Old MacDonald had Big Data — EIEIO

Stephen DeAngelis

February 13, 2014

“Big data. If you haven’t yet heard that term dropped in casual conversation with other farmers,” writes Jim Langcuster, “you likely will — soon.” [“‘Big data’ will change the way you farm,” Southeast Farm Press, 28 August 2013] Langcuster argues that the marriage between precision farming and Big Data will bring about positive changes in the agriculture sector. He bases his conclusions on the observations of three scholars, “John P. Fulton, an Auburn University professor of biosystems engineering who heads the Alabama Cooperative Extension System’s crops team; Simerjeet Virk, a bioystems research engineer at Auburn University; and Andrew Williamson, a British cereal crops producer and Nuffield Farming Scholar.” They “contend that data compiled in real time are already providing producers with a clearer, more comprehensive picture of all facets of farming, whether this happens to be soil science, seed rates, fertilizer optimization or weed and pest control. They predict that this growing body of data will ultimately free producers of much of the day-to-day guesswork associated with farming.”

 

Fulton, Virk, and Williamson are not alone in their assessment of the impact that Big Data will have on farming. Mark van Rijmenam writes, “The agricultural industry has seen many changes in the past 100 years. Since the birth of industrial agriculture in 1900, we have moved forward to the era of digital enhanced agriculture where everything that is done prior to seeding and up to after harvesting produces data that can be analysed. Big data already transformed the agricultural industry a lot and in the coming decade this will become visible in all areas of agriculture in the Western world and increasingly also in the Developed world.” [“From Machines to Crops to Animals: Big Data Turns Traditional Farming Upside Down,” SmartData Collective, 29 August 2013] Van Rijmenam asserts that the agricultural sector will be a significant player in the emerging Internet of Things (IoT), a network that will primarily provide machine-to-machine connectivity. He explains:

“The Internet of Things and the Industrial Internet will greatly affect agricultural machines such as tractors, agricultural sprayers, harvesters, soil cultivating equipment or cow milking machines. Sensors in machines, from large tractors to cow milking machines, can tell the farmer a lot of information, in real-time, 24/7 without the farmer having to be full-time available. The machines are becoming smart machines that can talk to each other as well understand their conditions. Sensors can predict when problems are at hand and can take proper action before actual damage is done. When a problem does occur, the farmer can immediately see what the problem is and take action. If the problem will be more serious, a service employee can visit the farmer before the equipment breaks down thereby minimizing the machine-downtime. In addition, the effective use of sensors within agricultural machines can increase productivity throughout many different agricultural processes. Apart from predicting failures and maintenance, sensors can also help to save farmers a lot of fuel required for harvesting or seeding crops as well as other transportation. Computers can optimize the best driving conditions when working on the land. Especially for farmers who have a large plot of land to maintain, a computer is better able to determine the shortest route to drive when working on the land. In combination with exact coordinates of the land, the optimized road can save a lot of fuel. Combined with machine-to-machine communication, it will help the farmer control the growing number of machines at a farm. When the machines talk to each other, they know each other’s positions and can adjust accordingly if necessary. With smart machines one person can manage an entire fleet of machines, while saving time and money.”

Vince Beiser argues that it’s not just farmers and ranchers who benefit from Big Data. We all win when food production increases. “Today’s farmers are using all of the technology at their disposal to increase yields,” he writes, “which is critical if we hope to feed a rapidly growing population.” [“On America’s Farms, Data Is the New Cash Crop,” Pacific Standard, 11 September 2013] He continues:

“Increasingly, America’s millions of acres of farmland are being mapped, analyzed, planted, and harvested by computer-controlled machines that are directed much more by vast quantities of information than a plowman’s steady hand. Today, one of the most valuable crops farmers are harvesting is data. … The goal of all this is efficiency. Seeds matched to specific soils should yield bigger harvests. Tracking precisely where seeds are dropped or fertilizer is sprayed cuts down on wasteful overlapping of areas that have already been treated.”

Beiser indicates that the down side of all of this technology is cost. As he puts it, “It increases the pressure on farmers to get big or get out.” According to Quentin Hardy, big agricultural entities do, in fact, like Big Data. [“Why Big Ag Likes Big Data,” New York Times, 2 October 2013] According to Hardy, the company that is setting itself up as the 600-pound gorilla in the agricultural Big Data sector is Monsanto. He explains:

“In effect, Monsanto hopes to do for about one billion acres of worldwide farmland what General Electric hopes to do for the electrical grid and the aviation industry: Gain unprecedented insights into the interaction of products as they work in the world, make them work more efficiently and possibly sell new services based on the insights. … That implies working out entirely new businesses, including new kinds of user interfaces for people on tractors, as opposed to researchers and financial analysts. Clearly, the spending isn’t over for Monsanto. Or for that matter, for its competitors. … Oracle is focusing on the global agriculture sector as a place where it can sell Big Data hardware and software. It wants lots of companies to buy this stuff, and everybody is focusing on farmers in India and China as much as the United States.”

Beiser asserts that with the advent of Big Data on the farm comes another concern — Big Data security. “While fields have always been vulnerable to pests and blight,” he writes, “they are now subject to the vulnerabilities of the digital world.” Philip Brasher adds, “Farmers no longer just have to worry about whether it will rain too much or too little, or whether prices for their crops will be high enough to cover their costs. Now, growers increasingly are on edge about big data.” [“As Data Meets Farm Fields, Concerns Begin to Grow,” Roll Call, 24 January 2013] Brasher provides a good discussion about all of the ways that Big Data could be used against farmers if it doesn’t remain secure. “The biggest names in agribusiness,” he writes, “including DuPont Co., Dow Chemical Co. and Deere & Co., as well as Monsanto Co., are taking the technology to a new level of sophistication and usefulness by collecting and analyzing it for farmers online and via the cloud. … Leading the way in raising questions about data privacy is the American Farm Bureau Federation, the nation’s largest farm organization. … [The Federation recently] approved a 13-point policy laying out how farmers’ data should be handled and protected. Among other things, the policy states that any data collected from farmers should remain their property and that companies should return data to farmers who request it. The policy says no data should be deposited with a government agency, where it could be subject to public release under the Freedom of Information Act.”

 

Despite potential concerns, most analysts seem to agree that the adoption of Big Data in the agricultural sector will have mostly beneficial effects. For example, Suzy Friedman, the Environmental Defense Fund’s sustainable agriculture director, concludes, “Ultimately, data-smart farmers will be able to keep more land under production, since they won’t have to guess where to maintain buffers and wetlands. This kind of precision filtering will also save society money, because buffers and wetlands are a much less costly way of assuring clean water than water treatment plants.” [“Farmers embrace big data to reduce pollution,” Environmental Defense Fund, 1 October 2013] It’s fairly rare to find environmentalists and big business on the same side. That alone speaks to the value of Big Data in agriculture.