Virginia Tech® home

Smart Farms & Smart Plants

Our mission is to bring together people with diverse expertise by encouraging interdisciplinary collaboration among faculty from different areas of specialization to develop and design ‘smart’ and efficient systems that meet the food, feed, and fiber needs of a growing world population. 

New and improved technologies and processes, including genetically altered stress-resistant plants and a model ‘Smart Farm’ infrastructure, developed by our experts will provide solutions to ensure stable and sustainable production of food, feed, and fiber.

Meeting the food, feed, and fiber needs of a growing world population represents one of the signature challenges of this century. This challenge necessitates implementation of advanced technologies, sustainable management of natural resources, and coordination of political forces.


The first component of our vision is SmartPlants/Animals, in which crops, livestock, and their associated microbes, are designed to optimize yields under different stress situ- ations and environmental conditions. We will conduct fundamental research on animal and plant genotype-environment interactions, integrated with translational research in breeding and biodesign. These efforts will exploit cutting-edge technologies such as gene editing, genetic selection, genomic breeding, and engineering of microbiomes. Our goal is to develop livestock and crop varieties that are productive in agro-ecosystems compromised by disease and pests, climate disruption, and other environmental stressors.

Equal in importance to resilient crops/livestock are innovations in precision agriculture and management of resources to increase efficiency, reduce pollution, and enhance ecological health (agriculture accounts for 30% of greenhouse gas emissions and 70% of all freshwater use). Thus, the second component of our vision is the “SmartFarm”.

This is the farm of the future—efficient, productive, sustainable, and automated. Irrigation systems will harvest and deliver appropriate amounts of water to the right areas of the farm at the right time. Coordinated unmanned robots on the ground (tractors) and in the air (drones) will gather data on animal and plant health and developmental status that informs targeted, auto- mated delivery of inputs and enables optimal harvest schedules. Wind turbines will harvest energy and power meteorological sensors to forecast weather and the onset of diseases. Farm data will be stored and accessed through the cloud. Big data techniques will transform the raw data into actionable intelligence which will inform stakeholders on mobile devices, anywhere, anytime. This paradigm can be extended to SmartForests and into urban areas, where crops will be grown in close proximity to local markets. Smart Greenhouses and SmartRoofs will functionalize the roofs of buildings. Architects and civil engineers will work closely with animal, plant, and environmental scientists to create opportunities for aesthetic, yet purposeful, farms, structures, and facilities for 21st century agriculture.

Our current objectives are to define foci in this large space, and identify internal and external partners. 

smartfarm diagram

Population growth and urbanization represent real threats to the human condition by diminishing critical natural resources, challenging sustainable food production, and favoring the emergence and re-emergence of both infectious and environmentally induced disease states. Global Systems Science is the study of such dynamic interplay among natural and social systems. Virginia Tech has launched a Global Systems Science Destination Area that is focused on understanding and finding solutions to critical problems associated with human activity and environmental change that, together, affects disease states, water quality, and food production. The Destination Area emphasizes a trans-disciplinary approach involving the integration and coordination of research, education, and public engagement. Goals of the Destination Area will be accomplished by integrating theoretical and empirical inquiry with relevant curriculum development. Synergistic interaction among faculty and student teams within the Destination Area, as well as their coordination with other related campus-wide initiatives, such as those focused on Data Analytics, Cyber-security, and Policy, will be catalyzed by participants with expertise in systems science approaches. The effort will also be augmented by the aggressive recruitment of faculty and students interested in the development and application of systems approaches towards solving complex problems. A particular ambition  of the Destination Area is to assemble faculty and student teams having the cultural and ethnic diversity necessary to develop innovative solutions to social and environmental problems associated with global systems. 


Our SmartPlant/SmartFarm framework will provide opportunities for students and faculty to work in interdisciplinary teams, united by the common goal of developing ecologically sound agricultural systems that emphasize long-term sustainability.

We will integrate these research strengths into a reimagined curriculum that underpins the third component of our vision: VT-shaped undergraduate and graduate students equipped with a deep understanding of plant biology and its role in global production of food, feed, fiber, and fuel, through exposure to multiple disciplines that include societal issues such as the role of women in development; food quality assessment; climate change; and population displacement (Figure below). Students will develop new knowledge and transformative solutions around real-world agri-food systems that are sustainable and resilient. 


John McDowell

J.B. Stroobants Professor of Biotechnology


Richard Veilleux

Julian and Margaret Gary Professor, Horticulture