December 2, 2014

Bushels & Bytes: The Data Driven Farm

“I’m hooked on a drug of information and productivity,” said Kip Tom, a seventh-generation family farmer, who harvests the staples of modern agriculture: seed corn, feed corn, soybeans and data, in a recent New York Times article. When Kip isn't found in the field, you can find him sitting in an office filled with computer screens and a whiteboard covered with schematics and plans for his farm’s computer network.

This is not a new image for farmers today. Farmers use technology to make advances in producing more food for a growing world. Through the use of technology, each farmer is able to feed 155 people today, compared to 1940, when one farmer could feed only 19 people.

Farmers use technologies such as motorized equipment, modified housing for animals and biotechnology, which allow for improvement in agriculture. Better technology has allowed farmers to feed more people and requires fewer people to work on farms to feed their families.

So with all of this new technology, comes more data, or "Big Data" as the term as been coined. How do farmers use it? Tom Farms has genetically modified crops, cloud-computing systems and possibly soon drones, if Mr. Tom does not go with lasers on low-orbit satellites. All of these items will be sending their data for analysis on the cloud-computing systems that Tom Farms rented from Monsanto and other companies.

“Farmers still think tech means physical augmentation — more horsepower, more fertilizer,” Mr. Tom said. “They don’t see that technology now is about multiplying information.” With corn prices at almost half the level they have been in the past few years, “my growth is going to come from farmers who don’t embrace technology.”

From a self-driving John Deere combine, Ernie Burbrink, a Tom Farms employee, sorts real-time data about moisture, yields and net bushels per acre on his iPad, sending important information by wireless modem to distant cages of computer servers that begin analyzing the data for next season’s planting.

“It used to be, if you could turn a wrench you’d be good at farming,” Mr. Burbrink said. “Now you need to know screen navigation, and pinpointing what data should go where so people can plan and predict. You need to be in tune with other people: seed consultants, agronomists, the equipment folks.”

Continue reading the NYT article...

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