International Agriculture News

Making Agriculture More Precise — and Bountiful

Growers, or what we city kids used to call “farmers,” are up against it these days. Milk prices have cratered for dairy operations, corn and soybeans farmers are being squeezed by Trump’s trade war with China. Meanwhile, many of the whizzy agricultural technologies like drones used to create digital maps of tillable land that might pay for themselves in a few years are not exactly catching on as the marketing departments of ag tech companies would have us believe.

What does seem to be gaining traction are relatively inexpensive software tools running on what amounts to a Farm Cloud that can increase yields while lowering operating costs. The tools are part of what venture capitalists like Andreessen Horowitz (known for the tagline: “Software is eating the world”) insist is a shift toward “data-driven” precision agriculture. Promoters also see the transition to carefully calibrated use of fertilizers and pesticides along with high-yield seeds as an extension of the Green Revolution launched in the middle of the 20th century.

Second Green Revolution
Indeed, we may be on the threshold of the Second Green Revolution. Crops are being sewn and fertilized using fancy new tractors with cabs that resemble cockpits, gathering and wirelessly transferring field data collected by myriad sensors that can be used to maximize yields during the growing season while planning next year’s crop.

Among the biggest innovations of the last five years has been the introduction of cloud-based platforms that use steadily improving broadband connections to collect and organize field data swept up by sensors.

“Farming is really a team sport,” said Jeremy Leifker, who oversees John Deere’s Operations Center, which currently connects a growing ecosystem of more 100 software tools. Farmers work with equipment dealers, agronomists, county agricultural agents and, now, software vendors to boost yields while operating sustainably.

As rural connectivity has improved, John Deere rolled out the Operations Center as an open platform about five years ago as a hub for transferring field data to a central repository where it can be organized, managed and shared to fine tune operations and boost yields.

The return on investment, Leifker said, is collaborating with growers to make better upfront decisions about planting that can make or break a farm operation.

More farmers relying on analysis of field surveys like this image to gauge how best to boost yields while reducing the cost of fertilizers, pesticides and irrigation. Hence, precision agriculture proponents assert, “Software is feeding the world.” (Source: the Association of Unmanned Vehicles Systems)

The amount of field data handled by the ag hub is growing exponentially. Leifker estimates the Operations Center is currently pulling in as much as 15 million field-sensors input per second. The rollout of 5G wireless technology with its IoT capabilities could provide real-time data capture to help make better decisions.

Growers connect with the ops center via web-based interfaces or iOS and Android devices in the field. Still, Leifker noted, connectivity remains an issue.

As the broadband pipe widens, new tools are also entering the mainstream for gauging field and crop moisture along with pest management approaches that address the estimated $80 billion spent each year on pesticides. Field scouting data can help farmers decide the best time to plant, fertilize, irrigate and harvest.

‘Software feeding the world’
Emerging software tools focused on more precise application of pesticides are part of broader decades-old movement called “integrated pest management.” The approach seeks to replace the traditional broadcasting of pesticides with targeted application of weed and pest killers, bringing with it the double advantage of polluting less and saving a few bucks.

“Pesticides are good because they kill things and pesticides are bad because they kill things,” says Liron Brish of the aptly named ag tech software startup Farm Dog.

Farm Dog is working with big farm equipment dealers like John Deere to collect the field data accumulated each day and until now stored in a farmer’s head. The startup’s software then organizes and manages data that is used to determine where, when and how much pesticide a field needs to reduce crop losses that still run as high as 40% despite widespread use of pesticides and herbicides.

By George Leopold
George Leopold has written about science and technology from Washington, D.C., since 1986. Besides EE Times, Leopold’s work has appeared in The New York Times, New Scientist, and other publications. He resides in Reston, Va.