Smartening Up

Decisions as important as precision

Published in the January 2016 Issue Published online: Jan 06, 2016 Clemens Delatrée
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Conventional agriculture is facing a major challenge: To provide enough food for ourselves and our livestock well into the future, agriculture must become more efficient. Intensification is not the only solution to this dilemma. There is not much more new land left on earth for further agricultural development. In total, FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations) experts calculate merely 4 percent additional acreage.

Furthermore, agricultural machinery cannot become infinitely larger; even seed and crop protection can only heighten yields to a certain degree. In order to further increase the efficiency of conventional agriculture while ensuring the optimal productivity of soils long-term, we must use our resources in a more intelligent manner. This applies to precious natural assets such as water and soil, but also to aids such as fertilizers and crop protection.

Decision Farming

The networked farm is one remedy that will help us achieve this. The concept is derived from the trend of the so-called internet of things: The consumer market is currently talking a lot about home automation, and there are already apps that allow us to remotely control our homes’ lighting, heating and window shutters. In this sense, agriculture has already developed even further. For quite some time, GPS has made it possible to have self-controlled farm machines rolling over the fields. At the same time, these machines generate yield maps or maps that represent the varying plant health within a plot.

All of this already exists, and it is often grouped under the term “precision farming” or “precision agriculture.” Generally speaking, we can assume that decisions farmers have to make in their daily farm operations become easier and better as a measure of how much of this precision data they have at hand. However, this information must also be refined, since many data sources, such as satellite imagery and weather data, are difficult to interpret and not very helpful in their raw form. Only the automated processing of these data and their combination and interpretation opens up their full benefits.

The resulting advantages are numerous: Today’s farmers are, for example, able to combine special seeds with integrated plant protection measures to achieve better harvests. Cross-linking the information to conclude which seed thrives best with which plant protection product and in which specific soil and climate is what one refers to as smarter agriculture—smart farming.

The next step is to combine current and historical weather data with satellite-based biomass and chlorophyll measurements as well as yield data. When added to special breed characteristics, the result can be an optimally customized crop management plan. This integrated approach is much better than the currently existing stand-alone solutions. We call it “decision farming,” and many experts believe it will revolutionize agriculture even further.

Role of Responsibility

Among other things, one aspect will be of particular importance: The goal of this development is not to relinquish the farmer. On the contrary, we in the research and technology industries must always look at things from his perspective, and we must not deny the knowledge that is often passed down from one generation to the next. Nonetheless, it will be of great support to the farmer if he can obtain decision aids that are tailored specifically to himself. He can then fulfill his role more responsibly than ever because he has a database that backs his decisions. Anyone who has the will to improve processes will benefit from these systems. 

Another important question to address is how we want to organize these services. The fact is, an increasing amount of data is being generated: The farm equipment, the satellite, the weather station—all of these generate data that should be automatically integrated into the networked farm. The question is, how can we prepare this enormous amount of data in a way that it is of use to us? This is the task of the service providers. Their task will be to evaluate this data, to cross-link and interpret it. One approach is to enter into industry partnerships and to generate multi-manufacturer recommendations. Another option is to consult openly available raw data and possibly enhance it with producer-specific data. In any case, all stakeholders should work together in a solution-oriented fashion to provide an information platform that the farmer can arbitrarily adapt to his own specific needs.

Role of Start-Ups

Start-ups are essential to this development. They are often much more agile than established organizations, as they can and must be even more oriented toward the expectations of their clients. In order to have a head start, start-ups also consciously take high risks. They think less evolutionary than they do visionary. At the same time, start-ups can set their focus in one direction with more ease and put all their eggs into one basket. This all drastically shortens innovation cycles. The adaptability and risk-taking is so pronounced that large organizations are already trying to imitate the model either through acquisitions or newly created departments. 

No matter how we approach these developments, the tech industry should not overly invest itself in competitiveness. The ultimate goal is to offer farmers as many options as possible so that they can continue to feed the world and help ensure food security well into the future. The realization of the networked farm is a big challenge, but if we are successful it will also be a huge accomplishment.