American Farmers Want a Piece of the Big Data Revolution

With the aid of new technologies, farmers could significantly reduce their ecological footprint — and cut costs.

This isn’t your granddad’s tractor.

The machines on the 5,000 acres where Jim Schmidt grows corn, soybeans, and wheat record reams of data as they work. They log how much fertilizer they spread, how much fuel they burn, how much moisture is in the soil, and how many horsepower they’re producing.

Figuring out how to harness those metrics is a burgeoning "agri-tech" sector that aims to help farmers like Schmidt boost their profit margins — and harvest some environmental benefits, too.

“We are probably utilizing just the tip of the iceberg as far as what our data could be telling us,” said Schmidt, who left an engineering job to join his wife’s family farm near Junction City, Kansas. “Right now we have a lot of ways of collecting data, but right, wrong, or indifferent, we don’t have a lot of things to do with that data.”

Today’s farm equipment is packed with electronics, able to communicate with each other and with computers back at the house. But Schmidt estimates that less than one byte in five gets put to work, and he and other farmers are looking for some better way to analyze it.

“When we get the proper tools in place, we’ll be able to utilize that historical data and be that much more efficient and effective in how we use our resources and operate our farm,” he said.

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He’s not the only one looking for that solution. A survey released last fall by financial analysts at Boston Consulting Group found data and analytics were the top priority for agricultural technology investors. Farm equipment companies are the biggest players, but the interest is widespread across the industry, the study concluded.

And one of the big goals of what’s sometimes called “precision agriculture” is calculating how much — or how little — fertilizer it takes to get the most out of an acre of land. If farmers can grow more with less, that helps their bottom line and helps head off problems beyond the fence.

“We haven’t fully tapped into that potential,” said Robert Parkhurst, director of agriculture and greenhouse gas markets at the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF). “Someone that can really make the analysis and feedback on a grand scale available to farmers, they’re going to be the ones that are really successful. There are dozens of companies trying that right now, and trying it from different angles, but it’s still very new.” 

Far downstream of the Midwestern farm belt, the nitrogen- and phosphorus-rich runoff from those fertilized fields pours out of the Mississippi River delta into the Gulf of Mexico. Those nutrients fuel a process that has produced an oxygen-depleted “dead zone” in the northern Gulf that in 2015 was the size of Connecticut and Rhode Island combined.

“We’re hoping through this use of data and technology we can actually peak and reverse that,” said Parkhurst, whose organization has been working with farmers to try to fine-tune the amount of fertilizer they need.

Farm runoff also fueled toxic algal blooms that fouled parts of Lake Erie in recent years. And nitrous oxide — a byproduct of fertilizer use — is a potent greenhouse gas, carrying a planet-warming punch 300 times larger than the same amount of carbon dioxide. Farms make up about 9 percent of US greenhouse emissions, and they’re the source of nearly four-fifths of the nitrous oxide output, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

When EDF helped the sprawling retailer Walmart calculate its carbon footprint, it found the biggest single chunk wasn’t the fuel burned by its delivery trucks or the steel and concrete in its thousands of stores; it was the nitrogen fertilizer used to produce the food it sold, Parkhurst said.

“Even small changes in the amount of N2O that’s generated form your fertilizer use has a huge environmental benefit,” Parkhurst said. “So you can have a big bang for a small buck.”

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The promise of precision agriculture has been out there for more than 20 years, said David Bullock, an agricultural economist at the University of Illinois. But it’s taken time for the technology to catch up to the promise, and there’s still a lot of work to be done “to know what to do where in the field.”

“All kinds of companies are trying to sell farmers stuff, so I think a lot of times they’re wary of whether they’re being sold something worthwhile or not,” Bullock said. “I would say there’s a long way to go.”

He said some companies have entered the field using algorithms that are outdated or based on weak data, or make claims that aren’t well-grounded in science.

To help remedy that, Bullock and his brother Don — an agronomist at Illinois — have been experimenting with a grid of hundreds of patches of nearby farmland, tweaking fertilizer amounts on each patch to match it with yields under different conditions. They monitor how much seed gets spread, what the weather does, the topology of the patch, and the moisture and water flow in the soil.

“The hope is we can use those numbers to start telling folks how to farm better,” Bullock said. “But it’s hard, because there’s not enough data. We’re looking for tools that can gather data cheaply and be useful. That’s part of the research challenge.”

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Despite the growth of massive agricultural corporations, more than 90 percent of farms remain family-owned operations, Parkhurst said. Many of them historically have held hard numbers about their costs and yields close to the chest. They’ve been open to sharing the data modern implements collect with manufacturers and universities, but generally reluctant to open up to environmental groups or food companies that buy their products, he said.

Schmidt said farmers need something in return for that data, which he said could be traded like the commodities he grows.

“We would love to have a software firm come in here and develop algorithms that look at a 6-year history and tell us, ‘Based on this nutrient, based on this weather or climate, based on your harvest data, here is with 80 percent accuracy your best move for the next cropping season,’” Schmidt said.

“I want to be able to do that," he added. "I don’t want somebody sitting in a corporate office in St. Louis or the Quad Cities or Chicago doing that. Because at the end of the day, they will better their bottom line, but this is my data. I want to be able to better my bottom line.”

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