Data-Driven Farming

Today, the average farmer relies on sophisticated machinery to help get the job done quickly, efficiently, and within budget. Farming is a notoriously risky10 business full of uncertainty.11 Farmers must become experts in managing rapidly changing conditions and variables that impact their harvests. Everything from climate to pests, commodity prices to water supplies are all the domain of a modern farmer. The next generation of farmers is working to address these uncertainties by adopting farming practices that increase yields over time and make their soils more tolerant to drought and resistant to flood. Some are also incorporating new technologies in novel ways to support these efforts.

Autonomous tractors, drones, and remote sensors collect and analyze data in order to help farmers increase crop yields. Even tasks that require a discerning eye can now be performed by an algorithm. Image recognition software trained on thousands of plant photos can track the ripeness of nectarines, grapes, and berries. Weeding robots can decimate invasive plants with astonishing speed. By detecting patterns of symptoms that correspond with a bacteria or fungus—such as color change, wilting, or spots—AI can spot diseases that can easily waylay farmers. We see big opportunities for big data to help small and mid-scale farmers.

Agrisource Data’s AgClarity platform and Crop Health microapp that gives farmers deeper insights into what’s happening in the field

One problem is that common pests can appear out of nowhere and ravage entire fields in a matter of days. Craig Ganssle created a new AI tool called FARMWAVE in order to help farmers identify plant pathogens, bugs, and weeds by simply tapping an app. “A process that normally takes a couple of days or even weeks to get an answer from a pathologist or entomologist, we’ve narrowed down to about 10 seconds,” Ganssle says. Trained on high-quality agricultural datasets from land-grant universities, FARMWAVE’s algorithm is over 95% accurate. This precision is important, given the breakneck speed of the industry. Farmers—like the rest of us—don’t want to drown in unnecessary data. “They say, ‘just give me something that works and produces results,’” Ganssle says.

AI tools are helping farmers across the country harvest exceptional crops and increase their yields in the face of overwhelming environmental and economic challenges.15 By eliminating some risk, predictive software could help to ensure longer-term stability by making farming a more attractive job to those who are new to the sector. For Ganssle, technology can bridge both generational and knowledge gaps. “Succession is a problem in farming,” he notes. “We have to grow more food in the next 30 years than we have in the last 8,000 with less land and fewer people desiring to become farmers.” Tech can help with that.

illustration

Craig Ganssle

“We’re asking, ‘What is it like to be a farmer today and how can we solve some of these pain points?’”

But that may be changing. FARMWAVE, created by Craig Ganssle, has aspirations to be a kind of “Slack for farmers”—but instead of trading GIFs and pithy quips, it will help agricultural workers around the world identify whether apples in their fields have been hollowed out by stinkbugs or if a variety of armyworm has been snacking on their corn.

Ganssle says his goal with the app, which launched in beta in late July 2018 for iOS and Android, is to foster community on a global scale—with onion farmers in Malaysia trading tips with growers in Eastern Oregon. “Community collaboration is a very big part of it,” he says.

Ganssle came into agriculture by accident. A former military man, he was once in charge of radio systems and infrastructure for the Joint Special Operations Command. FARMWAVE’s app works not just by integrating with smartphone cameras, but also via drones, machinery, and field sensors: all of the necessary components in creating the connected farm of the future.

FARMWAVE joins a number of other companies that have made it their mission to help farmers do their jobs. John Deere recently opened offices in San Francisco and has been spearheading computer vision and machine learning, while Hands Free Hectare can spot weeds from the sky.

Ganssle believes there’s a generational component to the adoption of new technologies. “We’re asking, ‘What is it like to be a farmer today and how can we solve some of these pain points?’” He explains, “We’re capturing the knowledge of professionals today to keep this moving, and we have to do it with great care and with great accuracy so that those lessons are captured and maintained throughout the learning process. With farmers, specifically, it’s also about explaining how the process works. It’s not a bunch of magic pixie dust, nor is it that we’re spying on everybody. It’s about how we’re capturing the data and what we intend to do with it.”

These technologies will be even more important in the future, as rising global temperatures16 threaten arable land and the health of crops. Predictive technologies promise to support farmers by aggregating an otherwise overwhelming amount of data and providing actionable insights to help them make the best possible decisions.

  1. Cassidy, Foley, Gerber, West, “Redefining agricultural yields: from tonnes to people nourished per hectare,” Environmental Research Letters, volume 8, number 3, August 2013.
  2. USDA Economic Research Service, “Risk in Agriculture,” Ers.Usda.com, August 24, 2018.
  3. Blake Bextine, Geoffrey Ling, “Precision Farming Increases Crop Yields,” Scientific American, June 26, 2017.
  4. FCC, “2018 broadband deployment report,” Broadband Progress Reports, February 2018.
  5. CoBank, “Bridging the rural / urban digital divide,” CoBank Knowledge Exchange, June 2015.
  6. Stanford Computer Science, “Digital Divide,” Stanford.edu.
  7. Jaclyn Moyer, “What nobody told me about small farming: I can’t make a living,” Salon.com, February 10, 2015.
  8. Bob Silberg, “Why a half-degree temperature rise is a big deal,” Climate.Nasa.gov, June 29, 2016.

Rural Broadband

30-40% of Americans living in rural areas do not have reliable internet access.12
According to CoBank, “Modern, high-speed broadband access is just as vital to the economic health of rural America as it is to the wellbeing of urban America. No longer is the Internet a novelty or luxury. Rural Americans have less access to high-speed broadband connectivity than their urban counterparts. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) documented that broadband deployment in rural America is ‘failing to keep pace.’”

Digital Divide

The Stanford Computer Science department uses this term to refer to “the growing gap between the underprivileged members of society, especially the poor, rural, elderly, and handicapped portion of the population who do not have access to computers or the internet; and the wealthy, middle-class, and young Americans living in urban and suburban areas who have access.”