Artificial intelligence: Your next go-to tool for growth

AI technology can help you optimize labor, inputs, resources, and yields.

4 mins

If we had to name one industry buzzword for the year, it would be artificial intelligence—AI for short. It’s headlining trade magazine headlines, major industry events, and small grower get-togethers. The consensus is this: AI is the future of growing. But what does that mean for you?

If you feel some apprehension along with the excitement, we understand. Just remember, some folks felt that way about smartphones, too. Artificial intelligence holds remarkable potential to help you grow more efficiently and profitably. It’s not going away. And take it from us, you’d miss it if it did.

What is artificial intelligence?

Artificial intelligence is a broad umbrella term that encompasses computer systems, software, and processes designed to mimic the way human minds learn, store, and use information. You may not realize it, but you probably already use AI in your daily life. If you’ve ever talked to iPhone’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa, or Google Assistant, that’s AI at work. So is the forecast you check during your morning coffee.

AI isn’t new. It’s been around since the 1950s. But advances in modern technologies—and horticultural knowledge—put its potential to help you grow your business and your crops in a whole new league.

The AI umbrella covers many branches. One type making headlines is “generative AI.” This includes systems that can generate written text, images, audio, and more. One example you’ve probably heard about is ChatGPT. Given the right prompts, this AI-powered language model can draw on its knowledge database to mimic human writing. It can answer questions, create written content, even help you write catalog descriptions and emails.

While learning your way around ChatGPT could come in handy, especially if you handle your own marketing, there’s more exciting AI-driven tech where horticulture is involved.

How can AI help you grow?

If your growing operation involves controlled environments, even a climate-controlled greenhouse or computerized fertigation, basic AI technology may already be at work. Many systems use artificial intelligence to monitor and analyze collected data—far more quickly than a human can. Instead of poring over spreadsheets, you get real-time, nearly instantaneous analysis. Plus, it’s fine-tuned to your unique crop strategy, including your nutrient program.

Many AI-powered horticultural tools incorporate a branch of AI called “machine learning.” When fed vast amounts of data from your growing operation, these tools “learn” to identify patterns in that data, predict what might come next, and recommend action for you and your team to take. Many AI systems now entering the market go a step further to act on your behalf if you choose.

The more data these AI-powered grower tools get, the more they refine their conclusions—mimicking a new grower that gets some time under their belt. Without any extra programming, your system gets “smarter” and makes better, more informed decisions over time. And these systems are quickly becoming more common and more affordable.

How are growers already using AI?

Remember, AI-driven tools are developed and used by humans—and they’re only as good as the data they get and the parameters they’re programmed to follow. Some of the ways growers are and will use AI to conserve water resources, optimize fertilizer inputs, reduce labor and energy costs, and maximize yields include:

  • Irrigation systems that use AI to analyze data and monitor real-time weather along with substrate or plant sensor systems to determine when water is needed and trigger irrigation events optimized for volume as well as timing.
  • Fertigation systems that go another step and analyze nutrients with the help of ion-selective sensors in substrate or drainage water to determine nutrient demand and respond by delivering precise nutrients plants need.
  • Propagation robots, programmed with your parameters for acceptable cuttings and planting procedures, carry out your specifications to a T—right down to rejecting cuttings that don’t make the grade. You save on labor and boost your quality control.
  • Environmental controllers that monitor greenhouse setpoints, from temperatures and humidity to CO2 and more. Based on AI-driven data analysis, they automatically vent your greenhouse, trigger curtains, or take other steps to maintain an optimal environment and save energy.

  • Scouting robots equipped with AI, cameras, and sensors can monitor your operation to identify diseases, pests, potential nutrient deficiencies, and more. These scoutbots can predict outbreaks, correct oversights, and suggest what you should do—or get it done.

What’s ahead for AI and horticulture?

Widespread AI adoption in the U.S. ornamental industry isn’t quite here yet, but our Western Region Territory Manager Ian Bateman expects that to change.

“The world of big data has certainly reached the green industry in general. The controlled environment agriculture or CEA folks will be and have been the early adopters,” Ian says. “While growers may not be using AI yet, what they are doing is being very specific with how they are collating their data—their crop metrics, their harvest intervals, their input costs. These things are very much known and quantified. The next step would be AI.”

While artificial intelligence may be the future of growing, Ian also stresses you don’t have to wait for AI. “There are manual and analog ways to figure out what’s going on with your plants that we can help you with now,” he says. At ICL Growing Solutions, our Territory Managers have feet on the ground where you grow. We’re ready to help you meet the future with growth.