How Big Data Is Revolutionizing Farming
FARMERS HAVE ACCESS TO MORE INFORMATION TODAY THAN EVER. WILL THEY BE ABLE TO MAKE SENSE OF IT IN TIME TO FEED THE WORLD OF TOMORROW?
In today’s information age, data is the coin of the realm. Disparate sectors, ranging from medicine and tech to sports and journalism, rely on unprecedented amounts of data and increasingly sophisticated machines capable of processing it to make sense of the world and inform key decisions. The agricultural world is no exception. Increased agricultural yields with minimal additional inputs have never been more vital. A 2017 report from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that the global population will grow to roughly 10 billion by 2050, which will increase agricultural demand by 50% compared to 2013. Challenges like land scarcity, climate change, and environmentally taxing farming systems all present challenges to farmers, who must find more sustainable, efficient ways to improve their crop yields. Fortunately, technology’s transformative powers offer some answers. For millennia, farmers have been some of civilization’s greatest data harvesters, collecting and passing down information on weather patterns, water levels, and climate shifts. The next generation of farm implements can help them gather huge amounts of information and use these data streams to their advantage. According to a study produced for the CTIA Wireless Foundation, a nonprofit group that supports wireless communication, technology is improving farmers’ decision-making power, which results in greater profit and water conservation and improved water quality, among other benefits. The study cites agriculture as one of the most fertile areas for connected devices. So, how will the farms of tomorrow be different? New tools that lessen the burden on growers trying to collect ever more information—and synthesize it once they do—are among the biggest advancements in agricultural tech. These include big data, smart tech, and digital applications. “There’s a digital revolution happening on the farm,” says Bob Reiter, head of research and development for the Crop Science Division of Bayer, which recently acquired Creve Coeur, Missouri–based Monsanto, a leading agrochemical and agricultural biotechnology corporation. “We see this immense opportunity to help growers make decisions that are very data-driven on the farm. It’ll help them be more productive. It’ll help them reduce the amounts of input that they use on the farm, and we’ll have bigger harvests if we do it in the right way.”
“WE SEE THIS IMMENSE OPPORTUNITY TO HELP GROWERS MAKE DECISIONS THAT ARE VERY DATA-DRIVEN ON THE FARM. IT’LL HELP THEM BE MORE PRODUCTIVE.” BOB REITER HEAD OF RESEARCH AND DEVELOPMENT, CROP SCIENCE DIVISION OF BAYER
Farmers are well-acquainted with managing a multitude of factors when planning their seasons. What are the right seeds to plant? When should they be planted? How should they be fertilized? Now, specialized machinery and drones can help them better monitor their fields, collect information, and adjust their actions accordingly. Companies like Monsanto are providing the tools to help them gather and analyze vast new sources of information. “We’re positioning ourselves to be able to help growers by being a place where data can be brought together, and then by developing the right algorithms and machine learning that allows us to help the grower make the best choices in the field,” says Reiter. Some of this machine learning will take the form of smart tech—instruments able to process conditions and react to that input all on their own. Just as a smart thermostat can keep a home at the right temperature despite changing weather conditions, or a smart security camera can be activated by motion, smart farm implements can adapt to various conditions, prioritizing speed or accuracy or increasing water input based on detected dryness in an area. Chris Rhodes, AGCO’S director of business development for Fuse, the Duluth, Georgia–based agricultural company’s technology group, agrees that some of the most dramatic developments in agriculture are happening in the datacollection realm. “The farmer, from time immemorial, has had to take into account an almost immeasurable number of variables,” Rhodes says. This has evolved from mental calculations to spreadsheets, “but in all cases they’re having to make the decisions based on all these variables themselves.” To ease that process, AGCO debuted the Ideal Combine this year, which marries the traditional elements of a high-end combine harvester—a machine that can harvest many different crops efficiently—with smart tech that allows farmers to account for weather, water, speed, and other variables when heading out to the fields. AGCO has also introduced Smart Farmer, a sensor that goes into the soil and measures inputs such as temperature, moisture, and organic material. This tool allows farmers to apply precisely the right amount of water or fertilizer needed, rather than inundating an entire area with unnecessary additives, which is both economically and environmentally costly. “There’s all this data available,” Rhodes says, “and that’s adding to the amount of things that farmers have to think about. What we’re trying to do is take some of that off their plate.” Fifty years ago, agricultural scientists and growers warned of a looming food crisis as population rates soared. Today, those in the agricultural sector are trying to feed an exponentially growing number of people with a static amount of land, a changing climate, and dwindling natural resources. From targeted water sensors to adaptive combines, the wired farms of tomorrow, powered by big data and smart tech, are providing some of the best hope yet to address this critical need.
GROWTH FIELD Farmers are using data to conserve water and increase yields.
FAST LANE AGCO’S Challenger Speed Planter allows farmers to plant a field at twice the rate of traditional equipment.
STEM STUDIES Monsanto is providing the tools to help farmers gather and analyze new sources of information.