Agricultural knowledge has come a long way since stepping outside and smelling the air, searching the clouds and anticipating rain events. Farmers used to have to walk the fields to conduct inspections on the health of their crops by either pulling up some samples to check root health or by investigating the leaves to find signs of pest infestation. This was obviously a spotty proposition at best, with the farmer able to only investigate small portions of their fields – an unrepresentative sample especially if the acreage is measured in the hundreds. Flyovers helped, but only in a very macro sense and at the end of the day, the farmers relied on years of built up intuition and experience to guide fertilizer and pesticide application.
Technologies are now filtering down such that they’re available for farmers to use on subscription or ownership bases. Drones enable the farmer to control image capture, and own the frequency with which he conducts his field investigation. Multispectral imagery, “…can measure generic characteristics such as if a plant is healthy or not…” by capturing bands of light outside of the visible range.[i] This technology, also used by NASA scientists to detect the composition of meteors and planets, can be geographically overlaid on a map to show a farmer where in his field crop issues are occurring. Farmers are also collecting and controlling more data than ever before, employing Precision Planting equipment that can react to changing soil conditions real-time to modify seed dispersion and depth. Harvesters collect geo tagged yield data which is saved and analyzed later in the feedback loop to help inform future planting efforts. This information, combined with precise mechanical tools, enable the farmer to place a seed at the perfect distance from its neighbors.[ii] This dispersion is critical in that it facilitates growth without competition against the other plants, resulting in higher yields and ultimately more profit for the farmer. Finally, GPS enabled systems now essentially drive the tractors for the individual farmer, ensuring that proper speed and laser-straight headings are maintained.
With so many sensor platforms deployed to agriculture businesses, numerous big data startups have entered the community. Products such as Climate Corp’s FieldView platform (now a Monsanto company) collect vast quantities of data such as satellite imagery and enhanced NOAA weather streams.[iii] These data form a processing platform into which farmers can upload their own local information for the purpose of pulling out agronomic forecasts. These and other products can then be fed back to farmers on the ground who are consuming them real-time on mobile devices as they traverse fields. The overall goal for many companies is a central dashboard from which all relevant data can be visualized. Farmers will be able to link their in-field deployable sensors, their regional planting characteristics, and their various ERP systems to manage everything from the timing of nitrogen application to dialing in the exact seed coating a particular field requires.[iv]
The application of these technologies has resulted in numerous benefits for the agriculture community. With the ability to geo-locate exactly where and what type of pest infestations are occurring, farmers are applying more targeted pesticides in fewer locations, resulting in fewer broad based pesticides leeching into adjacencies and the water table. Deployable field sensors monitor soil hydrology levels and provide an accurate and real-time understanding of the growing conditions, to which farmers can respond with targeted water and fertilizer application.[v] As a result, crop yields – measured in bushels per acre – have been able to sustain their strongly upward trajectory (see figure 2)[vi]. Furthermore, targeted chemical application lowers the overall materials spend for farmers in addition to reducing equipment damage and fuel consumption through heavy use.
As with many technological trends, agricultural improvements are governed by the Hype Cycle. Many, such as drones, are seeing investment wane as market ebullience falls and waits for long-term business plans to take root (pun intended).[vii] Nonetheless, agriculture continues to benefit tremendously from technological improvement, with digital enhancements clearly being the next step to an efficient and highly productive farmer.
[i] AgFunder News, “IntelinAir CEO Al Eisaian on the Future of Aerial Imagery in Agriculture”, https://agfundernews.com/intelinair-ceo-al-eisaian-talks-the-future-of-aerial-imagery-in-agriculture.html, accessed November 2016.
[ii] Precision Planting, “YieldSense”, http://www.precisionplanting.com/#products/yieldsense/, accessed November 2016.
[iii] AgFunder News, “What do Monsanto’s Plans to Open Up its Digital Platform Mean for the Agriculture Industry?”, https://agfundernews.com/what-do-monsanto-plans-to-open-up-its-digital-platform-mean-for-the-agriculture-industry.html, accessed November 2016.
[iv] Climate Insights, “Planning and Monitoring Tools are Essential to Supporting Healthy Corn Development Through Harvest”, http://www.climateinsights.com/tools-for-healthy-corn-harvest/, accessed November 2016.
[v] Climate Insights, “Sensors and Connecting the Field”, http://www.climateinsights.com/?randomId=Z0Rx29W26BT5m&_ga=1.192630954.123526976.1479387992, accessed 2016.
[vi] USDA, “Estimating US Crop Yields”, https://www.nass.usda.gov/Education_and_Outreach/Reports,_Presentations_and_Conferences/Presentations/Johnson_Winrock_12.pdf, accessed November 2016.
[vii] AgFunder News, “AgTech Investing Report,” https://agfundernews.com/agriculture-technology-trends-agtech-captures-attention-h1.html, accessed November 2016.