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What About the Future of AI in Agriculture?

By Michelle Pelletier Marshall, Women in Agribusiness Media (December 5, 2023)

Some might say the future of agriculture is in the hands of AI, thanks to its ability to increase yields with less manpower, reduce costs with more-streamlined equipment, and develop a more sustainable ecosystem with near autonomy.

Just look at the first commercially available fully electric smart tractor with zero emissions, introduced this June from Monarch, with John Deere’s Autonomous Battery Electric Tractor unveiled in 2022. Or to the many innovations, such as cow collars, in-motion cattle-weighing via portable 3D cameras, or drones to check on the harvest or distribute fertilizer, that have been featured during Ag Innovations panels at our conferences.

While the benefits are measurable in ROI, less crop loss due to better disease management or improved irrigation operating by AI, questions remain about just how much “conventional” agriculture should give up to these new processes and products.

Mary Snapp of Microsoft presents to the 2023 WIA Summit attendees.

That’s where Women in Agribusiness Summit speaker Mary Snapp, vice president, strategic AI Initiatives, office of the vice chair and president for Microsoft, comes in. Snapp (who incidentally joined Microsoft in 1998 as its first female attorney) presented at the 2023 Summit in September in Nashville on “Our New Frontier: Rural America and AI” where she spoke about the growing role of AI in American agriculture advancement and how best to harness the benefits it can provide.

Here are excerpts from her presentation, which was billed as a favorite by many attendees:

“I really enjoyed the AI speaker -Mary Snapp from Microsoft. It was neat to see the room light up when she began to float across the stage glowing with knowledge, creativity, and credibility. I have always been drawn to great public speakers and boy howdy did she put on a show!” Sara H. Gilbert, J.R. Simplot

“…my favorite was Our Next Frontier: Rural America and AI. Mary Snapp was an engaging speaker and loved her presentation!” Rebecca L Allen, Commercial Packaging

From the Presentation:

“My name is Mary Snapp. I grew up in a little town in south central Kansas. And like you, I love rural America. I love the smell of rain, and the good earth after it. I love stars in the sky at night…. I went to work at a big technology company at General Motors, and now, all these decades later, I'm here to talk to you about technology.

In the mid 1800s, the steam engine really made a difference for America, for American families, and for commerce. It enabled goods and services to pass back and forth across the country in a way we hadn't seen before. When this came to rural America, it allowed women to do other things on farm and even eventually to get jobs outside of the farm. And then a little bit later, electricity. Only about one in 10 farms at the beginning of the Depression had access to electricity.

But the real pioneer here was Louisa Neymar, who was hired by the Rural Electrification Association to travel around the country to talk to rural women about the benefits of technology. She talked to them about their refrigerators and their stoves and their washing machines. And rural women said it's fine for us. Twenty years later, they had matched their urban counterparts in terms of their deployment of electricity.

And then in the 1960s, there were computers, first meant for big companies and big business, but it didn't take long for that to come down to households and to small businesses across the country. And as we said at Microsoft, ‘a computer in every home and in every office’.

The real turning point was the advent of the internet. And without access to the internet, we know that people have disadvantages in terms of education, jobs, health care and more. About five years ago, Microsoft brought awareness to this problem by starting a program that highlighted the number of rural Americans who did not have electricity. Recently, the Department of Commerce committed $42 billion to help close this gap around rural America.

If you look at the gross domestic product of the world, which is generally a measure of economic health, you can see that from the steam engine all the way up to the internet, the smartphone, the cloud and AI, it is a hockey stick of growth from two times to four times to 20 times. So we know that technology and innovation helps drive economies. And this is no news to agriculture. The ag industry is amazing – in a period of just about 70 years, you have grown what's called total factor productivity by 2.7 times – what that means is the total output of production, minus the input and the cost. So that meant that over this period of time, while output rose about one and a half percent or so, the input was less than a 10th of a percent. It's an amazing history of ag innovation, which I know you're interested in continuing.

So I'd like to talk to you about three trends that we see. I would characterize them as an opportunity, the opportunity, meaning a tremendous amount of investment in infrastructure coming in the United States over the next five years; a challenge, a challenge in our labor workforce, and the demographics of our labor workforce; and a risk in terms of climate and sustainability.”

Things to Note from this Part of the Presentation:

  • “The working age population in the U.S. is continuing to increase, but it's increasing at a decreasing level, for the first time in history

  • The average median age in Africa is just under 19 years old. In India, it's about 32. In the United States, it’s 40 and growing.

  • Each of these countries – Africa and India – have four times the population of the United States, which means that at some point over the next 30 or 40 years, the working age population of Africa and India will make up about 60 percent of the population of working age people in the world. That is an issue because if you think about productivity as people working with their hands, using their brains, most of those are not in industrialized countries or the United States. So to ensure national competitiveness and national security and continued economic prosperity, we have to make up for that in some way. And that is where technology can come in.”

On Sustainability

“Virtually every major company is talking about it, whether it's a tech company or an ag company. I'm here to tell you that we are on the verge, and we're actually at a new frontier of artificial intelligence. But first, let's step back and say, ‘What is AI?’ Well, I think about it myself is when I first learned how to dive, I wasn't very good. At first, there were some belly flops. At one point, there were even two black eyes from a time when I was trying to do a one and a half for the first time. But the more I did it, the more I learned, and the better I got. And that's what artificial intelligence is – it actually uses data and tries to find answers in a math-oriented response back and forth, back and forth. So it helps to solve problems and find patterns and find answers in large, very organized sets of data.

On the Future with AI

But you all are using artificial intelligence every day, even though you may not know it. When you ask your phone for an answer, that's AI. When you use the GPS in your car for directions, you're using artificial intelligence. And it can be used in these kinds of daily ways. But also for much, much bigger kinds of situations. We are now at a new era. It is the same as the internet was to computers.

We can use AI across all sectors. And I want you to think about ways in your businesses and in your operations in which you can use artificial intelligence across the ecosystem. But in the meantime, there are everyday examples, like a teacher who could use generative AI to help develop her monthly lesson plan to give her more time to spend with those 35 kids all together in that fourth grade classroom. Or a cafe owner who might use generative AI using her own data for her business to analyze her business income and expenses, so that she can spend more time doing what she really loves, which is planning the cafe lunch for an upcoming birthday party.

And I know that you know that artificial intelligence can be used as a tool, or it can be used as a weapon. And as my boss and President Brad Smith says, “We shouldn't ask ‘don't ask what computers can do, ask what they should do’”. So Microsoft started with his journey on what we call responsible AI.

We know that there are some risks and that there will need to be safety breaks, and along the way regulation in the field of artificial intelligence, but it's important to regulate without stopping the innovation. It's going to take policymakers, it's going to take the public and private sectors and civil society to make sure that we keep the technology on the right track.

As we go forward, you can see that we're just in the early days, and it will take all of us working together to embrace this new frontier. And embracing new frontiers, after all, is what rural America and agriculture is all about. So, the future is ours.”


Mary Snapp Vice President, Strategic AI Initiatives, Office of the Vice Chair and President, Microsoft

Snapp leads outreach initiatives across rural America within Microsoft’s Office of the vice chair and president.

She formerly led Microsoft’s Global Philanthropies, investing the company’s technology, financial support, employee talent, and voice to partner with nonprofits and communities to create lasting positive impact. Prior to that, Snapp was deputy general counsel leading legal support for Microsoft’s engineering organizations.

Snapp has been an active board member for many nonprofit organizations, including the YWCA of Seattle, King, and Snohomish County, the Seattle Art Museum, the National 4-H Council, Washington STEM, and Farm Foundation. She also serves on the University of Michigan’s President’s Advisory Group, and on FFA’s Corporate Sponsors Board.

Snapp joined Microsoft in 1988 as its fourth attorney, and first female attorney. She hails from Newton, Kansas.

Do you have a story you'd like to contribute to WIA Today? Or a suggestion for a story, or comments about an article? Please reach out to Michelle Marshall at and share your thoughts. We'd love to hear from you.

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