As anyone who knows me – or reads this blog – can tell you, I’m extremely interested in innovative uses of technology, whether it’s things I use directly – like the Nest thermostat – or things I may need to take advantage of someday – like sensor-based medical technology – or things that only peripherally impact my life – like the automated milking tech I posted on recently.
My automated milking post aside, I’m really not a farm boy. Nonetheless, a recent article in The Economist on agricultural technology caught my interest.
The article focused on Monsanto’s “prescriptive-planting system”:
…FieldScripts, had its first trials last year and is now on sale in four American states. Its story begins in 2006 with a Silicon Valley startup, the Climate Corporation. Set up by two former Google employees, it used remote sensing and other cartographic techniques to map every field in America (all 25m of them) and superimpose on that all the climate information that it could find. By 2010 its database contained 150 billion soil observations and 10 trillion weather-simulation points. (Source: The Economist)
I recall reading about the Climate Corporation, and their plans to use all that big data to sell crop insurance. But once Monsanto acquired the company last year, the plan became to combine Monsanto’s huge store of data on the yields of their hundreds of thousands of seeds.
FieldScripts uses all these data to run machines made by Precision Planting, a company Monsanto bought in 2012, which makes seed drills and other devices pulled along behind tractors. Planters have changed radically since they were simple boxes that pushed seeds into the soil at fixed intervals. Some now steer themselves using GPS. Monsanto’s, loaded with data, can plant a field with different varieties at different depths and spacings, varying all this according to the weather. It is as if a farmer can know each of his plants by name.
Other companies are getting into the act: DuPont is working with John Deere, among others, and the initial data are showing that crop yields increase dramatically for those using the system.
Some farmers, however, are resisting. They’re concerned that the data could be misused (e.g., leaked/sold to rival farmers). They also fear that the science will take some of the art out of farming, and that farmers will no longer be calling on their “core competency”: the years of experience and feel for the land that inform their decision-making.
To some (small) degree, I can sympathize with the concern that the machines are taking over. For example, I enjoy the skill that goes into driving, and I’m not sure that I’m enamored of the prospect of self-driving cars. But I also know that having access to smart technology opens up opportunities to discover new things. In the good old days, all I could do with my thermostat was turn it up or down. Now, I can program my Nest to take into account whether anyone’s at home; I can handle a sudden temperature swing remotely; and do a lot of other cool and interesting things.
I think that the farmers will find the same thing: using technology will make them better (and maybe even smarter) farmers.