“To succeed, innovation usually requires pressure, necessity and even adversity; the fear of loss often proves more powerful than the hope of gain,” writes competition expert Michael Porter in examining how world-class technology industries have emerged. As the surviving remnant of small farmers in North America struggles to harness the latest wave of agtech innovations, they are looking beyond conventional farm systems paradigms. From the heartland, farmers are leapfrogging their urban brethren to use the latest capabilities of mobile devices and cloud data systems. They may be pioneering a new mobile app ecosystem for food daa.
The Nestle Purina/Cargill pilot project announced last month presents a snapshot of opportunity that AgIoT offers farmers and also the new operations challenges that it brings. In partnership with the Nature Conservancy, the pilot combines smart weather sensors in crop fields with weather data and irrigation automation, delivering data to field workers and managers in the field.
As US farmers face the fifth year of falling income, agricultural Internet-of-Things (AgIoT) helps farmers tune when they plant, irrigate and harvest. Perhaps most compelling, farmers can share crop data with supply chain partners to strengthen their connection to better ways of selling their crops. According to Cargill, more than 50 percent of water used in US beef production is dedicated to irrigating the row crops that become feed for cattle. “By putting first-of-its-kind, cost-effective irrigation technology in the hands of farmers, the amount of water needed for row crop irrigation is reduced, as is the environmental impact of the beef supply chain,” states Courtney Hall, Cargill technical sustainability manager. “This program could help save 2.4 billion gallons of irrigation water over three years, which is equivalent to roughly 7,200 households over that period,” said Hannah Birge, water and agriculture program manager at The Nature Conservancy.
Today, US Farmers have access to a swelling tide of data– data that can help them grow more with fewer chemicals and water, data that can help them spot disease early. Established industry leaders have joined the growing corps of scrappy start-ups looking beyond the traditional customers to smaller farmers.
Historically, the business of farming had been a story of scale and sophistication. Since World War II, the farmers that invested capital in innovative approaches improved profits and expanded. The agriculture industry focused its innovation on the biggest farms. Today, less than three percent of the two million US farms make more than $1.0 M a year, but they produce more than 42% of total production. Corporate farms, less than one percent of the total, provide an additional 11 percent of US production. Five years ago, precision agriculture was not considered cost-efficient for farms smaller than 5,000 acres. Thanks to a generation of cheaper, more powerful sensors, many of the newest solutions—like Arable Lab’s Mark, CropX, and Taranis, offer affordable precision agriculture to the much larger population of smaller farms.
While million-dollar farms might have a staff to administer data on PCs, small farmers need access to data on the go. Smartphone technology that has emerged over the last decade is enabling farmers to access rich data from mobile devices and record location-specific field information in real time. A recent study of Canadian farmers by research firm Ipsos found that 80 percent use a smartphone, an adoption rate higher than the overall population. Field workers are using mobile devices to input data in real time, while field managers use that data to make decisions—when to irrigate, plant, spray and harvest.
Beyond the scope of these pilots, farmers are struggling to integrate the flood of data into their farm management systems. According to Stratus Ag Research, almost 70 percent of North American growers capture precision ag data, but less than half use software to analyze it. “What began as a slew of single-purpose tools has now evolved to include apps that integrate different types of information to give farmers a ‘dashboard’ view of their land,” notes Kenneth Qin. “With the plethora of technology companies and organizations ready to use farm data, how can farmers protect the information collected from their fields? What if it winds up in the hands of competitors? Could a farmer’s competitive edge in planting practices, fertilizer use or pricing be revealed?” Leading voices in the farm community, like former US Grains Council board member Dale Artho from Wildorado Texas, leery of privacy issues. Artho says that he rejected cloud-based systems like Granular in favor of “spreadsheets and my memory” to build my budgets.
Current agtech industry leaders are engaged in a “land grab” for ownership of the farm management dashboard. However, given the capabilities available today, and the significant premium that supply chain partners can offer for sharing data, might agriculture be ripe for a new app ecosystem? As consumers, farmers are a fragmented market that loves competition and resist centralized control.
“You’ve got a mobile audience that is very attractive,” explains Colin Siren of Ipsos. “They’re heavy users of technology, applications, wireless content — and they are key decision-makers for their business… While farmers are certainly using their mobile devices for social media, banking, news, texting — over 40 percent had downloaded one or more apps related to running the farm.”
• What kinds of data platforms (Amazon, Google, others?) would enable farmers and to monetize their data without ceding control or privacy?
• Would app ecosystems allow technology developers to engage farmers and farm workers to use apps?
• Could this platform use advertising to pay farmers for data?