How Connected Agriculture Is Changing the Way Farmers Grow Food
Technology is changing the way farmers grow food — and feed a rapidly growing global population.
Approximately 9.7 billion. That’s what the United Nations predicts the world’s population will reach by 2050, which is a 33 percent increase in mouths to feed. Farmers are looking to established industry leaders and start-ups to help develop solutions to not only increase productivity but to increase connectivity between growers and their crops.
“You’re never going to replace growers. Our work is about giving them the tools they need to better understand their crops for an optimal outcome.”
John Deere, for example, has developed an online portal that gives farmers visibility to real-time information about crop and equipment needs, as well as row sensors that gather data directly from the field and help corn farmers maximize their harvest. And that’s in addition to connected equipment.
Other agribusiness companies are growing their capabilities in connected agriculture too. Agricultural chemical and biotech giant Monsanto purchased The Climate Corporation, an agricultural data start-up, for nearly $1 billion in 2013. Founded by two former Google employees and based in San Francisco, The Climate Corporation collects and analyzes field data, measures performance and provides what it calls “planting prescriptions.”
Making a Difference Down Under — and Beyond
One of the world’s best examples of connected agricultural technology is taking bloom in Australia. Following two years in development, ag-tech start-up The Yield is set to debut its first agricultural data solution — from the hardware and platform to data analytics and delivery — later this month. “We focus on taking the guesswork out of growing,” says Ros Harvey, founder and managing director. “We measure conditions at the farm, field, row, right down to the hotspot level, and we use artificial intelligence to actually predict what’s ahead.”
The product, called Sensing+, was developed for intensively irrigated crops with high gross margins per acre (such as apples and grapes). It comes on the heels of a food safety and provenance (aka origin) product created for oyster farms. “We’ve got a decreasing amount of arable land, input costs going up, climate change — all of these things making it harder and harder to produce enough food for the planet,” Harvey says. “We need to find more sustainable ways to produce good, quality food. That’s what we’re focused on — giving growers timely, accurate information that helps them make decisions with confidence so they can maximize their yields and reduce their risks.”
But the technology is not about replacing farmers, Harvey notes. “That’s what I think a lot of technology companies get wrong — they think they can turn farms into factories and underestimate the critical role growers play,” she says. “You’re never going to replace growers. Our work is about giving them the tools they need to better understand their crops for an optimal outcome.”
That starts with collecting data in the fields using a network of nodes — up to 240 per “gateway,” or computer-monitored area. Those nodes monitor soil conditions, irrigation and spray needs (fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides), and weather data (temperature, humidity and wind speed), among other measurements. “When you look at the raindrop graphic in the app, it’s telling you how much your crop needs to be watered,” Harvey says. “We crunch something like 2.5 million records every six hours just to generate that one drop.”
Without a doubt, strong data analytics is key. “In the oyster industry, we’re close to 95–100 percent accurate three days out,” Harvey says. The success of The Yield’s hardware and platform for agriculture will be dependent on a similar level of accuracy.
The start-up’s success is contingent on an easy-to-use platform, as well. “You can get it all right — from the hardware to the platform to the analytics,” Harvey says. “But if you get it wrong with the interface, and with converting that information into something people can actually use, the rest is wasted effort.” And that’s not in the cards for Harvey — or in the interest of the growing need for food to feed the planet. “I have a great passion for how transformative technology can be,” she says. “It enables whole new business models, including private-sector businesses that produce public good.”
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