For most farmers these days, a laptop computer is already an essential tool. (File: Grant Gerlock/Harvest Public Media)
A couple of seeds, some fertilizer, a little sunshine – just add water and you’re ready to harvest your crops, right?
Farming, as you might imagine, is a lot more complicated than that. And that’s why information – data – is the next frontier for farming, which you may have already seen.
Farmers want to know which seeds will work the best in their soil, how much fertilizer they need to buy and just when to plant. That’s why the ag tech and data sector is booming. Heavyweights like Monsanto and DuPont are jumping into the game, along with smaller companies all over the world.
So, how does all of this data technology actually work?
One of the companies working with ag data is FarmLink, based in Kansas City, Mo. FarmLink helps farmers understand their own production in the context of the entire industry, so they can know how they’re doing. The company sent out a fleet of combines equipped with software that measures things like weather, soil and topography. Over three years they measured several million acres, according to FarmLink president Scott Robinson, giving them lots of data for farmers to compare their own fields to.
“We’re that benchmark at the beginning of, ‘How well can your farm really do? And where are you in that performance?’” Robinson said.
As our Grant Gerlock reported, there’s a lot of trial and error on the farm right now, and plenty of farmers are worried about what their data will be used for. But with more and more farmers embracing this kind of Big Data – sharing information to create huge datasets – researchers are able to offer deeper and more nuanced farm insights.
The plans for ag data, though, extend much further. The Holy Grail for these companies is “prescriptive planting,” using the data to give farmers the most information about how, what, where and with what inputs they should plant on a precise scale. FarmLink breaks down fields into 150-square-foot plots.
“One of the things we’re working on is the ability to have seeds, fertilizer and other input data that allows them to do an optimization engine that allows him to look at the trade-offs,” Robinson said.
It would be like the travel website Kayak, except for farms. Instead of comparing departure times and airfare for different airlines, it would compare seed varieties from different companies and project how well they would grow on specific plots of land. Or it could help farmers decide which sections of their fields need more fertilizer and where they can afford to use less.
And those decisions have major ramifications for the economy, the food supply and the environment.