To feed the world's rapidly-expanding population in the coming decades, agriculture must produce more. Big data holds one of the keys for farmers, but it's also a weapon that could be used against them.
Dusty wooden stairs lead up to the barn office, which overlooks miles of green fields and giant combines parked on gravel drives. It's a cool April day in Palmyra, Indiana, and there is a high chance of rain. Six men huddle around a table, hunched over computers.
A transaction is finishing up. Jeff McGee, an independent farmer from across the Ohio River, is handed a thin cardboard box with a crop yield monitor inside. He nervously eyes it before tucking the package under his arm, quietly asking questions about how to set up an account, where to buy his new iPad. He hands over a credit card to the Climate Corporation salesman, watches as the numbers are punched into a digital form. In the background, fingers type quickly, entering soil test results gathered earlier this week. Tablets on the desk buzz, notifying they're finished syncing cloud data. An infrared map of a nearby field glows on the computer monitor, showing precipitation trends from the past week.
McGee looks around. Skepticism lines his face, but confidence fills his voice. "I didn't want to be the first one over the fence, but I sure didn't want to be the last one," he says.
Congratulatory handshakes are offered before McGee walks out the door. Robert Jones, the owner of this large-scale farm operation who informed McGee about the technology, adjusts his overalls and sits back down, looking satisfied. This is a big day for the agriculture industry.
McGee just stepped into the world of modern farming.
An industry in transition
A farmer knows his every acre. Each inch the crop grows. Each species of bug that may destroy it. The wind, the rain, the snow, the frost, the heat, the dust. He knows the effects of it all.
But he is limited. More often than not, a farmer doesn't have the manpower or the capital to do anything with the data he collects. Frankly, he doesn't have the time. So he uses tools that have been around for over a decade: walkie-talkies, Excel spreadsheets, USB drives to transport what he can to an agronomist, who studies the science of producing food.
During the tech boom of recent decades, the agriculture world has quietly been introduced to data aggregation technology. John Deere built data systems into their machinery, farmers started enabling Wi-Fi in barns and in combines, and larger farms started using software to manage their operations. Adoption has been slow, and systems are often unwanted because they create lock-in to the software, incompatible with the variety of other tools and brands used on the farm.
"There were the pieces of the puzzle and nobody had the wherewithal to pull them together, so a false hope was provided and there was frustration on the part of farmers and managers," said Dennis Buckmaster, who teaches in the Ag and Biological Engineering department at Purdue University. "This led to nowhere, so what good was that. Some used it in limited ways, but it didn't deliver the punch that was initially promised."
Now, with the burden of figuring out how to feed the 9 billion people that will be on this planet by 2050, farmers are in a state of flux. While they live every day knowing threats to food security are looming, they are caught in a profession that is often viewed as archaic and they have struggled to progress in the 21st century.
And then Monsanto caught on.
Monsanto considered big data in agriculture to be worth multi-billion dollar investments, evidenced by their acquisition of several farm data analytics companies between May 2012 and February 2014. The technology has the potential to increase yield production, and as we near an era of history wrought with more people and less resources, this makes farming one of the most important careers in the world.
The power of farming data is insurmountable, and it is also dangerous. If someone knows the data of an operation, they also know when and where the crops are, how much yield, how much it costs, and the farm's profits. The overwhelming fear is that it falls into the wrong hands, be it a neighbor, a seed retailer, a fertilizer company, or a big ag corporation. And then that data is used against the farmer by being sold to a competitor or undercutting a neighbor for a better deal on land prices.
Farmers and big ag companies are racing to find the holy grail of precision agriculture. Precision technology is a farming management concept that measures and responds to field variability for crops, often using satellites and GPS tracking systems. It has become more and more prevalent in recent history because of the advanced technology systems available on farms. A survey of soybean farmers in 2012 showed a rapid payback using these technologies — a 15% savings on seed, fertilizer, and chemicals. Another study, cited by Raj Khosla, a professor and senior science advisor for the Department of State, found that farmers using only one type of precision technologies increased their yield by 16% and cut down water use by 50%.
If farmers take it seriously enough — and harness the power of precision agriculture appropriately — farmers stand a chance to double their output to feed those 9 billion people and shift societal perceptions of the ag industry.
And if they choose not to heed these warnings, there's a general consensus about the world we'll live in in 50 years. Ask any of these farmers that are trying to be proactive rather than reactive — they'll tell you bluntly: it looks bleak.
Big ag, little trust
Douglas Hackney is the president of Enterprise Group, Ltd., an author, and public speaker. Like many others trying to educate the public on this pressing topic, he speaks with a strong sense of urgency. To him, everything is happening so quickly, he can't spread the word fast enough. Being a former farmer and a data consultant, he knows how this issue will affect both worlds.
"Farmers are unlike other business people...people rarely bet a whole company on [one decision]," he said. "A farmer does that every spring, and he's putting that much on the line every year."
Trust is a currency in this world. Farmers need people they trust to inform the many decisions they make every year, Hackney said. The agricultural world has evolved to rely so much on seed sellers, weed killer-sellers, fertilizer sellers, local tractor dealers. And now, data aggregation and predictive analytics. And if that trust is broken, they need an alternative.
The 1940s to the late 1960s spanned the Green Revolution, a time when research and technological initiatives spurred the growth of agricultural production worldwide, particularly in developing nations. Norman Borlaug is credited as the father of the Green Revolution, and some say he saved millions of people with these initiatives because it increased agricultural production and food consumption in these nations so much.
Some of the technologies included advanced irrigation systems, pesticides, synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, and improved crop varieties that were modified to become hybrid species so farmers could produce higher yields.
These advances had a tremendous effect on global agriculture. One study showed that people in the developing world consumed 25% more calories after the Green Revolution.
Since then, the major advancements in crops have surrounded genetic modification of crops and plants to make them resistant to insects, especially the monocrop fields on large-scale farms, as well as stronger pesticides (think DDT) and fertilizers to protect the plants.
These pesticides and other innovations to make the farming process more convenient and efficient and paved the way for the world of agriculture we know today. And now, what often comes to mind when someone mentions farming?
The company has become demonized as a face of corporate greed and evil, but they also completely revolutionized the agriculture industry, and they weren't even in the field to begin with.
Monsanto was founded in 1901 as a chemical company that sold DDT, cow hormones, PCB, and Aspartame. But in the 1980s, Monsanto started buying seed companies and investing in biotech research, strategically transitioning into an agriculture company. They created their first genetically modified product: the "Round-up Ready soybean," in 1996. Though it took off in the US, the product didn't go over well in Europe, who called the company out for its GMO use.
GMOs — and the way Monsanto has marketed them — have everything to do with big data and the next phase of agriculture, as we'll see.
Monsanto acquired Precision Planting, a maker of hardware and software that assists farmers with seed space, depth, and root systems in fields, in early 2012. In October 2013, the company bought Climate Corporation, a weather data analysis startup in San Francisco, for almost a billion dollars. Then, in February 2014, Climate Corporation bought Solum, a soil testing service based in San Francisco.
Monsanto's primary software product, FieldScripts, works with all of these systems to determine soil productivity and yield.
"As we've expanded the last five years and delved deeply into agriculture, it has helped farmers fundamentally protect their operations, and that may just sound like words, but they really need something very specific," said Greg Smirin, COO of Climate Corporation. The two main parts of Climate Corporation, he added, are to protect farmers from drastic weather events with crop insurance and improve yield through data analytics.
Monsanto's toxic image has been formed by the company's lawsuits, alleged illegal lobbying, defense of GMOs, and the public's occasionally misconstrued perceptions about all of these things. This lack of trust for the biggest seed retailer in the world with the biggest monopoly over the ag industry is important.
"We expect the precision agriculture space to continue to grow quickly as data becomes cheaper to store and easier to move from platform to platform," said Brett Begemann, Monsanto's president and COO. "We are just beginning to explore all the value we can create for farmers with these tools."
The company saw the opportunity in this industry long before the public did, and they bet on it. Whether or not anyone trusts Monsanto, it's undeniable the company has a way of capitalizing on trends in agriculture, and data is their new target.
"From the brand management standpoint, the next big thing is data, so how to win in market? With a toxic brand, it makes a lot of sense to buy another brand and roll up everything in that." Hackney said.
Wide eyes. Grimaces. Crossed arms. Breaths caught mid-sentence. Huffs and sighs when the air comes back. Tense muscles against cold, aluminum chairs.
These are flashes from the latest farm conferences around the country. Six months ago, several members of the American Farm Bureau said, data wasn't even a topic on the agenda. Today, it's in PowerPoint slides, hallway conversations, and question-and-answer sessions.
The paranoia in the community stems from the question that begs to be asked: What's going to happen to that data once it is turned loose to the big vendors, the seed companies, the equipment dealers, and how that data might be used.
"You can't go to one of those [conferences] where someone doesn't come up and say what's going on, my dealer's been pushing me this spring to sign this agreement, should I do that...They are all thirsting for more knowledge," said Don Villwock, president of Indiana Farm Bureau.
For many farmers, the worse case scenario is the data getting to their neighbor, who can in turn show a landlord their low productivity or mistakes and offer to work the field themselves.
According to the US Department of Agriculture, in 2012, agriculture and related industries contributed $775.8 billion to the gross domestic product, a 4.8% share. The agricultural output was about 1% of the GDP. About 9% of jobs in the US in 2012 were related to agriculture, and 2.6 million of those jobs were direct on-farm employment. About 2 million farms are in the US, and they average about 430 acres. The amount of acreage is larger because the amount of farmland hasn't decreased in proportion to the amount of farmers, which have dropped due to more large scale and industrial agriculture companies buying up the land.
"For a big data company, what is a farmer? It's an account number, that grower's next to everyone else's," Hackney said. "For a farmer, if their data falls into the wrong hands, it's an existential threat."
Production is the most important word in this industry, and increased productivity is undoubtedly the main contributor to economic growth in US agriculture. From 1948 to 2011, the US farm output more than doubled, growing at about 1.5% a year. In 2013, the USDA stated corn farmers in the US averaged 160 bushels an acre, though several farmers said that is an exaggeration. Some reports said this can grow to 200 bushels with precision technology.
But that's not enough. The average American may not think about it, but in the back of every farmer's mind (and for that matter, almost everyone in the ag industry's) is how to feed the world, especially that big, hairy number of 9 billion in 2050. It's why hybrid seeds are attractive, and why big ag is winning. It's why tracking data on a new level is revolutionary. A Monsanto estimate stated that planting advice could lead to a $20 billion a year increase in worldwide crop production.
"I think the biggest thing is educating the public," said Matthew Erickson, economist for the American Farm Bureau Federation. "Farmers use precision technologies to make them better farmers. They can't create ground, and they're losing crop ground, so they must maximize field potential in that ground, so it's making farmers more efficient."
One-fifth of US land is used for crop production. But, according to the EPA, some 3,000 acres of farmland are lost each day in the US. According to the U.S. Census, the cropland used for crops dropped from 341 million to 335 million from 1990 to 2010. But the amount of crops harvested — 322 million — stayed the same.
Over a lunch of roast beef sandwiches at a local diner, Chris, Robert, and George Bercaw, their longtime friend and crop insurance seller, discuss their concerns about the data and productivity.
"My concern is, I'm out there trying to do the right thing with farming practices, and the GPS tracks everything," Chris said. "Am I going to get a phone call from the EPA, asking 'did you know you were spraying too close to this pond,' or 'you're in violation of this fertilizer limit'?"
If the wind blew wrong, he made a mistake, or the computer miscalculated, he could be fined.
"There's a footprint wherever you go," he said.
That footprint is a double-edged sword for farmers. There's a dangerous "big brother" feel to the system. But on the other end, they are strengthened by the data. If extreme environmentalists come knocking, trying to accuse them of using too many pesticides or the wrong type of seed, they can simply pull out an iPhone and provide evidence to the contrary.
"Sometimes it makes it more complicated, but it makes it a different job," said Jake Rowland, a precision agriculture technician for Helena Chemical who analyzes soil data for the Jones' farm. "It keeps you honest."
It's also helpful to consumers. As the industrial agriculture industry has been put under fire for its carbon emissions, mistreatment of animals, and unlabeled GMOs, both small and large farms have more to prove to the public.
"To that degree, it does make farming a little more transparent to the general public," Villwock said. "It's a good story to tell and have the data to back up."
The farm-to-fork movement has gained traction with films like Forks Over Knives and Food Inc. The disconnect between people and their plates has become concerning for a large part of the population and these data sets have the ability to bridge the gap. It's not a stretch to think one day, we could be handed a tablet at a restaurant with the name and background of the farm, the lifecycle of the vegetables it produced, and pick our meal based on the most trustworthy data set. This may give us the ability to know our food, and in turn, we will hopefully respect the farming process in a way unlike ever before.
Data put to action
Chris Jones is a 29-year-old father of two. He smiles often while he works, characteristic of his laid-back attitude. A graduate of Purdue, Chris is one of the few in his class who came back to work on the family farm.
He climbs into the cab of the combine, which is filled with wires, chargers, and a router. The Precision Planting monitor flashes on and he flips through the field data. Not much is on there today, but he scrolls through the soil maps to show their potential.
Climate Basic is free for anyone to use, but with Climate Pro now, which costs $15 an acre, the company states farmers can increase profits by an average of $100 an acre. The Jones family used Climate Corporation for weather insurance for four years before Monsanto bought the company.
Chris laughs, half-joking it seems, and eyes Bercaw.
"Damn Monsanto, we can't get away!" he said.
When we arrive back at the office, Chris and Bercaw roll up to the desk to demonstrate how Climate's website works. Bercaw has been a long-time family friend, and he has been a crop insurance consultant for Climate Corp. long before it was bought out. The company logo is printed on the front of his jacket, and he wears it proudly.
Chris logs in and in seconds, we are on the site, scrolling through a list of Jones field operations. A Google map occupies the majority of the screen. Weather updates flash in the corner. He types in a few numbers, checking how one type of seed will change the number of bushels per acre, therefore affecting the price of the crop. Climate does the math, it performs the algorithms. With the click of a box, it shows historical trends of soil moisture and productivity, and it has the ability to go back over 30 years. It's a clean, intuitive site, undeniably simpler to use than most other systems out there, Chris said. And that's important for the target audience: aging farmers who may not fully understand how to navigate the web.
Unlike before, when Chris had to sit on the phone for hours, being passed between representatives trying to get the problems fixed with John Deere's system, Climate automatically sends updates almost weekly. If he needs someone to speak to, he can get ahold of them in a phone call or two. And he said executives at Climate ask for advice when rolling out projects as well.
This isn't the farming work Chris originally thought he would get into. It's a tech career, and one that will only grow in demand.
"It makes young guys want to come to the farm, when they wouldn't otherwise," Bercaw said. "This is a high tech job."
Pushing for open data
Earlier this year, Aaron Ault of Purdue University's open ag technology group headed up an initiative to bring third party auditors into the data gathering process. The Open Ag Data Alliance was born, and the project was designed to bring privacy and security to agricultural data.
"The farmer is going to have to have complete control within the system of who gets to see what and when," Ault said. "Right now most farmers don't know what is in the terms of service agreements, [so we are] developing a method for farmers to know what exactly they are getting into."
Ault is a full-time farmer in Indiana, but also works on various research projects at Purdue. He looks at farming as the original open source platform. Farmers were the inventors, the pioneers. They shared their knowledge and products with their neighbors. But somehow, in its evolution, data aggregation and sharing in agriculture has become frustratingly difficult.
"One of the reason is nothing works together today," he said. "One company's stuff doesn't work with others, one has a way of handling data, another one doesn't."
A prime example is John Deere's system, APEX, which is incompatible with most of the other brands and systems. And, as Hackney (whose company is is a lead sponsor for Purdue's Open Ag technology group ) found upon further investigation, the company's fine print in their privacy agreement states they own the data.
"As awareness started to build, some of the companies they relied on were not giving them full and complete ownership of their own data," Smirin said of old systems most farmers have been using.
Other cloud services have come and gone, but Climate Corporation has proved to be the most reliable. And just months after Monsanto acquired the startup, the company emphasized their commitment to the Open Data Alliance, which they said they had a hand in forming.
"We emphasize that farmers own the data they create, we commit to providing basic data services for farmers free of charge, and we commit to enabling farmers to share their data across other platforms at no cost," Begemann said.
Some of the participants of the Open Data Alliance include:
- Purdue University's Open Ag Technology Group
- AgReliant Genetics, a seed company
- CNH Industrial, which sells agricultural equipment
- GROWMARK, an agricultural cooperative
- Valley Irrigation, which makes precision irrigation technologies
- Wilbur-Ellis Company, which distributes field technology products
- WinField, a seed supplier
- The Climate Corporation
"Climate Corporation has a self interest...we want to have farmers use us for the best service for them, but if they just want to store their data on a basic data service, we've committed for that data to be entirely opaque to us," Smirin said. "It sounds obvious but it's not the practice that's taken hold just yet."
Ault said the alliance promises no one company will run the project, though Monsanto has had a big hand in promoting it.
"It may sound naive upfront, but part of the OADA approach is defining a common language of what OADA means," Ault said.
Word spreads quickly in this industry. If trust is broken, the community will know about it.
"We're going to have to solve this problem, earn their trust, secure the system," Ault said. "There can't just be a lip service to it, it has to be evaluated by third parties, and no question of access."
The future of farming
Robert stares with a furrowed brow at the table. He's fearful — not of the privacy involved with his data, but the future of farming. He doesn't believe the world knows how important this is or how much weight is on farmers' shoulders to feed the world. They haven't shared that weight until now.
Another source of pressure is a changing climate. As much as Robert and Chris tried to shy away from admitting it, they said they are very concerned about climate change affecting their crops. More carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and a warming climate will hurt their yield. It means more weeds, which already cost farmers $11 billion a year, according to the EPA. More droughts and floods will severely hurt crop yields as well.
Robert, his family, and many other farmers have always had to stay defensive, he said. They have kept up a wall because their career is so often misjudged, misrepresented, and quite frankly, disrespected.
"We've circled our wagons, and didn't let other people in [so we could] protect ourselves," he said.
But this data provides a way to emphasize the importance of the farming industry. If people are more connected to their food via open data, they are more connected to the farm it comes from, and therefore, more respectful of the people who work tirelessly to produce it.
"Ag has finally gained the respect of the world," Robert announced at lunch.
That respect is partially due to the excitement abuzz in San Francisco, where Climate has an office and other startups are popping up. For instance, Granular is a small startup data company that is housed three blocks from Climate. Granular split from Solum, Inc. when Climate bought the company earlier this year.
"There is a new class [of farmer] expanding and they want to use all the best science and technology, so we are trying to provide that type of farmer with modern business software that his peers would have in other industries," said Sid Gorham, CEO of Granular.
All the big ag companies have put money into this industry. Dupont Pioneer has used precision agriculture technology for quite some time, but it has recently ramped up its services as well. Case IH, Ag Leader, and John Deere are all early adopters in precision agriculture and predictive analytics, and now, the systems all integrate with the Climate cloud.
"This has tremendous benefits and has the chance to revolutionize agriculture," Erickson said. "It makes things more transparent between farmer and company and [could be] successful for all of agriculture."
Even farmers with small operations now require a general knowledge base of this technology if they want to make it into the next era of agriculture.
"My grandchildren will grab ahold of this, no problem at all," Robert said.
I glance at the barn office computer. The desktop background is a toddler, overall-clad and baldheaded, riding a tractor. His hands are perfectly positioned on the steering wheel and he smiles eagerly at the camera. His father and grandfather gleam at the photo.
A while later, the screen catches my eye again. This time, the photo of the youngest Jones farmer is half-covered by a Climate Corporation window, syncing data and flashing a notification.
Lyndsey Gilpin has nothing to disclose. She doesn't hold investments in the technology companies she covers.
Lyndsey Gilpin is a former Staff Writer for TechRepublic, covering sustainability and entrepreneurship. She's co-author of the book Follow the Geeks.