Farmers in America are ploughing into the future. They are increasingly using the latest computer technology to better meet the world’s growing demand for food. This is expected to double by the year 2050, according to Jesse Vollmar, a 26-year-old Michigan farmer turned big data entrepreneur.
“We’ll have to [feed ourselves] without getting any more farmland,” he said. “In fact, we actually lose farm ground every single year.”
Growing up on a farm run by his family for five generations, Vollmar knows first-hand the many variables and risks that rankle farmers year after year. Unpredictable weather and variable soil conditions are among the plethora of challenges that make farming more a game of chance than a sure bet.
“[My family farming experience] really shaped my view… for how we can go create things that build new value in the world,” said Vollmar.
At an early age, Vollmar became fascinated with information technology and saw it as an essential tool for future farmers. In 2012, he co-founded FarmLogs, a data analytics firm used by more than 60,000 farmers. In just three years, more than 20% of U.S. farms are using FarmLogs, which it claims is the “easiest way to make fields more profitable.”
Farming has really changed forever
“Farming has really changed forever,” Vollmar said. “The next big wave of transformation in this industry will come from data science, in applying the new information that we have in the world into agriculture and helping farmers use that to get the most out of every acre they farm.”
Vollmar said that today’s data center technologies are allowing him to do things that just a few short years ago would have never been possible without access to supercomputing resources. Farmers can now look at every single acre of a field and figure out how to manage it specifically for the soil and crop health that exists at any particular location.
Like in financial services, healthcare, transportation, manufacturing and other key industries, the ability to bring the right data into the decision making process is also essential for managing agriculture operations, according to Jason Waxman, vice president of Intel’s Data Center Group.
“Moore’s Law has brought dramatic advances in computing and memory technologies, increasing capability and affordability,” said Waxman. “As a result, the ability to store and analyse large amounts of information in real time is leading to breakthroughs in analytics across industries.”
Analytics can keep companies agile, inventive and efficient
Insights from data analytics help people make informed decisions that keep companies agile, inventive, efficient and attuned to customer needs, said Waxman. He gave the example of how retailers are using real-time data analytics to make sure they have the right products in stock at the right time in a world where more people are using the Internet and mobile devices to manage their lives.
Waxman pointed out that, according to a 2014 IDG Enterprise Big Data Research report, almost half of businesses are either already pursuing or planning to pursue advanced analytics initiatives.
“These technologies are helping people bring big ideas to life that are benefiting businesses and society,” he said.
FarmLogs uses software algorithms powered by high-end computing technology that analyses information from publicly available data and from sensors placed on farm equipment, which send real-time field data to the Internet.
Seeing soil conditions, precipitation levels and other field measurements, along with analysis of that data, on a computer, tablet or a smartphone screen can help farmers adjust their resources on any given day or moment.
“This enables farmers to get a real-time look at their field performance, something they never would have had that in the past,” said Vollmar. “They can see everything happening across their farm, such as harvest data, growing conditions and vegetative health, all in real-time.”
The agriculture industry calls this approach “precision farming,” which is expected to be worth $4.55 billion by 2020, according to a report published by MarketsandMarkets.
Vollmar said technology can help farmers grow more using less, which is critical for places like California, a state threatened by several consecutive years of severe drought.
Technology can help farmers grow more using less
“Water is a huge factor in growing crops,” Vollmar told Fox Business News in April. “We have a particular feature that helps farmers all over the country monitor precipitation at the field and get better, higher-resolution data about what’s happening in their fields. Having better technology that assists you in making more informed decisions about when to irrigate and when to hold back [helps farmers].”
Without having to drive out to check a rain gauge, a farmer can see how much rain each field has accumulated.
“They can control their operations and logistics more efficiently, and they can even evaluate new farms and how productive that farm would be based on 10 years of rainfall history,” said Vollmar.
He said FarmLogs has analyzed very high-resolution, multi-spectral imagery over nearly the entire U.S., allowing them to measure on a 5×5-meter basis how healthy a farmers’ plants were throughout the last five growing seasons.
This creates a baseline that help farmers understand and quantify the variability and make decisions based on FarmLog’s recommendations.
“With that data, we’re not only able to help them get the most out of every acre by diverting resources into areas where the farm demands it, but we’re also able to monitor in-season how the changes that we’re seeing in the field balance against the baseline,” he said. “That helps farmers eliminate yield loss by reacting to problems much faster than ever before.”
In addition to providing decision-making recommendations based on data analytics, Vollmar said FarmLogs can help automate mundane tasks while farmers are harvesting.
“We’re able to program a tractor and tell it how to adjust the seeds based on the soil that it’s driving over at that moment,” he said. “This helps farmers react instantly to what’s happening in their fields.”
For Vollmar, everything starts with data. Now more than ever, farmers must rely less on gut instinct and more on data to make informed decisions on the farm.
“I see us constantly challenging the status quo and thinking about how technology can enable greater productivity and efficiency on the farm,” said Vollmar. “We’re able to solve some of the really big challenges that our planet is facing.”