the biggest money earner for Taiwan in the next years. For crops like wheat, smart farming may increase by 70-80%, experts estimate. But for vegetables and fruits, Taiwan’s main produce apart from rice, yield increase through smart indoor farming could be several hundredfolds. I can’t think of any other country which excels in all the elements of this new industry at once. Within a decade, the tiny island could become one of the largest and most profitable food producers in the world. It’s strategic location and well-developed transportation links mean it is ideally poised to deliver that produce to neighboring and far-flung countries alike.

All the ingredients are present

If all the ingredients are in place, why then hasn’t smart farming taking off? One of the major obstacles is communication. Explaining IoT to electrical engineers is easy. Explaining the benefits of computer technology, data mining, drone watering and vertical farm stacks to traditional farmers is much harder. Even if they are not Luddites, they do not have the skills to manage modern high-tech applications. Farming is often seen as a deeply emotional connection to the land or plant, a bond between humans and nature where technology has no place. This mindset has to change. Agriculture is all about technology. 

Like anywhere around the world, farmers are a dying breed. The next generation hardly ever wants to toil in the fields like their forefathers. They study at Chiao Tung University and dream of working for TSMC & Co. Bizarrely, Taiwan produces thousands of electrical engineers, semiconductor specialists and robotics wizards every year, a workforce ideally poised to modernize agriculture on the island. Switching Taiwan’s agriculture from traditional to smart will guarantee thousands of jobs for the coming decades while keeping the technology skill sets Taiwan is good at firmly established in the country. The farmer of the future, after all, is a data engineer.

The farmer of the future is a data engineer.

For smart farming to succeed, farmers have to see the benefits of sensors, drone surveillance, artificial intelligence, modeling techniques, indoor farming and computer-controlled irrigation and fertilizing. For that to happen, the language of technology has to change. It’s a fairly simple obstacle to overcome, but it needs smart guidance from government, private industry, and agricultural experts alike. Planners must stop regarding agriculture as a long-ago stepping stone in the country’s spectacular rise to prosperity, but an integral part of its future economy.

The farmer of the future is an electrical engineer and AI specialist.

According to European studies, investment in modern machinery, sensors, IoT etc. pays off quickly by increased yields and massively lower labor costs. Generous government subsidies and a big push for technological understanding in the agricultural industry are necessary to help the transition along. Young farmers, the EUrActiv initiative for smart farming says, need to be trained not in traditional farming but in software and IoT. Yet talk to graduates of tech universities and hardly anyone thinks of farming as their future. Farming is still perceived as backward and dirty, hard labor in the burning sun. That’s no longer true. Smart farming is all about air-conditioned labs, computers, and robots picking, inspecting and wrapping fruit much better than humans can. The best-paying tech jobs of the future may well be right back home on the farm.

Taiwan is already one of the most successful food producers in the world, despite the drawbacks of soil erosion, sinking water tables, and extreme climate. Merging its prowess in electrical engineering, semiconductors, drones and robotics with the Taiwanese farmer’s natural pride for producing the biggest, best and juiciest fruit and vegetables could make Taiwan and countries like it one of the world’s largest and food producers.

[1] Sources: The Economist, Technology Quarterly June 11, et. al.