How farmers are harnessing big data to tend fields of the future

Drones can help apple growers survey their orchards to gauge their health. (Innov8 Ag Photo) In the old days, farmers kept track of their crops’ vital stats in logbooks and on whiteboards — but in the new days, that’s just not going to cut it. “Shun analog,” said Steve Mantle, […]

Drone survey
Drones can help apple growers survey their orchards to gauge their health. (Innov8 Ag Photo)

In the old days, farmers kept track of their crops’ vital stats in logbooks and on whiteboards — but in the new days, that’s just not going to cut it.

“Shun analog,” said Steve Mantle, the founder and CEO of Innov8 Ag Solutions, a farm management venture that’s headquartered in Walla Walla, Wash. “Digital first. If a grower is still putting things in logbooks, they have to shift to it.”

Mantle and other experts and entrepreneurs surveyed the state of agricultural tech today during Washington State University’s Digital Agriculture Summit — and it’s clear that the field is in a state of flux.

The panelists gave a shout-out to technologies ranging from sensor-equipped drones and 5G connectivity to robotic harvesters and artificial intelligence. But at the same time, some in the virtual audience complained about not being able to get even a 4G signal down on the farm.

Much more needs to be done to bring the agricultural data revolution to full fruition, said Kurt Steck, managing general partner of the 5G Open Innovation Lab, based in Bellevue, Wash.

“Most of the networks are consumer-oriented and very urban-dense,” Steck said. “We’re building a testbed so that we can start to build the right applications and show operators that there is a business case potentially here, because of the amounts of data that can add value to farmers and growing operations. But we have to prove that business model out to the operators. They don’t see it inherently.”

Innov8 Ag is one of the pioneers for that business model: This summer, it worked with the 5G Open Innovation Lab’s other partners on a pilot project in the Tri-Cities area to employ drones, sensors, imaging tools, high-bandwidth connectivity and Microsoft’s cloud platform to create “Smart Orchards”:

And that’s not all: Just last week, Innov8 Ag, Microsoft and WSU organized a “Digital AgAthon” to develop data-based tools for farmers of the future.

“It brought together roughly 60 or so students from a cross-section of bioscience and computer science, data science,” Mantle said. “Coming into this, 70 or 80 percent of these folks didn’t have cloud computing background at all, but they came up to speed fast on it.”

Loftus Ranches is up to speed as well. Hops for the craft beer industry are the family-owned business’ big-ticket crop, so much so that Loftus hosts a brewery on its property in Yakima, Wash. But the company has also created a data analytics team called Loftus Labs that markets solutions and services to the wider ag industry.

Dan Maycock, vice president of data and information technology at Loftus Ranches, said it’s important to look beyond the gadgetry and focus on what brings a solid return on investment.

“I have personally been in analytics for 17 years,” Maycock said. “I’ve worked at Boeing, I’ve worked at Amazon, I’ve worked at a number of different companies. No one benefits from just pretty pictures on walls, or putting out data points. It has to be impactful for the types of problems the folks in agriculture are facing.”

The best tech tools make it easier for farmers to deal with age-old questions: How much water and fertilizer do my crops need? Where are the threats from pests or pathogens on the rise, and what do I need to do to head off those threats? What should I be growing next year to take advantage of anticipated markets?

Such questions are becoming more acute as farms get bigger and the labor pool gets tighter. Senthold Asseng, a professor at the University of Florida who specializes in cropping systems modeling, noted that the proportion of the U.S. labor market devoted to farming has shrunk from 90% in 1800, to 40% in 1900, to just 1.7% today.

In the years ahead, many of the farmer’s traditional chores are likely to be handed over to robots and sensor networks, Asseng said. “What’s really the next big challenge, which I don’t think will be very far away, is putting this all together onto a farm,” he added.

Asseng sees the farmer of the future as more of a data manager who watches over sensor networks, AI-enabled analytical platforms and robotic field hands.

To some, that vision may sound like a nightmare, leading to the consolidation of mega-farms tended solely by machines. But Asseng argues that high-tech tools could make it possible for family farmers to regain their foothold.

“The previous trend of becoming bigger and bigger, larger and larger farms, because it becomes more efficient to drive large tractors — that might get broken with this new revolution we see,” he said. “Economy of scale might become less important, because it’s not a person driving the robot or the drone anymore. … You can actually manage rather small farms with this new technology very efficiently.”

Asseng’s vision may sound like a stretch — but technological paradigm shifts have already created new niches for independent entrepreneurs at businesses like Uber, Airbnb and Etsy. Who knows? Maybe tech-enabled, small-scale farming is a concept that’s finally ripe for the picking.

GeekWire contributing editor Alan Boyle was the moderator for today’s session on technology for digital agriculture. Washington State University’s Digital Agriculture Summit 2020 continues on Wednesday. For information about attending the virtual conference, send email to [email protected]

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