Those of us living in the cocoon of urbanized America tend to think little about agriculture as long as the avocados aren’t bruised—but the days of family farmers consulting the Farmer’s Almanac as a guide for planting and harvesting crops are well behind us. In its stead, a technology-based agro-infrastructure is on the rise, and it’s becoming one that rivals some of the most sophisticated tech found in any city-bound industry.
Driven by the need to feed a booming population with increasingly limited resources in a rapidly evolving climate, AgTech, as it’s known, is changing farming as we know it.
Big (Farm) Data
A big part of today’s farming happens not in the field but back at the farmhouse—in front of a computer. FarmLogs is a leader in the agricultural analysis space. CEO Jesse Vollmar says he founded the company to address some failings he’d identified in the industry.
“As of 2011, there was really no innovation happening at all in agriculture,” he says. “Most farms were still using technology from 20 years ago. That was frustrating, and we saw an opportunity to give farms more information about their crops and how to grow them.”
Today, FarmLogs provides information about crop health and nitrogen requirements to farmers who collectively manage 75 million acres of farmland. The system uses visible and near-infrared satellite imagery as a baseline, then processes those images through a series of complex algorithms that leverage eight years of historical data to quantify the health and productivity of a field. Machine learning processes this through a feedback loop to constantly improve the recommendations, as Vollmar notes, “so we can detect problems in real time—while there’s still time to do something about them.”
The Internet of Agricultural Things
In the field itself, there’s been a proliferation of high-tech devices. Aerial drones and small aircraft are now commonly used to optimize the delivery of water and nitrogen-based fertilizer by visually measuring plant health—often on a plant by plant basis. Armed with detailed information about how each individual plant grows, farmers can guide resources to hyper-targeted trouble spots rather than wastefully watering and fertilizing an entire field.
Companies like Hortau take that a step further, letting farmers manage soil conditions through a network of sensors embedded directly into the ground. These sensors measure soil moisture and crop stress. A wireless network lets the sensors communicate with farmers through an app on their phone or laptop—and the system can even link directly with irrigation systems to automate watering when conditions require it.
“In California at least, water is the single most important thing for us in agriculture,” says Drew Cheney, who farms over 1,000 acres of walnuts, peaches and cherries at P&M Farms in Linden, Calif. To that end, Cheney recently signed a $20,000 annual contract to install a network of sensors that detailed soil moisture information—much like the service Hortau provides. The cost is easily worth it, he says. “If I can get just 50 more pounds of walnuts per acre,” he says, “the system pays for itself.”
A Good Year for AgTech
Nowhere will you find farmers more engaged with technology than in wine country, particularly in Napa and Sonoma, just a couple hours’ drive from Silicon Valley.
“The average price for Napa cabernet is now $7,000 a ton,” says Will Drayton, director of innovation at Treasury Wine Estates. (Compare that to the going rate of roughly $300 a ton for carrots.) “When we deploy technology in the field, you should taste the results in the finished product.”
Treasury utilizes an array of AgTech products ranging from airborne moisture sensors to irrigation lines that precisely measure the amount of water delivered to each individual vine. While there’s a lot of new tech involved, Drayton says the tools used are relatively simple, adding that “anyone in marketing or finance can jump in and see what’s going on.”
That’s poised to change as sensors become more advanced and start collecting much more data than they do today. “What will be interesting is when we really get into the internet of things,” he says. “We’ll have so much data we won’t know what to do with it, and we’ll have to develop new tools and skills to unlock its insights.”