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?

Fast Company - - Fc -

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.

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