Big Data Analytics Could Produce Big Results in the Agricultural Sector

enterra

July 08, 2014

Even though humankind is still dependent on agriculture for its survival, most developed and developing states no longer rely primarily on the agricultural sector for economic growth. As the world has advanced from the age of agriculture to the industrial and post-industrial ages, many of its inhabitants have nevertheless clung to the romantic image of a farmer as a person with moderate education, who refers to the Old Farmer’s Almanac for weather information, and is too busy tending fields and flocks to pay attention to global events. Although most farmers still love the land and many are more comfortable in denim jeans than a wool business suit, they are first and foremost business people. It is true that the family farm is slowly fading into the annals of history as large agri-businesses take center stage; but, both today’s family farmer and agri-businessperson are highly informed and well-educated. They know the future’s market, pay close attention to weather conditions and climate change, understand logistics and the supply chain, and are always looking for technologies that can help them do their job more productively. The latest tool that many of them are using is Big Data analytics.

An NPR report notes, “The next revolution in agriculture could center around big data, also called precision farming. The idea is that all the information about what goes into and comes out of fields could help growers make better decisions.” [“Next Revolution In Agriculture May Center On Big Data,” 12 May 2014] As I have noted in past articles about food security, there is growing concern that the agricultural sector won’t be able to keep up with the world’s burgeoning population, which is supposed to peak somewhere between 9 and 10 billion people over the next 35 years. Analysts from GoGrid agree with the NPR report. They write, “For the past few years, scientists throughout the world have referenced an impending food shortage of global proportions. The prospect of feeding 9 billion people in the year 2050 is intimidating, motivating organizations to turn to advanced technology. If harnessed properly, Big Data could help agriculturalists and food companies find ways to supply a world population that’s increasing dramatically.” [“Farmers Use Big Data to Improve Crop Yields,” GoGrid, 14 May 2014]

The American Society of Agronomy notes that trying to optimize crop yields is nothing new for farmers. “Farmers are used to optimizing crop production on their own lands. They do soil tests to choose the right amount of fertilizers to apply, and they sometimes plant row crops on some fields while keeping others in pasture.” [“Food security increased by new scientific model in agricultural production,” Science Codex, 5 May 2014] Nevertheless, the Society believes that more can be done. It asks, “Is it possible to optimize production across a much bigger area — say, the whole East Coast of the United States? That’s the question a team of USDA-ARS scientists in Beltsville, MD, has begun to tackle by developing a sophisticated new modeling tool.” The article explains:

“Known as the Geospatial Agricultural Management and Crop Assessment Framework (GAMCAF), the tool brings together crop models that estimate plant growth and crop yield at scales as fine as 30 meters (90 feet), with spatial sources of information on soils, water, land use, and other factors. Crop models aren’t normally designed to work automatically with spatial data, explains Jonathan Resop, who led the platform’s development as a USDA-ARS postdoc. Now, the new interface — published in the Jan.-Feb. 2014 issue of Agronomy Journal — allows exactly that.”

It’s no secret that government programs have fallen out of favor in recent years and this disdain for government has created gridlock in Washington, DC. I suspect, however, that some farmers, especially small farmers, might welcome government assistance in using Big Data analytics to increase crop yields. The only alternative is relying on large agri-businesses, like Monsanto and DuPont Pioneer, whose systems are often too expensive for small farmers. But cost isn’t the only concern farmers have about exploiting Big Data. Roxana Hegeman reports that farmers face “a new, more shadowy issue” — namely, “growing unease about how the largest seed companies are gathering vast amount of data from sensors on tractors, combines and other farm equipment.” [“U.S. Farmers Confront ‘Big Data’,” Valley News, 6 April 2014] She explains:

“The increasingly common sensors measure soil conditions, seeding rates, crop yields and many other variables, allowing companies to provide farmers with customized guidance on how to get the most out of their fields. The involvement of the American Farm Bureau, the nation’s largest and most prominent farming organization, illustrates how agriculture is cautiously entering a new era in which raw planting data holds both the promise of higher yields and the peril that the information could be hacked or exploited by corporations or government agencies. Seed companies want to harness the data to help farmers grow more food with the same amount of land, and the industry’s biggest brands have offered assurances that all information will be closely guarded. But farmers are serving notice in Washington that the federal government might need to become involved in yet another debate over electronic security and privacy. Some members of Congress from rural states such as Kansas were already aware of the concerns, although the issue is new to many urban lawmakers.”

No one doubts the benefits of using Big Data analytics to help increase yields and profits. Christopher Doering provides anecdotal evidence of such benefits in an article that includes the results achieved by a farmer named Dave Nelson. [“Big data means big profits, risks for farmers,” USA Today, 11 May 2014] Doering writes:

“The past four years, Nelson has been testing a technology from Monsanto known as FieldScripts, a program that uses soil information, yield data and computer algorithms to identify which patches of land, some only a few meters in size, could support corn seeds planted closer together. Last year, the technology, which has recently been rolled out to farmers in Iowa and three other Corn Belt states, helped him squeeze an additional eight to 12 bushels per acre above his recent 10-year average of 195 bushels per acre. The result was up to an extra $50 for each corn acre, or about $150,000 throughout his operation — revenue that would have otherwise gone unclaimed. ‘I’m maximizing every kernel I put in the ground,’ said Nelson, who farms with his dad near Fort Dodge, Iowa. ‘Every farmer is going to say “Oh, I’ve got data,” but … how many farmers can say I’m putting the data to work in every aspect of my farm?’ Agribusiness giants, such as Monsanto and DuPont Pioneer, are spending millions of dollars to help farmers mine ever-increasing amounts of data from their fields through ‘precision agriculture’ technology to help them boost yields, lower their costs and reduce their risk, all the while increasing the amount of revenue they squeeze out of every acre.”

Doering concedes that farmers remain nervous about what companies, like Monsanto, and government agencies will do with their data once it has been shared. Doering notes that it “could be sold to traders or commodity brokers” or it could be sold to “other farmers or be used by companies to peddle more seed and fertilizer and set prices because they’ll know more about how much farmers will be using.” Hegeman indicates that farm groups are also concerned that data could be used against farmers by the Environmental Protection Agency or antagonistic environmental groups. In other words, the concern is not the results that can be achieved by using Big Data analytics but the unintended consequences of data sharing. The American Farm Bureau believes that data should remain the property of individual farmers or agricultural businesses. Hegeman reports, “Farm groups are conflicted about what role, if any, government should have in regulating data-gathering practices.” Terry Holdren, chief executive officer and general counsel for the Kansas Farm Bureau, told her, “We don’t believe ultimately there is a legislative fix for this. It is a contractual model for folks who have technology and folks who want technology.”

In the long run, having technology and using analytics to increase yields should be a global imperative. Without them, feeding the world’s growing population is going to be difficult, if not impossible. According to Hegeman, Monsanto refers to the coming utilization of Big Data analytics in agricultural “the ‘Green Data Revolution’ — a play off the so-called Green Revolution of the 20th century in which mechanical, chemical and biological advancements drove unprecedented increases in food production. Monsanto expects the use of ag data to offer comparable improvements in the next few years.” The world needs a green data revolution, but, as noted above, there are a number of challenges that could derail the revolution.