Big Data is Big Daddy down on the farm

Technology is boost­ing farm­ers’ pro­duc­tiv­ity—and trig­ger­ing buy­out bids like Bayer’s Us­ing data “to sell… the seeds and what­ever other prod­ucts you want to sell”

Bloomberg Businessweek (Asia) - - NEWS - Adam Satar­i­ano and Alan Bjerga

A self-driv­ing John Deere trac­tor rum­bles through Ian Pig­ott’s 2,000-acre farm ev­ery week or so to spray fer­til­izer, guided by satel­lite im­agery and each plot’s har­vest­ing his­tory. The 11-ton be­he­moth, loaded with so many screens it looks like an air­plane cock­pit, re­lays the nu­tri­ent in­for­ma­tion to the farmer’s com­puter sys­tem. With weather fore­casts and data on pes­ti­cide use, soil read­ings, and plant tis­sue tests pulled by var­i­ous pieces of soft­ware, Pig­ott can keep tabs on the farm down to the square me­ter in real time with­out ever leav­ing his car­peted office.

“This is be­com­ing more stan­dard,” says Pig­ott, who grows a ro­ta­tion of wheat, oilseed, oats, and bar­ley on his farm in the rolling Hert­ford­shire coun­try­side an hour north of Lon­don.

Ger­man chem­i­cal com­pany Bayer cited the growth in such digitally as­sisted farm­ing as a key rea­son for its $62 bil­lion bid for Mon­santo, which has be­come a lead­ing provider of an­a­lyt­ics used by grow­ers. Bayer Chief Executive Of­fi­cer Werner Bau­mann says Mon­santo is at the “fore­front of dig­i­tal farm­ing.” Ac­quir­ing the com­pany would fur­ther Bayer’s goal of iden­ti­fy­ing and pro­vid­ing the best-suited seeds, fer­til­iz­ers, and chem­i­cals for farms around the world.

“If you get the cus­tomers’ at­ten­tion by pre­dict­ing what will hap­pen on their farm, you can be closer to them to sell them the seeds and what­ever other prod­ucts you want to sell them,” says Bruce Erick­son, a direc­tor in the agron­omy department at Pur­due Univer­sity who tracks farm­ing technology. “The prom­ise is im­mense.” Signs of the trans­for­ma­tion abound: drones pro­vid­ing bird’s-eye views of fields; map­ping soft­ware lo­cat­ing un­der­ground water sources; sen­sor- laden trac­tors mon­i­tor­ing har­vests in real time. It’s hap­pen­ing out­side the fields, too. Cows’ meal por­tions are ad­justed au­to­mat­i­cally based on their milk out­put. In­frared cam­eras iden­tify chick­ens with fevers, pro­tect­ing flocks.

Adop­tion of dig­i­tal tools comes amid con­cerns that food pro­duc­tion isn’t keep­ing up with the world’s ap­petite. Crop yields have re­mained rel­a­tively flat in re­cent years, even as de­mand is in­creas­ing be­cause of pop­u­la­tion growth and the ris­ing mid­dle class in de­vel­op­ing na­tions such as China. Sens­ing an op­por­tu­nity, in­vest­ment is pour­ing into dig­i­tal farm­ing. Food and agricultur­e technology star­tups at­tracted $4.6 bil­lion last year, com­pared with $2.3 bil­lion in 2014, ac­cord­ing to AgFun­der, an on­line in­vest­ing plat­form. Mon­santo’s in­vest­ment in dig­i­tal agricultur­e took off in 2013, when it spent al­most $1 bil­lion for San Fran­cisco-based startup Cli­mate Corp. Founded by for­mer Google en­gi­neers David Fried­berg and Si­raj Khaliq, Cli­mate Corp. de­vel­oped an al­go­rithm that helps pre­dict how weather af­fects crop out­put. Mon­santo added its own data from seed tri­als and ac­quired soil and an­a­lyt­ics com­pa­nies. Now its soft­ware of­fers farm­ers rec­om­men­da­tions on what to plant and where to plant it. “Farm­ers are very ex­cited about new technology if you can show them some value, that it’s not just some gim­mick,” says Khaliq, who’s now a ven­ture cap­i­tal­ist in Lon­don. Mon­santo in­vested in Blue River Technology, a Cal­i­for­nia com­pany that uses com­puter vi­sion

“We can take our data, walk right into the fields with an iPad or iPhone, pin­point ex­actly where we are … and fig­ure out what we should be do­ing with each par­cel of land”

technology to weed crops. It also backed Hy­droBio, which pro­duces tools that mon­i­tor water us­age, and Vi­talFields, a maker of farm management soft­ware. Mean­while, Planet Labs, whose satel­lite mon­i­tor­ing technology tracks changes in crops and soils, raised $120 mil­lion last year, and data com­pany Farm­ers Busi­ness Net­work raised $15 mil­lion from in­vestors in­clud­ing Google par­ent Al­pha­bet.

Other large agricultur­e com­pa­nies are also in­vest­ing to add technology to their prod­uct lines. Trac­tor maker Deere of­fers au­tonomous driv­ing and tools to track real-time us­age of seeds, fer­til­izer, and chem­i­cals. DuPont, which is merg­ing with Dow Chem­i­cal, is ex­pand­ing its En­circa farm management soft­ware unit. And Syn­genta, which Mon­santo tried to buy ear­lier this year and has agreed to be bought by ChemChina, has made sev­eral dig­i­tal farm­ing ac­qui­si­tions.

Adop­tion of dig­i­tal agricultur­e has been fastest in the cen­tral U.S., where in­dus­trial farms put a pre­mium on ef­fi­ciency. In cen­tral Illi­nois, Dale Had­den has been col­lect­ing data to im­prove the per­for­mance of the soy­beans, corn, and wheat he grows on his al­most 5,000 acres. He cre­ates mod­els to pre­dict yields based on chem­i­cal use, soil types, and his land’s to­pog­ra­phy.

“We can take our data, walk right into the fields with an iPad or iPhone, pin­point ex­actly where we are in the field, and see what the plant­ing rate is, what the amount of ni­tro­gen is, and fig­ure out what we should be do­ing with each par­cel of land,” Had­den says. “If we have a per­for­mance is­sue in a cer­tain area, we can do some­thing about it.”

Still, it’s early days for such technology. “Agricultur­e is well be­hind other in­dus­tries that I’ve been in­volved with in be­ing able to col­lect and syn­the­size data and ex­press it as so­lu­tions to prob­lems,” says Ron LeMay, the for­mer president of telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions com­pany Sprint, who founded

Far­mLink, a data com­pany. Many farm­ers, par­tic­u­larly out­side the U.S., have taken a wai­t­and-see ap­proach to find out if adopt­ing dig­i­tal tools can im­prove their bot­tom line. Such soft­ware can cost sev­eral thou­sand dol­lars per year and comes with a steep learning curve. “We’re still on the cusp of be­ing able to demon­strate at scale the fi­nan­cial re­turns,” says Ros Har­vey, the founder of Yield, an Aus­tralian startup. Her com­pany, backed by Ger­man au­to­mo­tive gi­ant Robert Bosch, uses sen­sors that al­low oys­ter farm­ers to de­ter­mine when con­tam­i­na­tion makes it un­safe to har­vest.

The great­est po­ten­tial may be in the de­vel­op­ing world, where tap­ping into global communicat­ions net­works may al­low farm­ers to bet­ter man­age cli­mate change and other risks by bring­ing Big Data to the world’s most in­for­ma­tion-poor re­gions. “We’re start­ing to see the emer­gence of a dig­i­tal revo­lu­tion,” says Mick Keogh, the executive direc­tor of the Aus­tralian Farm In­sti­tute. “It’s mov­ing from de­ci­sions based on a farmer’s skill to de­ci­sions based on ob­jec­tive in­for­ma­tion driven from tech­nolo­gies now avail­able.”

The bot­tom line Food and agricultur­e technology star­tups at­tracted $4.6 bil­lion in fund­ing last year, vs. $2.3 bil­lion in 2014, ac­cord­ing to AgFun­der.

A SpecTerra map shows the high­est (blue) and low­est (red) yield fore­casts for corn

A Claas trac­tor tricked out with farm data gear in a field near Harpen­den, U.K.

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