How Big Data is Changing Agriculture

Among all the talk within the tech and startup community, there isn’t enough said about agriculture. If there’s any sector certain to remain lucrative year after year—well, just remember that no matter what changes occur in the economy, people have always gotta eat.

Agriculture may not be as sexy as something like software development or ecommerce, but it’s essential for all our lives. And it’s a well of opportunity for innovation-minded entrepreneurs who want to do something that’ll put them on the map.

What Agriculture is up Against

Modern agriculture calls for innovation if only because of simple mathematics: by 2050, the earth is projected to have some 9.7 billion people on it—that’s 2.4 billion more than the 7.3 billion we currently have. If we want to be able to feed everyone, we’re going to have to find ways to increase agricultural output using the same amount of farmland. If we can’t, we’re going to be in serious trouble.

Fortunately, if past instances of human ingenuity are an indicator, we should be able to achieve it. The Green Revolution, which occurred roughly between the 1940s and 1950s,  gave us technologies like synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, improve crop varieties, and better irrigation systems and pesticides. All of these improved crop yields by over 50 percent over the course of the last half century.

Modern needs call for technologies that can produce similar results. Specifically, farms needs technology that can:

  • Optimize planting
  • Immediately identify disease outbreaks
  • Create better seeds and hybrids

In the era of the information-based economy, it’s no surprise that the solution to these needs is coming in the form of big data.

Big Data and Farming

There are already a handful of players in agricultural big data, and that number is growing as firms see the value of data capture and analytics tools on the farm. Trusted providers of farm equipment like John Deere and DuPont are already in on the big data game, creating farm tools like tractors and combines that acquire important farm information and then use it to inform work. Think self-driving, GPS-programmed tractors that not only move themselves, but do so at less than an inch of error.

Big data, when combined with precision agriculture, can produce higher yield while lowering costs. Monsanto, which started out as a chemical manufacturing company, has become one of the biggest names in agricultural big data today. FieldScripts, their main software, combines weather data, seed and root space analytics, and other systems to calculate soil productivity.

Monsanto, founded in 1901, has been in agriculture since the 1960s. Nevertheless, newcomers are finding success as well. Farmlogs is a startup whose software tracks soil composition, heat accumulation and rainfall. It plugs directly into combines and costs farmers $750 per year. Farmlogs is currently being used on a third of farms in America.

What’s the Future of Agricultural Big Data?

This new field is promising. There’s no doubt that farmers will universally adopt big data technologies; they’re going to have to if they want to remain competitive. The challenge technology providers face is convincing farmers that their products are safe. Many worry that the data collected in the cloud will be sold to competitors or regulatory agencies. Monsanto and other big data firms assure that isn’t on their agenda.

As the polar opposite fields of big data and agriculture and big data come together, our prospects for the future become brighter.

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