Opinion by Richard Adler

The Internet of Growing Things

As the American farm grows increasingly connected, the need for rural broadband will rise

autonomous compact tractors in a texas vineyard nov 2012
Credit: ASIrobots, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikipedia

Earlier this month, in Monterey, Calif., a meeting organized by the Produce Marketing Association provided an opportunity for a group of local growers of crops such as lettuce, artichokes and strawberries to find out how the latest digital technologies were changing agriculture. Participants heard about how technologies like robots, drones and predictive analytics could help them improve their operations.

That same week, just up the road from Monterey, a conference called AgTech Silicon Valley was held at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View. Along with actual farmers, the meeting was attended by a dozen venture capitalists, who identified agriculture as a field that is ripe (pun intended) for disruption by technology. In good Silicon Valley fashion, the meeting included a session in which entrepreneurs from agtech startups pitched their companies to angel investors and VCs.

A number of large tech vendors such as HP and IBM have also become interested in this sector. According to attorney Roger Royce, organizer of the Silicon Valley conference and the founder of an agtech incubator, agriculture has been identified as “the last frontier for technology companies.” And it is a substantial sector: In 2013, agriculture and agriculture-related industries contributed $789 billion to the U.S. gross domestic product, which represented a 4.7% share. Farming alone was responsible for approximately 1% of overall GDP.

Of course, the use of technology in farming is hardly new. A century ago, the introduction of tractors and other mechanized equipment vastly increased farm yields and dramatically reduced the portion of the labor force that worked in agriculture, which now accounts for less than 5% of U.S. jobs. The so-called Green Revolution of the 1960s provided another boost in agricultural productivity through the development of higher-yield, pest-resistant crops and the introduction of modern irrigation techniques. By the end of the 20th century, farms had already adopted a lot of technology. The cab of a modern tractor has begun to resemble an airplane cockpit, with GPS capabilities and computer screens that display information about everything from mechanical performance to the tractor’s position and current weather data.

The third revolution

The revolution that is taking place now on the farm involves the addition of intelligence to the technologies already in place to enable what is known as “precision agriculture.” Its goal is to provide farmers with abundant, real-time, actionable information about the state of their fields: how crops are growing, how much water or fertilizer is needed, what weeds and insects may be invading the fields. Like many other industry sectors, farmers are beginning to see the value of getting access to big data that can provide them with a new level of knowledge and control over their production processes.

A number of big names in agriculture are promoting the value of the new technologies. John Deere is now selling self-driving, GPS-guided tractors that, it claims, can make 7% more furrows in a field than a human-driven tractor. The company also offers a data management service that helps farmers collect and analyze the abundant data that is generated by the operation of the autonomous tractor. In 2013, Monsanto, the leading supplier of seeds for agriculture, spent $1 billion to acquire Climate Corp, a company that provides detailed hyperlocal weather information. Using this data, Monsanto is able to offer customized seeds for each field based on the composition of the soil — in some cases, down to the level of each square foot — and the weather pattern above it. The company is also developing machines that automate other tasks, including harvesting crops, probably the most labor-intensive of all farm chores.

Precision agriculture is making it possible to optimize the delivery of key inputs in other ways as well. You can, for example, increase the yield of a crop by deliberately stressing out a plant at just the right time. New monitoring technology makes it possible to identify when to withhold irrigation and when to provide it in order to maximize production.

This kind of data-driven, precision agriculture has other benefits as well. In the wake of the severe drought that has gripped California in recent years, awareness has grown of agriculture’s vast demand for water, which accounts for nearly three-quarters of all water used in the state. (For example, it has been reported that it takes a gallon of water to produce a single almond, and growing alfalfa is even more water-intensive.) If farmers could identify just which plants in a field need water and when, total water use for crop irrigation could be significantly reduced, which would be a much more effective response to a drought than having city dwellers take shorter showers.

And by enabling farmers to track the development of their crops in detail, it allows them to satisfy the demands of consumers who are increasingly interested in knowing where their food comes from and how it was grown.

Broadband is the key

The technology that underlies all of these promising applications is broadband, and especially wireless broadband. Pervasive network connectivity makes it possible to monitor growing conditions on an ongoing basis and to communicate with and control the machines that operate autonomously in the farmer’s fields. And this connectivity enables the collection of data that drives the predictive analytics that can provide quantum improvements in farm productivity and efficiency.

From this perspective, the wired farm is just another example of the Internet of Things. But in this case, the things that are being connected are not machines but plants and livestock. (An infographic created by Cisco to illustrate the power of the Internet of Things included a section that showed a group of “connected cows” in the Netherlands equipped with sensors that automatically keep a farmer informed of their health status.)

But there is a problem: Rural areas have consistently lagged behind urban areas in broadband access. While virtually all Americans (99%) now have access to broadband Internet connections, broadband adoption rates among the country’s nearly 60 million rural residents is lower than among urban residents. Although the U.S. leads the world in adoption of high-speed 4G/LTE wireless broadband, and rural communities are benefiting from the expansion of these networks nationally, a gap remains between rural and urban coverage.

According to a 2014 study published by the PCIA, “network investment has been concentrated in metropolitan markets mainly because these markets have higher population density [while] investments in rural markets would cover far fewer customers and have higher fixed costs per customer.” This logic makes sense if the only thing that is being connected is people. But if farmers are wiring up their fields, potentially putting one or more sensors on each plant, a very different kind of financial equation may emerge. As the PCIA report argues, “the economic model for mobile broadband in rural areas should be based on the number of devices and connections, not simply the number of connections.”

A business case for expanding broadband to rural America should recognize that the connectivity needs of a farm are distinctly different from those of a populous urban area. A tomato plant or even a cow is not likely to spend time watching YouTube videos or playing online games — not even Farmville. A plant will need connectivity to make periodic reports on its status, but this data will not require instant connectivity or massive bandwidth. What farms will need is widespread coverage and reliable connectivity. At the same time, farmers themselves will need robust connections that will enable them to carry out the sophisticated analyses that turn the massive amounts of data they have collected into actionable information.

Urban vs. rural telecom: Think different

The differences between urban and rural usage patterns suggest that different architectures may be appropriate for different areas. For example, to fill gaps in wireless broadband service on farms, big companies like John Deere and smaller startups like Ayrstone have developed solutions based on deploying networks of wireless repeaters to expand the reach of connectivity and supplement conventional cellular coverage in farmers’ fields.

New policy approaches can also help. Several states, including New York, have launched programs to expand the availability of high-speed broadband to both rural and urban residents. Proposed legislation in Iowa would provide an accelerated depreciation deduction, a tax credit and a property tax exemption for broadband infrastructure deployed in targeted rural areas.

On the federal level, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 included funding to accelerate broadband deployment in rural areas. One of the goals of the Federal Communications Commission’s Connect America Fund is to expand access to high-speed Internet access for rural residents.

A modernized Communications Act will also be important in removing impediments to broadband development and encouraging continued private investment in new communications technologies. Wireless spectrum is a finite resource, and demand for it is growing exponentially. According to Cisco, U.S mobile data use will increase by 650% by 2018. Policymakers and regulators need to act to address this growing demand. In 2010, the FCC’s National Broadband Plan set a goal of making 500 MHz of new spectrum available for mobile broadband use over 10 years, including an additional 300 MHz of spectrum within five years. However, the FCC has only made about 135 MHz of licensed spectrum available thus far.

Policymakers must develop strategies to bring more wireless spectrum into the marketplace, not only expand the reach of wireless networks, but also create a pipeline of spectrum for emerging technologies. Congress should consider a more modern spectrum policy to determine who gets spectrum and how it is used. Relying on market mechanisms to allocate and use spectrum could be more efficient and beneficial for the public than the current government allocation process, which is slow to react to market conditions and typically takes years to complete. Moreover, Congress must set forth a path to better manage the federal government’s own large spectrum holdings, which is often not used efficiently.

Regulations should be flexible enough to allow companies to design and deploy innovative solutions that serve the needs of rural as well as urban residents. One possibility cited by the PCIA report is the use of lower-frequency spectrum bands, which cover a wider range, for rural cellular service. Another possibility is to permit greater sharing of spectrum bands in less densely populated rural areas to increase utilization.

Hacking the farm

If the technology is available, farmers are ready to use it. Perhaps the most interesting event in the development of agtech took place in April of this year when a group of computer coders spent a weekend working with a group of farmers deep in the middle of California’s agricultural heartland. This was the first Apps for Ag Hackathon whose goal was to create new apps that met farmers’ specific needs. It was the brainchild of Robert Tse, State Broadband Coordinator for the U.S. Department of Agriculture in California, who described the event as “a rare occasion where the government took a risk on an unconventional initiative.”

Six teams participated in the two-day competition, which was held on the campus of a community college in the small farming community of Coalinga. The winning entry was SWARM, a Tinder-like phone app designed to help farmers quickly identify unknown insects they find in their fields and determine whether they are dangerous or benign. The organizers considered the event a success and hope that it will be the first of many similar events in the future.

Rogers and Hammerstein’s hit 1943 musical Oklahoma! included a rousing song about how “The Farmer and the Cowman Should Be Friends.” Today, it would seem, it’s time for the farmer and the hacker to be friends.

Richard Adler is a distinguished fellow at the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto, Calif. He has written widely about the future of broadband and its impact on fields such as education, healthcare, government and commerce.

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