Precision Agriculture and Big Data Gaining Traction Fast

Example of how farmers can use iPads to track data around his operation
Technology is going mobile, allowing growers to access information in the field from tablets or phones.
Photo courtesy of Highland Precision Ag

This year, the iPhone will celebrate its 10th birthday. In only a decade, smartphones have found their way into just about everyone’s pocket and have fundamentally changed the world. Looking back 10 years ago, one wonders how anybody ever got by without these little computers that fit in the palm of their hand.

The data-driven age that will unfold over the next decade will take society to even greater heights of automation and intuitive technology aimed at making life easier and more productive. Challenges and questions of ethics will arise as new innovations occur — as they always do — but the technology train is barreling forward and the pace will only quicken as computing power increases and the Internet of things spreads.

Technology has spread through agriculture as well, most notably in the form of precision agriculture practices. For big-acre row crops, precision ag is much like the iPhone — just a normal part of daily farming. Variable rate applications, auto-steer, field mapping, and yield monitoring have become standard operating procedure for many of the commodity crop growers.

Catching on Quickly

While specialty crop growers have generally lagged behind in the adoption of precision agriculture practices, the segment is catching up fast. In the past few years, Florida growers have been adding various facets of the technology to their operations. Auto-steer is common and grid mapping is catching on, allowing more variable rate applications to be applied.

“Precision ag is kind of nebulous term that doesn’t really describe the industry that well anymore,” says Robert Saik, Founder of the Agri-Trend Group (now part of Trimble Navigation) and an agricultural futurist who tracks farm technology. “There is so much wrapped up in that term now and it can mean so many different things to different people.”

Growers also are getting a grasp of how this concept of “big data” can be used to improve the productivity and sustainability of farms.

“The biggest decision a farmer will have to make in the next three years or sooner is the data platform he or she chooses to run their operation,” Saik says.

Precision Ag Vision Conference adRegardless what platforms growers choose, Saik says agriculture is embarking on exciting times as growers learn to harness the power of data being collected by fertility grid sampling, sensors, and imagery captured from unmanned aerial systems (UAS, aka drones), planes, or satellites.

“First, we need a system to capture all the data, then we need a way to make sense of it all,” Saik says. “That is where algorithms come in to assimilate all the information. That’s what many of the technology companies are focusing on now. He who has the best algorithm will win.”

He adds algorithms will be able to analyze factors like weather, soil moisture, plant growth stage, and fertility as crops develop. Also, as data is collected over time, it will allow “machine learning,” meaning a computer platform will recognize problems developing that it has observed before.

“The future vision of these systems surround anomaly detection,” Saik says. “I don’t need to be told everything is good. I need to be told where problems exist. There is far too much information for a human to possibly deal with. That is where algorithms and machine learning will come in.”

Saik says the technological revolution approaching agriculture is being driven by computing power.

“Computers are pulling us along,” he says. “By 2023 or sooner, a $1,000 laptop will be have the computing power of 10 to the 16th power. That is the same computing speed as the human brain.”

Saik says these capabilities will unlock the ability to “variable rate everything” based on a crop’s needs throughout its development. Variable rate planting, fertilizer, weed control, fungicides, and irrigation will become common. Robotics will follow to address concerns in the labor area.

Farm grid sampling via GPS
Grid sampling is becoming more common, allowing growers to precisely apply variable-rate crop nutrients.
Image courtesy of Jones Potato Farm

Florida’s Technology Scene

In the past few years, precision agriculture and data management platforms have quietly been finding their way onto a number of farms in Florida. New companies have been launched and existing companies have added services to their portfolio.

Lakeland-based Highland Precision Ag is a new company with a big vision for the use of technology in speciality crops.

“When we think of precision agriculture, we think of imagery and drones, which it is, but it also is so much more than that,” Steve Maxwell, Founder and CEO of Highland Precision Ag, says. “Let’s get virtual and add the software data platform, build a lab for analytics to confirm the data we are collecting, and let’s add virtual food safety monitoring as well.”

Maxwell believes specialty crops will enjoy the monitoring and variable-rate crop management techniques of traditional precision ag, but also will have unique opportunities for upstream benefits.

“We are looking at the marketability of precision agriculture to retailers,” he says. “The big retailers our growers are selling to are requiring multiple food safety audits and increasingly asking for proof of sustainable farming practices.”

Maxwell says data collection through a host of sampling and sensors across a farm will be able to prove that growers are growing food safely and in a sustainable way. He says growers should go on the offensive and have this data on hand and accessible to retail buyers at the click of a button.

“We have some customers who have 10 different food safety audits, which is crazy,” he says. “With a system like ours, food safety is daily discipline that is directed and recorded by our platform. Buyers can even be given a short-term password to observe a grower’s food safety protocols via the software platform.”

Crop Production Services is offering growers precision ag consulting and variable rate application capability. Dennis Coleman, a Crop Consultant with the company, is working with growers to collect soil fertility data with growers.

“We are grid sampling fields, and in conjunction with growers, developing very customized fertilizer programs to fit their specific needs based on experience and sound agronomy,” Coleman says. “We custom apply soil amendments to address pH, calcium, and magnesium levels as needed using site-specific technology.”

Coleman says his precision ag work is still in its infancy and is only “scratching the surface” in terms of future applications and benefits. But, he says there is early evidence that using the technology is creating more uniform soil profiles in fields. He expects that to improve even more over longer timeframes.

“In addition to improving the soil profile, this technology has the potential to be tied in with yield monitoring, where a grower can see the correlation between nutrient levels in his fields and how the yields are impacted by the variations of those nutrient levels,” he says. “In turn, he can then potentially adjust fertility to improve weaker areas of fields based on the data.”

Machines Talking

The ability of sensors across the farm to remotely communicate data being collected and used to direct farm operations is broadly captured in the term “telemetry.” Technology is now available where this information can all be viewed and managed via desktop computers, smartphones, or tablets. Better yet, some operations can automated. For example, soil moisture monitors can automatically turn on irrigation systems when levels drop below optimum.

McCrometer CONNECT station at Bethel Farms in Arcadia, FL
Bethel Farms uses McCrometer CONNECT technology to wirelessly transmit data from across the farm.
Photo by Frank Giles

According to Tradewinds Power Sales Representative Mike Waldron, customers are asking for telemetry products and services to manage irrigation. The company has added technology capable of providing these services.

“Our customers are asking for equipment that allows for regularly scheduled fertilizer injection and acid for buffering water,” Waldron says. “They are asking for remote start and stop of irrigation systems, automated start and stop, remote scheduling, and the ability to monitor engine performance remotely.”

Bethel Farms has implemented a telemetry system on its citrus and turf farm in Arcadia. The farm installed the McCrometer CONNECT telemetry system. It tracks multiple points of reference with meters/probes for soil moisture, salinity, conductivity, daylight, soil and ambient temperature, wind speed and direction, and cold protection.

The system, along with irrigation improvements, has reduced groundwater withdrawals by 35%. Sensors also have provided the ability to predict diseases before they visually appear, allowing for less expensive proactive treatments to correct problems.

Electronic soil and salinity moisture monitor in a strawberry field
The combination of soil moisture and salinity monitors are fast becoming the water and fertilizer management tool of choice by leading growers around the world.
Photo courtesy of Highland Precision Ag

Convergence

As Saik notes, all of these technologies are converging to greatly enhance growers’ knowledge and ability to ultimately manage their farms from their mobile devices. Increasingly, he adds, these things will become automated.

“We’ve heard the term the ‘Internet of things,’ which basically means all the devices that are now connected to the Internet like our phones, TVs, and even appliances,” he says. “We are seeing the development of the ‘Internet of farming.’ Everything will be connected and building data to help grow sustainable crops and see a return on investment on all this technology.

“We can envision a future where we can measure a farm’s efficiency based on its output divided by its input. It could be we measure protein, starch, sugar, or oils produced against the millimeter of water required to produce it.”

Maxwell says the goal Highland Precision Ag is hoping to achieve is placing all of this converging data in one place, or what he calls a grower’s “private computer dashboard.” From there, the grower can see all the latest data being collected from imagery and sensors and direct farm operations whether it is turning on or off irrigation and fertigation to ordering an insecticide spray from the local applicator.

Data Ownership and Transparency

One of the points of debate surrounding precision ag and data management has been the question of who owns a farm’s data. Increasingly, technology providers are allowing growers to own their data and are becoming agnostic or open-source, meaning systems can accept and work with data from various companies.

Maxwell says this technology is an exciting development for specialty crop growers. It will allow growers to connect with the public in a way not possible before. He says most growers have been using sustainable production practices, which consumers want. Now, they can prove it via data management platforms and tapping into social media and shopping platforms to directly connect with consumers. Highland Precision Ag is supporting a non-profit organization that will be certifying growers for their sustainability practices. These certified International Member of the Precision Ag Community (IMPAC) growers will have direct links to consumers via a number of different channels.

“The early adopters will have something to sell that is unique in marketplace that will give them an edge,” Saik adds. “But, as time progresses, using this technology will become the price of entry. Meaning: If you don’t do it, you won’t be doing business.”

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