Elon Musk’s satellite army has a new target: Connecting the $183 billion farm industry to high-tech ag tools

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Elon Musk’s high-flying SpaceX is expanding into a partnership with a decidedly grounded company: John Deere. Deere, one of the biggest names in American farming, plans to start offering Starlink-enabled farm equipment later this year, to give rural farmers better access to high-tech farming methods.

American farmers are increasingly relying on so-called “precision agriculture” tools to more efficiently grow, harvest and process crops: think self-driving tractors and pesticide-spraying drones. But unreliable internet access – which is especially pervasive in rural agricultural areas – helps keep almost three-quarters of American farms from taking advantage of the tech, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Precision agriculture tools are a key innovation in modern industrial farming. Automating labor-intensive tasks, such as planting and harvesting, means farmers can spend less time out in the field. Increased automation makes agriculture more profitable and reduces environmental impacts. And downstream, consumers benefit in the form of safer food and better tracing where their food is sourced from. 

“With improved connectivity via satellites, farmers will be able to work more efficiently and productively, reduce downtime, and coordinate among machines for more efficient use of resources,” wrote Mike Kool, senior product manager of connected fleet at John Deere, in an email to Fortune.

Starlink, a division of SpaceX, maintains a network of thousands of low-orbit satellites able to provide internet access almost anywhere on Earth. It’s been in the news recently due to its strategic importance to the Ukrainian military. (And, controversially, Musk’s alleged decision to temporarily cut off access in order to stop a Ukrainian missile attack last year, which Musk denies.) 

Starlink has become one of the crown jewels under SpaceX’s umbrella. It earned $1.4 billion in revenues in 2022, up from just $222 million the year prior, and it’s reportedly on the cusp of landing major contracts with the Pentagon. That track record has helped send SpaceX’s rumored private valuation to around $175 billion, higher than any IPO valuation in American history. 

Courtesy of Deere & Company

A company known for space travel and another synonymous with farming make for an unexpected business partnership – but they’re both cashing in on growing interest in farming tech that hopes to revitalize a shrinking agriculture sector. Last year, the U.S. for the first time imported more food than it exported, according to the USDA, while the number of American farms  has fallen over 70 percent from its historical peak. Federal officials are hopeful that large-scale adoption of precision agriculture tools will boost agricultural production and help mitigate climate risks.

“The continuing strength of the U.S. agriculture sector will be guided by sound public policy that encourages greater adoption of agriculture technology,” reads a November FCC report about broadband access for farmers. “Meaningful funding and effort must be invested towards increasing on-farm connectivity, climate-smart agriculture and sustainable productivity.”

JC Schemper runs a harvesting business out of Holdredge, Nebraska, operating from Texas to Montana. Farmers who grow more crops than they can harvest on their own contract with Schemper to do that work for them. Using precision agriculture tools, Schemper can remotely control his fleet of nine combines, 20 trucks and six grain carts from anywhere with a cell connection. He demoed the new Starlink-enabled Deere machines last summer.

“Before, I might have had a gap for one of my trucks at a place in the field with no cell signal,” said Schemper. “With Starlink, I was able to see exactly where everybody was at all the time … I could sit on my combine underneath the Starlink atop my cab, and I can read my emails. I can look at the weather. I can do Facebook, TikToks, whatever.”

SpaceX did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

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