Taking Big Data to Small Farms

Precision Agriculture Seen as One Possible Tool for Farmers in Developing Countries

Chris Clayton
By  Chris Clayton , DTN Ag Policy Editor
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Cory Reed, a senior vice president of the Intelligent Solutions Group for Deere & Co., talks about the opportunity in some developing countries to accelerate the adoption of machinery and precision equipment. (DTN photo by Chris Clayton)

DES MOINES (DTN) -- Agribusiness executives at the World Food Prize Symposium on Thursday offered their perspectives on the role precision agriculture and data will play in boosting ag production in the developing world.

Speakers highlighted the production increases for crops such as corn in the U.S., whose national crop size has nearly doubled since 1980.

A forum on data tools and technology touched on the potential of taking more high-tech tools to smaller farmers around the globe as a way to help boost crop production.

Michael Stern, president and chief operating officer at Climate Corporation said he believes agriculture globally is on the cusp of an information age that will further digitize data for farmers and their suppliers. Stern noted there are more cellular phones on the planet than people. The cost to store large data sets is also declining, he said.

"The world is digitized and we're going to see the same digitization occur on the farm," Stern said. "The fact is it is already occurring on the farm right now."

Stern explained that Climate Corporation uses large data sets to build models for growers that allow information to be updated for real-time decisions on their farms. The goal is to drive more productivity in the field. For many farmers in poorer countries, the early access to some of these data tools will come from their phones -- which is already happening.

"There are models out there," Stern said. "Cellphone use in developing countries will really be key to data transfer in the early days."

Still, Stern noted that such tools are hindered by the lack of good weather data in parts of the world. He said Climate Corporation is working with other companies and organizations to get more localized weather measurements and field-specific measurements in some developing economies. "That's a big challenge and it's a challenge everyone is going to be thinking about in the precision-ag area who are thinking about big data and modeling because of the variability that can be explained just in weather events," Stern said.

Cory Reed, senior vice president of the Intelligent Solutions Group at Deere & Co., said traditional market development for farm machinery has been to mechanize farm production, then scale up equipment, automate and then optimize. Reed said he believes there is opportunity in some developing countries to accelerate that process and scale up production quicker.

"Increasingly it's about easier-to-use technology and smarter technology, more precise use of inputs and machines that are used in the operation," Reed said.

Reed added that Deere is selling guidance technology in 90 countries around the world. Reed said he thinks use of more precision ag tools is going to grow rapidly in the next five years.

"The ability to take that into developing markets is extremely important," Reed said.

Jose Simas, director of global market access and regulatory issues for Elanco, noted that as global data use expands so will concerns about farmer privacy and the use of their data.

"Data privacy is going to be a big social discussion we have to have," Simas said.

Benjamin Pratt, vice president of corporate public affairs for Mosaic Co., highlighted the need for factoring fertilizer advancements as part of those precision tools. Moreover, nutrient loss to the environment is a growing concern.

"The need is enormous for us to make advancements in fertilizer and to contribute our part to precision agriculture," Pratt said.

Pratt noted that producers in Africa may pay twice as much for fertilizer as farmers in other countries. That's largely due to a lack of infrastructure to get those fertilizer products to farmers. These kinds of problems hinder the ability of parts of the agricultural supply chain to seize on precision agriculture. "The rest of ag has to come along too and we're trying and working on that," Pratt said.

In a separate discussion, Jim Borel, executive vice president of sustainability for DuPont Pioneer, also stressed the need for innovation to produce enough food globally by 2050. In Borel's talk he played a video of a female farmer he met in Kenya who reinforced many of the issues raised by the big-data panel. The smallholder farmer wants better access to seed and also needs better information to market their crops. Still, she highlighted that even something as simple as a rain-catching barrel would make it easier to both water and fertilize her crops.

Borel said constant innovation will be needed to produce 70% more food in the next 35 years. "Global hunger is bigger than our politics, bigger than who has the best production method," Borel said.

Building on Borel's talk, Chris Policinski, president and CEO of Land O'Lakes Inc., also recently returned from a trip to Africa. He told the World Food Prize crowd that meeting the growing food demands around the world also requires some disarming of the rhetoric over technology and production practices.

"We can't have a war on science if we are going to feed a hungry planet," Policinski said.

Policinski added that industry, farmers, academics, government and non-governmental groups each need to tell the stories of agriculture, but they have to do it outside their own "silos." Too often, people talk about food security and what is needed only with people who hold similar views.

"It's sloppy, because we have to talk to people who might not share our views," he said.

Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com.

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Chris Clayton