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Farming in 2030: Big data

The last time there was a change this big in farming, it was mechanization. The question is: are you open to exploring how it can work for you?

If you’ve got a cell phone anywhere close to you as you read this, you’re part of the data revolution in agriculture, whether you realize it or not, and whether you want to be or not.

That’s probably a good thing. Certainly, the potential benefits are amazing.

“The smartphone is going to be one of the major delivery vehicles for the farmer,” says Joe Dales, founder of RH Accelerator, a company that assists startups in the agriculture and food innovation space.

But what will our phones deliver? “We still don’t know what the data can do for us on our farms because we haven’t done a good job yet of unlocking all the different layers of data,” Dales says. “We are just at the early stages of that.”

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Best, perhaps, is to begin by envisioning the endpoint. It’s remarkably simple to put into words: farmers won’t be going to manage an acre at a time, as most do now. They’ll manage a square metre at a time.

In fact, the farmer’s job is going to feel like it’s a lot more about managing the data than about actually managing the soil.

The data capability of farm equipment is growing for all operations, covering everything from seeding and scouting to harvest, storage and transportation. And the change is happening in the office too, with data generated by all our business management functions.

As the availability of data grows, the return on making data-based decisions grows too, which is why tomorrow’s farmers and their farm teams will transform themselves into highly informed data specialists, as expert at finding new ways of making money from data as farmers today are at comparing crop varieties or tractors.

That’s where data is taking us, and with the everyday use of mobile and digital devices, and with improvements in internet connectivity in rural areas, it will launch a revolution in how farmers monitor and manage their soil, crops, finances, markets, equipment and workforce.

“We have never had this kind of digital history available,” says William Ashton, director of the Rural Development Institute (RDI) at Brandon University. “It’s being mapped out on a landscape basis geographically in a way that we’ve never been able to do before.”

That’s going to mean that, for the first time, rural areas do not have to be in a deficit position when it comes to technology and the opportunities it can bring; farmers just have to realize how much their world is opening up and explore the possibilities.

“As an example, here at the RDI, located in Brandon, we don’t have the candidate selection for employees as we would if we were located in Winnipeg but all of a sudden, we’ve got people that are in Toronto, Italy and London, England, doing research for us,” says Ashton. “If you think of a rural small business, we now have access and can connect with people with particular skills and interests and be able to move forward. We are beginning to make those kinds of connections, but in some ways we’re behind the times of thinking about this digital connection.”

Data post-harvest

Bill Rimmer, managing partner of Rimmer Technology Partners based in Glenboro, Man., believes there are endless post-harvest opportunities for tech companies to manage inventory and connect buyers and sellers. Compared to precision agriculture, which focuses largely on pre-harvest production, the post-harvest applications haven’t made as many headlines yet, but that’s already changing.

These opportunities will come largely thanks to digital cloud technology that allows for a large amount of data to be stored, processed and used without the heavy investments in things like dedicated servers that up to now have limited the potential of companies, worried about recouping that investment, to share and collaborate with their data sets.

“There is going to be more consolidation, not just with producers and farms getting larger, but also with things like software vendors and equipment manufacturers that are in that space,” says Rimmer. “It’ll be interesting to see how all that plays out. I think the biggest challenge that the producer is going to face is having silo platforms out there. My John Deere stuff doesn’t talk to my input stuff, doesn’t talk to my inventory management stuff, doesn’t talk to my grain marketing stuff. I think that’s going to be more of a problem for people because everyone’s play seems to be, we want to own all your data.”

Who owns the data?

That’s where the strain will arise, predicts Ashton. We need to sort out who owns the data and who gets to manipulate it, and what it’s used for, says Ashton. “Some producers are trying to own it themselves. Some of the equipment automatically does a satellite link-up, so they simply don’t have access to all of that data,” he says.

“Every cloud platform wants to own all your data because that’s the leverage to get you hooked in and sell it to you every year forever,” says Rimmer. “There aren’t any open standards really around all this stuff, so it’s a bit wild west right now.”

It’s going to be a struggle for producers and ag companies to start collaborating and sharing their data, just as it is in other business sectors. But the payoffs are so big, it’s going to happen.

Brennan Turner, CEO and founder of online grain marketplace FarmLead, thinks it’s coming. He says that it’s inevitable that more cross-platform collaborations will happen, noting that they just launched an API that will seamlessly connect Combyne, their latest cash grain trading tool, to other digital tools used by farmers and grain buyers. This API (an application programming interface, which connects data between two systems at the user’s request) will help farmers and grain buyers stop having to double- or triple-enter pieces of information into various digital tools.

“I might not be only sharing the quality characteristics of my bin in the grain that I harvested but also the production practices, no till, how many passes I took on each field, fertilizer use, relative crop input use relative year over year, application rates, and all these different factors,” says Turner. “That could be transferred up through the value channel by the precision ag platform, by data management platforms and by market price mechanisms to the buyer side of things, and potentially all the way to a food processor to give more credibility to the ag industry from a consumer standpoint.”

But, says Turner, that doesn’t automatically mean there will be a financial benefit to the producer.

“It’s hard for me to see a world where people are going to be paying for this sort of process,” he says, “But it will naturally increase the optionality for farmers to decide, for example, which type of seed or equipment they use. It will be successful if multiple different platforms can connect with one another so it’s malleable in that sense. Producers can connect with different tools and still have the option in terms of how this information flows from where to where.”

AI to unlock the hidden answers in data

Some in the agricultural industry, like Montreal-based Motorleaf, a company specializing in artificial intelligence (AI) solutions mainly for the horticultural industry, believe the truly complex questions in agriculture can only be solved through manipulating data.

“Data already exists today; it needs to be put to use,” says Scott Dickson Dagondon, director of AI for Motorleaf, who predicts that in the next 10 years, the ag industry will invest a lot of resources to make sure data is collected properly, so it can use AI to uncover answers hidden in the data.

“We believe AI and robotics will help push for more data-driven agriculture because there are a lot of questions without a clear answer today in agriculture, such as how do we optimize irrigation to conserve resources, what crop strains are suitable for a specific location or region and how do we minimize the cost of cultivating specialty crops in response to changes in consumer dietary trends.”

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Angela Lovell

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