One of UMKC’s agriculture experts is a geotechnical engineer who uses a Roomba engine to shake blueberries off plants in her garden.
That, in a nutshell, is Megan Hart, Ph.D.
With two bachelor’s degrees, a master’s degree and a doctorate, Hart knows a thing or two about geology and agriculture. But her academic credentials are bolstered by a personal connection — her family’s farm in Red Bluff, California.
For Hart, an assistant professor in the UMKC School of Computing and Engineering, the changing world of agriculture is bittersweet.
“It’s really awesome to see the advances we’re making in technology, but it’s also really sad,” Hart says. “The history of the United States has been built upon the farmer.”
Her predictions for the future of rural farming hit three topics: higher costs, more automation and larger farms.
Water runoff from farms, Hart explains, contains harmful nitrates that must be filtered out before water is safe to drink. Currently, cities pay the filtering bill, but some water departments are trying to force farmers to use more eco-friendly — and expensive — practices. Those costs could drive up the price of farming and, as a result, the price of food.
Today’s farmers already use robotics — think self-driving combines, weed-pulling robots, pesticides delivered via drone and Hart’s blueberry-picking Roomba. As farms get bigger and are expected to produce more output, those automated processes will become even more important.
Hart describes an increasingly common scenario: A farmer is ready to retire, but either doesn’t have children, or none of those children are interested in taking over the farm. As a result, these retiring farmers hire outside companies to work their land, creating more corporate farms and fewer single-family-owned farms.
As for how to tackle these changes, researchers like Hart are on the frontlines, working on new solutions to make agriculture safer, more efficient and more eco-friendly. Right now, for instance, she is working on a type of permeable concrete that would make filtering nitrates out of farm water much easier and more affordable.
Above all, Hart wants people to know researchers at UMKC are working to stay ahead of the changing agriculture industry.
“We’re here, we understand, and it’s part of our life and our future, too,” she says. “It’s a problem we know we can help solve.”