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Can Big Data Answer Farmers' Questions?

Data driven farming is a relatively new concept, but what effect will it have?

17Nov

When data is mentioned, it normally brings to mind high tech industries, huge data infrastructures and Silcon Valley. Few would think about tractors, farming and crops.

This is all changing though, as farming is adopting Big Data to help maximise crop yields and minimise wastage.

As the world population grows and urban areas expand to meet demand, we are seeing an increased demand for farming in smaller and smaller areas. The hope is that through the use of data, the potential of the land being used can increase and the amount of produce created can increase.

What many outside of the farming community do not know is that small changes like the distances between rows of crops or the depth of the seeds when being sowed can have a huge effect on the wield and the profitability of any harvest. Through digitising some of the process and allowing for computers to register the optimum row distance and seed depth, farmers can maximise their returns.

Some have trepidations about this, as they are naturally wary of where the data will be shared. If it were to fall into the hands of a neighbour they would be able to predict how much they would be charging for certain crops and undercut them. Equally, if the data fell into the hands of a big agriculture (big ag) company, they would be able to predict land prices or potential revenue, then undercut their prices or buy out their land.

Much modern farming equipment has the capability to track the data in effective ways and farm vehicles even have iPads and laptops in the cabs. GPS has allowed crop lines to be created in increasingly straighter lines and therefore more seeds planted in a smaller area. It has been a long held practice, but the reality is that the data being collected is often stored incorrectly, so it could be in piles of paper in a filing cabinet or a thumb drive in somebody’s pocket. The joined up thinking that most data driven industries have created has quite often not translated to farming.

However, platforms are now available to push this data to the cloud and make it accessible across several different platforms. This will allow for farmers to truly make the most of the data available to them as it will make it possible to analyse it across the enterprise, rather than in isolated silos.

The power that this data could have is significant, Monsanto (the world’s largest seed company) estimate that data driven planting advice could increase crop production by $20 billion worldwide. In real numbers for individual farmers, this would see farmers gain an extra $182 per acre based on recent prices.

One of the ways that this manifests itself is through the use of ‘prescriptive planting’. This is explained in the illustration below.

It has seen significant results for farmers according to Monsanto and Du Pont (who have implemented similar systems), but there has been significant opposition to these plans from farmers unions.

They claim that the data being collected will be used to help set seed prices even higher (the price of seeds per acre has leapt from $45 to $118 since 2005) and despite promises from the companies that this will not be the case, many farmers are still sceptical.

Overall, the effect that Big Data can have on the farming world could be huge. In the face of increasing global demand for food, it could be one of the best weapons to fight any shortfalls. However, as with everything data driven, it needs to become transparent before it can be fully trusted by everybody. 

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