Interpreting farm data - the next high-tech frontier?

Robert Parkhurst

Editor’s note: This is an adaptation of a blog post first published on EDF’s Growing Returns.

Here’s a number that recently caught our attention: During the first half of 2015, venture capitalists invested no less than $2.06 billion in ag tech.

Ag what?

These are start-ups and entrepreneurs who aggregate data from individual farmers and share it with other farmers in a large network to help growers learn and gain insights – all with the goal of increasing yields and cutting operational costs.

Farmers look at the data to see how their performance measures up against similar growers when it comes to issues such as fertilizer usage and yield per square foot, and manufacturers use it to produce equipment targeted to specific regions or crops.

But this emerging market brings environmental benefits as well.

When farmers use pesticides and fertilizers more efficiently, water and air quality will improve. Data collection is also critical for farmers eligible to participate in up-and-coming carbon markets for growers, where they can get paid for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

651 petabytes of corn data

While “big data” has been embraced by Silicon Valley for years to gather insight on consumer behavior or to analyze healthcare costs, its use in agriculture is new. That’s because the widespread adoption of precision agriculture technologies only recently made it possible to collect massive amounts of data.

Some companies estimate they can collect seven gigabytes of data for every acre. Looking at America’s roughly 93 million acres of corn, this totals 651 petabytes – equal to more than 145 million DVDs worth of data annually.

In a changing climate, the collection and interpretation of such massive amounts of data is going to be critical as we try to figure out what to grow, and how, for our rapidly expanding population.

The opportunity is not lost on our established, big brands. 

In September, Monsanto, owner of the data analytics company Climate Corporation, said it would reposition its brand to become a data science and services company. In recent months, other large ag companies such as DuPont Pioneer and Bayer CropScience also announced they’re launching data services.

As for the actual collection of farm data, drones may turn out to be the next big thing.

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