Big Data in Agriculture

Over the next few months, I'll be writing blogs on some non-traditional industries that use big data. I'm looking forward to sharing updates and information on how big data can be used in all industries, not just the ones we typically associate with technology.

Farming is something most of us take for granted. We go to the grocery store and pick out our food without giving much thought to where our food came from or what went into growing it. We think of small quaint farms where farmers plant seeds, ride small tractors and then harvest their crops. However, many farms in the United States rely heavily on technology and are turning to big data to help them become more efficient, cost-effective, and less environmentally impactful.

Today’s tractors not only use sensors to collect information that help with preventative maintenance, but tractors also have multiple computer screens and sensors on them that collect information from everything from nitrogen and pH levels in the soil to how far apart the seeds are. Farmers tend to use this information while planting, however, many farmers do not use the information they’ve collected after the fact.

Farmers are also using “precision farming” to help make farming more efficient. This technique can mean many things, but ultimately it means using information about the soil and crops in a specific area to maximize the output of the crop and minimize the production cost for a crop. Farmers can use this information for everything from identifying the best places to plant certain crops to how many plants per acre they can plant.

In the future, we can expect to see more farmers adopting precision farming and other big data techniques. The big data market for agriculture is expected to grow from a $2.4B industry in 2014 to a $5.04B industry in 2020 (Research and Markets Global Precision Agriculture Market 2014-2020) and with the population projected to grow to 9 billion people by 2050, farmers will need to increase outputs significantly to keep up with demand. We’re already seeing some very interesting ways that precision farming and big data solutions us can be implemented at larger facilities. For example, Gallo Winery recently implemented a system that takes satellite imagery of their vineyards and determines which plants are getting too little or too much water. The images are processed, analyzed and then the sprinkler that is connected to an individual plant is automatically adjusted to give it either more or less water.  Water consumption at Gallo Winery has been reduced by 25% since the system was implemented, the health and production of the plants has increased and the costs associated with workers manually watering individual plants has decreased.

The real power of big data will be when farmers start sharing their data with companies. In the past, farmers have been very hesitant to share the data they collect to corporations. Many farmers view the information from their fields as propriety and are worried that the information generated from their farms will be shared with commodity traders or other farmers. They are also worried that seed and equipment companies will use the information to sell farmers higher prices goods. However, seed and equipment companies need information from individual farms in order to improve their software and products so farmers can keep achieving the best results possible. In the next few years, I believe seed and equipment companies will start focusing on how to earn the trust of farmer and proactively show farmers how sharing this information will lead to substantial ROIs for the farmers. Also, as time progresses farmers will become more comfortable with big data and the technologies and realize that the payoff of higher yields and ultimately lower costs will persuade farmers to share their data.

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