A decade from now, farmers will rely on the marriage of agronomic, information and process control technologies to grow thousands of acres of crops in ways that create smaller carbon footprints, predicts a Purdue University agricultural economist.

Crop farming could become both simpler and more complex by 2020, said Mike Boehlje.

"There will be challenges and opportunities for agriculture 10 years down the road," Boehlje said. "Those will involve the continued change in the size of the agricultural industry at the farm sector level, the sustainability issue, challenges associated with productivity and resource utilization, and the increasing demands our urban society is making on farming."

Boehlje will discuss what he believes the future holds during the Indiana Certified Crop Adviser Conference. The conference takes place Dec. 14-15 at the Indianapolis Marriott East. Boehlje's presentation, "Row Crop Agriculture in 2020," is slated for 8 a.m. and 11 a.m. Dec. 14.

Large farms with vast acreages of corn, soybeans and wheat could become the norm in the years ahead, Boehlje said. Consolidation within the agriculture industry has been ongoing since at least 1980, he said.

"If you look at farms with 1,000 acres or more, that comprises about 6 percent of the farmers. They already operate about 40 percent of the farmland and they're growing their acreage by about 6-7 percent per year," Boehlje said. "If you project out 10 years what you'll find is that 5-6 percent of the farmers will probably be operating about 50 percent of the acreage."

The small percentage of farmers working a majority of the crop acres will need strong management skills, while competition will be keen among agribusinesses that supply those farmers everything from fertilizer to machinery, he said.

Sustainability won't just be an agricultural buzzword in 2020 - it will be a way of life. That means adopting crop production practices that are economically and environmentally viable, Boehlje said.

Consumers will demand more organic, locally grown and earth-friendly food, with products labeled as such, he said. Retail giant Wal-Mart already is moving in that direction, Boehlje said. "If Wal-Mart wants that kind of product and expects to have that kind of label, they're going to then be wanting more information throughout the entire value chain, including producers, in terms of how those products are produced, what practices are used, what is the carbon footprint, etcetera," he said.

Farm technology in 2020 could consist of "integrated packages" that combine elements of biotechnology, nutrition, production techniques and process control procedures, Boehlje said. Integrated systems could remove most human error from crop farming, he said.

"Technology is increasingly allowing us to do two things. One, it allows us to be more accurate in our production practices and get even more output from the limited resources that we're using," Boehlje said. "Second, it does this automatically without human intervention. This is what we sometimes call 'simplification technology.'

"The best example of simplification technology is Roundup Ready(R), which has made it much simpler to decide how to control weeds. When we got that technology it simplified dramatically the choice of a weed control program. Triple stack traits in seed do the same thing in corn right now with respect to weed and insect control."

Availability of resources -- including such must-haves as land, water and nitrogen and other crop nutrients -- and how their accessibility affects productivity also stands to be an issue for grain producers in the next decade. Farmers will have to balance cost, return on investment and environmental considerations, Boehlje said.

While farmers will have better technology to boost productivity, there could be limits on how they use that technology. "It's not unrelated to the sustainability discussion," he said.

The Indiana Certified Crop Adviser Conference is geared toward CCAs and others who provide consultant services for farmers and others in agriculture. The event features speakers from Purdue and 12 other universities, the agricultural industry and government agencies. Sessions include presentations on nutrient, soil and water, pest and crop management issues.

Full conference registration is $195 for CCA members and $300 for non-members. Single-day registration is $100 for CCA members and $150 for non-members. Fees increase $25 after Dec. 7.

The Indianapolis Marriott East is at 7202 E. 21st St. Accommodations at the hotel are extra.

For more information, visit the conference website at http://www.indianacca.org/Conference