How technology is nourishing the food chain

New technologies are making food production more efficient and more environmentally sound. Here's how farmers are using everything from crop modeling tools to drones to generate higher yields.

Tim Malterer is a fourth-generation farmer who started working his family's land when he was a kid. He learned the business from his parents, who had learned it from their parents.

So at just 28, Malterer already has 20-plus years of practical farming experience -- and he's the beneficiary of plenty of institutional knowledge passed down through the generations.

But he's starting to realize that computers might have a leg up on him.

Last year, when he calculated how much nitrogen to add to his corn crop, he figured it needed 20 to 30 lbs. per acre. He considered various factors, including rainfall and soil conditions.

He then used Nitrogen Advisor, an analytics program that's part of the Climate Pro platform from The Climate Corp., and it recommended 40 to 50 lbs.

"We're using modeling for the great majority of the fields. The instincts and the practical experience that my parents learned and I've learned have given us a great baseline. But [technology] gives us a more targeted approach," he says.

Malterer went with his numbers in some areas and with the software's higher recommended amounts in others. By harvest time, the fields with the higher amounts of nitrogen had produced more bushels of corn per acre.

"Our expense for those fields was more, but the return far outweighed what the expense was," he says.

Farmers today are using sophisticated IT systems to do their jobs. They're adopting advanced analytics and complex software to plan better and manage smarter. They're also starting to use more cutting-edge technologies, such as satellite imagery and drones. And they may soon be sending robots into their fields.

"We see a lot of convergence of technologies that make managing farms at a granular level more possible today than it was just a few years ago," says Anthony Osborne, vice president of marketing at The Climate Corp., a division of the multinational agrochemical and agricultural biotechnology company Monsanto.

These high-tech efforts are starting to bear fruit. As is true in many other industries, technology is streamlining operations in agriculture, making food production more efficient and improving crop yields. Equally important, technology is enabling farmers to do their jobs in a more environmentally sound manner.

"There is a massive opportunity to really change how the world farms," says Ankur Mathur, a managing director in Accenture's Digital practice, which offers a precision agriculture service.

Feeding the world

These technologies, with their potential to increase yields and reduce the drain on resources, could help the agricultural industry meet the rising demand for food to feed the world's growing population and do a better job protecting the environment.

"The way we frame this whole area of enterprise is in regard to ensuring food security for everyone," says Sonny Ramaswamy, director of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, which is part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Sonny Ramaswamy, director of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture U.S. Department of Agriculture

Sonny Ramaswamy

Ramaswamy points out that the planet will have to feed 9.5 billion people by the year 2050, a United Nations statistic that's often cited by those involved in digital agriculture. However, while demand for food is going up, the availability of farmland and water is going down. Farmers have no choice but to do more with less.

"With those constraints, we're going to be really, really hard-pressed to make sure we'll meet the food needs of not just Americans but the rest of the world as well," Ramaswamy says. "We need transformative discoveries to up our ability to produce food -- and produce it in the construct of those constraints. So technology becomes critically important."

Mathur says the computerization of food production is the latest of three revolutions that have happened in agriculture in the past several thousand years -- it's up there with the invention of the mechanical plow.

He says this current revolution started a few decades ago, when tractor manufacturers started to put computers into their equipment. Those computers not only created efficiencies for farmers, but also gave them a new level of control and a wealth of data that was never available before. As the computers became more sophisticated and were integrated with GPS technology, farmers were able to program their vehicles to travel specific routes and to plant specific amounts of seed in specific fields. At harvest time, farmers collected data on the volume of crops various fields yielded.

Those technologies certainly represented a step forward, but Mathur and others say they were just a start.

Generating real returns

Aaron Ault, 34, is also a fourth-generation farmer. He grew up on a farm and now has about 3,000 acres of corn and soybeans along with 3,000 head of cattle in Indiana. He has witnessed the IT revolution firsthand.

Ault remembers farmers having maps that showed crop yields for specific areas. The information was interesting, but for years it didn't have much strategic value.

"We had these yield markers. They'd weigh how much you harvested and combine it with GPS and it would map so we could see how much we had. And then we didn't do a darn thing with them," says Ault, who is also a senior research engineer at Purdue University's Open Ag Technologies and Systems Group, which is devoted to bringing open-source projects to agriculture.

Like other industries, though, the agricultural business learned how to take early IT advances and combine them with newer technologies to generate real returns.

With the rise of analytics and cloud computing, farmers -- like professionals in other industries -- started to store, combine and analyze data in ways they had never been able to before. That gave them insight into performance, and that insight drives not only better decisions, but also decisions that addressed issues at a more granular level. So planning could be done not just farm by farm or even acre by acre, but plot by plot, for sections of fields measured in square meters.

That means farmers can be very specific about what they're planting and how much they should plant where, based on soil conditions, the availability of water, and other factors. They can target their use of water, nutrients and other substances such as pesticides, which reduces waste and limits environmentally harmful runoff.

"You're starting to see a lot of disruptive technology come in," Ault says.

Rural icons embrace IT

Some of the agricultural world's most well-established names are playing leading roles in the IT revolution.

Deere & Co., maker of John Deere brand machinery, is one example. The Moline, Ill.-based company first equipped its distinctive green combines and tractors with computers in the late 1970s, with the initial purpose of monitoring the condition of equipment for maintenance, says Ron Zink, director of onboard applications at Deere.

John Deere computer systems evolved from there.

In the late 1990s, Deere added the systems to all of its equipment, and data buses connecting control modules created an ecosystem for controlling sprayers, balers and planters, Zink says.

Then came other new technologies that help farmers practice what has come to be known as precision agriculture. Deere's offerings include AutoTrac GPS-controlled assisted-steering systems, which allow equipment operators to take their hands off the wheel; JDLink, which enables machinery to automatically upload data about fields to a cloud site and lets farmers download planting or fertilizing instructions and operational information to the machinery; and John Deere Machine Sync, which improves planting, seeding, spraying and nutrient application by using GPS data to create maps based on aerial or satellite photos.

"Precision agriculture is the most significant development since the advent of the tractor, and not only will it be the future of this industry, it will be the future of the world's food supply," Zink says.

Newfound capabilities

Another familiar name in this effort is Land O'Lakes.

Michael Macrie, vice president and CIO at the Arden Hills, Minn., food maker, the second-largest member-owned agricultural cooperative in the U.S., says Land O'Lakes and its members "want to produce more and in the most environmentally sound way possible."

Michael Macrie, vice president and CIO at Land O'Lakes Land O'Lakes

Michael Macrie

Toward that end, Land O'Lakes and its WinField Solutions IT unit ventured into digital agriculture in 2010. The company developed and deployed technologies aimed at helping food producers raise crops more efficiently, profitably and sustainably.

Today, through WinField, Land O'Lakes offers a portfolio of technologies that it sells alongside its other agriculture-related services, Macrie says.

For example, its R7 precision agriculture tool analyzes numerous data points, such as soil seed-growth records and satellite feeds, to determine which seeds would grow best in which fields.

This year, Land O'Lakes is launching R7 Field Monitor, which analyzes satellite imagery to detect problem areas within a field and sends alerts to farmers. Macrie explains that the tool gives growers insight into specific problems that they couldn't detect by walking or driving through tracts of land that may be thousands of acres in size. And even in the case of problems that farmers might find on their own, the system finds them faster than people could, allowing farmers to take action earlier.

Finally, R7 Field Monitor can identify specific sites that are in need of attention, eliminating the need for wholesale treatment of vast swaths of land.

"All of this helps the farmer make real-time decisions that he couldn't make in the past," Macrie says.

Joel Wipperfurth, WinField's ag-technology application lead, says the benefits can be significant. He says corn seed is capable of producing 500 to 600 bushels per acre, but the average in the U.S. is approximately 170. However, a Georgia farmer got 503 bushels last year, and Wipperfurth says he believes technology can help more farmers achieve such yields.

"There's more technology -- there's more computing power, in the cab of a combine than in the cab of the Apollo [spacecraft] that put a man on the moon," he says.

Macrie, Wipperfurth and others say several key IT advances made it possible to develop the tools that farmers use today. One is the advent of cloud computing, which allows farmers and other agricultural professionals to store the incredible amounts of data that come from numerous sources, such as the farms themselves, weather satellites, historical records, soil samples, academic research labs and agricultural companies.

Other advantageous trends include the proliferation of high-speed Internet service and advances in mobile technologies; they allow farmers to have the connectivity they need to access and share data in real time while they're working in the fields.

The rise of big data and analytics tools was also key, because now the industry can gain practical insights from all the information being collected. And GPS has played a role, by making it possible for data and insights to be site-specific.

Layered onto those advances are even newer technologies, such as camera-equipped drones and sensors that can be placed in the soil -- and even within some plants.

Farmers may even soon be using robots capable of navigating through fields to spot, and perhaps kill, weeds and alert farmers to other problems.

Pulling this all together is the emerging Internet of Things. Like other industries, agriculture is developing an ecosystem of sensors and equipment that collects reams of data and feeds it to analytic applications, which then transfer insights back to the farmer and the farm machinery.

These new agricultural technologies are being used most notably in crop production, but experts say advanced IT systems are also being used, to varying degrees, in other areas of food production, such as livestock and fisheries management.

For the sake of the planet

This high-tech approach to farming is taking root across the globe. Farmers in the U.S. and other developed countries may have more hardware and apps at their disposal, but global agricultural leaders say farmers in developing countries have a growing number of options, too. That's true in part because the Internet's reach continues to extend into more rural regions and the cost of mobile service and other enabling technologies is dropping.

"I don't know any farmer who doesn't have access to a computer or a cellphone or a tablet. Like all of us, they've accepted this technology and they're finding how it will help their business," says Danielle Nierenberg, president of Food Tank, an advocacy group that aims to change the food system and focuses on environmentally, socially and economically sustainable ways of alleviating hunger, obesity and poverty.

"They can use fertilizer and water more precisely and be less wasteful, and use energy for equipment more efficiently. That saves resources and money. But it's not just about the bottom line, it's about the health of the planet."

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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