A Disruptive Time For Agriculture

02/01/17
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shutterstock_173797613.jpgThe promise of Big Data and Emerging Technologies is changing the world around us.  Practically every day the news is filled with stories of the latest breakthroughs, newest algorithms, most powerful computers, and ground-breaking discoveries.  The constant march forward of mankind’s intellectual and technological development is allowing us as a society to routinely do things that would have been the realm of science fiction only a generation ago.  
More and more, we hear the term “disruptive” being applied to these innovations; oftentimes their very existence enables individuals to accomplish what had previously required institutions.  Agriculture is at the forefront of these changes, and the livelihoods of farmers are being disrupted by developments in technology, biology, and data science that are empowering them to produce more and more while using less.  Less fertilizers.  Less pesticides.  Less erosion-causing tillage.  Farmers are being challenged to adapt and to embrace new technologies and ideas or be left behind.  This is an exciting time in agriculture - a time rife with ideation, innovation, and modernization.

Over the past several decades there have been remarkable advances in the breeding of agronomic crops to make them more high yielding, resilient, and adapted to local conditions.  These advances have come through a combination of traditional breeding techniques,  genetic modification techniques (i.e. GMO’s), and big data methodologies such as Marker Assisted Breeding.  The impact of these changes are inarguable - yields across the whole of the developed world and much of the developing one have increased regularly over past decades.  High throughput technologies are allowing plant breeders and geneticists to more easily screen a larger array of plant offspring to better identify the specimens that have the most desirous agronomic traits.  Furthermore, gene editing techniques such as CRISPR are allowing breeders more flexibility to introduce useful traits into plant genomes.  At the same time, novel techniques such as the use of “Bio-Clays” to deliver gene-silencing RNA molecules provide some of the benefits of GMO techniques without modification of the actual genome.  Large companies such as Monsanto, as well as smaller organizations such as Benson Hill Biosystems, are actively exploring the limits of what modern knowledge of genetics, biology, and plant physiology can do to make crops more profitable for farmers.  Some of these organizations use aWhere’s weather data to guide, inform, and optimize their research.

In order to most effectively capitalize on the advanced genetics of today’s agronomics crops, farmers are utilizing a growing suite of technology to manage their operations in more nuanced ways.  Go to any productive, profitable farm in the United States and even the most adamant city slicker will notice how the  machinery of today differs vastly from our childhood memories and associations with farming.  Today’s agricultural implements are high tech, from GPS-enabled machinery to self-driving tractors.  Sensors record every location, every action, and every unit of seed and fertilizer deposited and corn harvested.  Under the label “Precision Agriculture,” these high tech tools have enabled farmers to realize more profits by helping them to better understand the dynamics of their fields and to determine how to get the most out of what they’ve got.  

Despite the financial gains already realized, this machinery and the data that it routinely collects is a potential gold mine of information to design and build algorithms to take farmer’s field analytics to the next level.  This data contains the answers to questions such as: How does this seed perform on that soil when fertilized by X amount under a no-till system?, and  How much do I need to irrigate to maintain maximum yield?  Just a few examples of companies doing exciting work in this area are FarmersEdge (variable rate applications), CropMetrics (irrigation management), Granular (farm management), and Farmobile (novel business model to collect data across farms).  Meanwhile, we at aWhere are actively developing tools that predict with high confidence whether certain pests or diseases will be in fields based on the observed weather.  These tools can guide farmer’s scouting and other practices by helping to prioritize where a problem is most likely to be developing.  

Despite the growing capabilities of predictive statistical models to provide guidance on what is likely to be happening on the farm, scouting is still essential.  In order to be consistently successful, farmers have to be attentive to the needs of their crops, the state of the soil, the arrival of a certain critters or diseases, and much, much more.  As the average size of farms has increased over the western world, keeping tabs on all of the things going on a farm has become a greater and greater challenge.  Farmers need to spot an issue before it becomes a problem and that means having an ear to the ground and eye to the future at all times.  As a supplement to human scouting, today’s farmers have an ever growing array of tools at their disposal to allow them to scout more ground in less time.  From the increasing commonality and capability of drones, piloted by companies such as PrecisionHawk, to imaging done from private “crop-dusting”-type planes, developed by Mavrx, farmers have the ability to “see” things happening in their fields regularly and with high clarity.  At the other end of the spectrum, companies such as HydroBio use satellite imagery to help inform farmers when and which of their fields need irrigation and by how much.   Furthermore, companies such as Planet and Astro Digital are putting their own satellites into space capable of providing information to farmers at more regular and shorter intervals than currently available alternatives.  Many of these companies combine their imagery with aWhere’s weather data to provide farmers with the actionable information necessary to empower them to make the best management decision possible over the growing season.

We at aWhere are excited about what is happening today in the world of agriculture.  We see the utility of our best-in-class global weather data as becoming increasingly valuable to farmers and other agricultural entities as the farming practices of yesterday are disrupted by the innovations of tomorrow.  For farming, it is vitally important to know what the weather is in a field in order to most effectively use other information gathering from precision agriculture techniques.  In this disruption of agriculture, no single tool will empower farmers to grow more with less, but rather a constellation of innovations, advancements, and technologies.  At aWhere, we believe that the combination of weather knowledge and the latest advancements in imaging, breeding, and predictive algorithms will empower farmers to better provide the food and fiber the world of tomorrow will need.

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