URBANA, Ill. (WCIA) — Seven months ago, the University of Illinois was named the recipient of a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant to develop a “farm of the future. The signature feature of this farm is that it utilizes robots to assist humans in farming.

Now, the USDA is providing more money to U of I for additional research into cover crops.

U of I receives grant after competitive process

The university received $3.9 million from the USDA last summer to develop the farm, called Illinois Farming and Regenerative Management (I-FARM). The project will last for three years and will develop an 80-acre agricultural testbed to grow commodity crops like corn and soybeans along with livestock using synergistic and sustainable practices.

The process for receiving funding from the USDA was extremely competitive, with only one grant being awarded in the entire nation.

“This grant is a major endorsement of our growing strengths in digital ag,” said co-investigator Vikram Adve, a professor of computer science.

Adve’s co-investigator is Girish Chowdhary, an Associate Professor of Agricultural and Biological Engineering and Computer Science. He said in an interview with WCIA in August that the farm is also meant to address a labor shortage in agriculture.

“Labor is a major bottleneck for adoption of sustainable practices,” he said. “Even though we don’t feel that with corn because it is highly mechanized, it has replaced a lot of the most sustainable methods like mechanical weeding with a lot of chemicals. So, we are hoping if we can address the labor bottleneck then we can be more sustainable in the way we farm.”

Chowdhary added that the farm will accelerate the development of technologies and bring them to market faster.

“We will accelerate creation, maturation and adoption of new management technologies that are fundamentally more sustainable, profitable, affordable and scale-neutral,” he said. “The new practices will be enabled by maturing digital agriculture technologies developed in wide-ranging research efforts at the University of Illinois.”

Chowdhary said there were goals already laid out for some specific technologies to be developed on the farm.

“For the farm of the future, with our partners, we expect to launch and commercialize things like cover crop-planting robots and Internet of things for sensing farms and new types of communication technology that will make it easier to get high bandwidth data at the farm, even though you are in the middle of nowhere,” he said. “We are talking about three to five years. We can’t really wait.”

Cover crop planting was one of three key things Chowdhary said the farm would focus on, and the USDA is set to provide more money to help with that.

USDA grants U of I additional funds for cover crops project

This week, the USDA announced it would be providing another $5 million to U of I for another project called iCOVER (Innovated Cover-crop Opportunity, Verification, and Economy-stimulating technology for underserved farmers using Robotics). It’s a four-year project that plans to scale up autonomous cover crop planting and verification of soil carbon.

“Cover cropping is hugely beneficial to farmers and the environment by ensuring more carbon in the soil year-round, keeping nutrients where they belong and out of the atmosphere,” Chowdhary said. “But there are three major bottlenecks in cover-crop adoption: high cost and hassle of planting; slow and expensive soil carbon measurements; and low return on investment for farmers.”

Chowdhary said iCOVER will address all of these obstacles.

The scale-up of cover crop planting will take place at sites in Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, Iowa and Alabama. 1,000 acres will be planted in year one with 20,000 acres planned for year four. The final cost will be less than $10 per acre.

Additionally, the iCOVER team will work with Tuskegee University in Alabama to enable robotic, high-resolution measurements of soil carbon and to create markets for climate-smart projects for minority, underserved farmers growing specialty crops and animal products.

The University’s Institute for Sustainability, Energy, and Environment (iSEE) will be involved in both projects, with other university-affiliated bodies participating in one project or the other.