Mar. 7, 2017
The explosive growth of the global population makes it impossible for the current practices of cultivation and output to support the food supply of the large population in the future, and coupled with limited availability of land area, the challenges are enormous. So it goes without saying that technology is critical to agriculture, and the recent most popular agricultural technology is none other than big data.
Monsanto estimated in a report that the data science market in agriculture could be worth as much as US$20 billion. Jack Ma, founder of Alibaba Group, a leading Chinese e-commerce company, also mentioned in his speech that the future will not be the era of information technology, but the era of data technology. Big data has been highlighted as a national strategy in more and more developed and developing countries as they realized that big data is a huge "gold mine". Although prospects look good, the challenges facing this emerging field at the early developing stage should not be ignored.
AgroPages invited the leading companies in the agricultural information technology industry: The Weather Company, Trimble, CropIn Technology and aWhere to discuss how big data was revolutionizing the global agriculture pattern and the current challenges it faced.
Big data revolutionizing agriculture
When we talked about how big data has revolutionized the agriculture industry, and what are the significant changes that have been made, Carrie Gillespie, Agriculture Lead for The Weather Company, an IBM Business, said that, IBM's annual Global Technology Outlook occurs once a year and brings in around 3,000 leading scientists, engineers, mathematicians and subject matter experts from across the world for the benefit of IBM clients to help inform what the IT investments and long-term strategic planning are. This has occurred for more than 30 years. For the first time in history, the focus has been on one topic, the same topic for over a four-year period. That topic has been "The implications and impact of the changing nature of data, how do we extract value." This topic is so important that it has been looked at since 2012.
“That being said we have certainly seen the same explosion of data in the agriculture industry. Big data and the Internet of Things (IoT) platforms have allowed us to make leaps on enhancements in understanding and finding correlations within structured and unstructured datasets, which ultimately help growers make better decisions, informed decisions,” Carrie added.
Agriculture is the biggest playground for big data. It has many factors which are ever changing that impact productivity. The data ranges from soil, weather, water, seed, fertilizers, and pests etc. which generate volumes of data every day. “Big data to us refers to billions of cables (information) available at various touch points in a cycle of practices which a farmer undertakes during a crop cycle, year on year. These cables are raw facts which provide us a comprehensive picture once when we churn them into insights via our data mining and algorithm competencies,” Krishna Kumar, CEO of CropIn Technology, explained.
Stewart Collis, Co-Founder and Chief Technology Officer of aWhere, believed that big data was revolutionizing agriculture in two main ways. First was simply the ability to store, manage and mine the enormous amounts of data that could be collected across the agricultural value chain – from yield sensors, soil moisture IoT devices, to drones and even high speed fruit quality scanners in packing plants. The amount of data was unprecedented – and it was only through big data technologies and expertise that this information was available and able to be turned into information to support better decisions.
The second main impact was the ability to monitor, predict and manage risk. Agriculture is an inherently risky business. With changing weather conditions it is becoming more unpredictable relative to the crops and practices that have worked well for generations. “The ability to leverage big data technologies and techniques to better monitor agricultural information at the field level and predict outcomes allows for better risk management and insight into the impact of these changing conditions,” Stewart opined.
Different from the other interviewees’ macroscopic angles, Ben Allen, Enterprise Solutions Lead for Trimble Agriculture, claimed that it was really the management of small data that was most interesting at the farmer level, although big data offered a lot of promise in terms of data analysis and benchmarking comparisons.
“Farmers are more concerned with their own field, their own crops, and their own equipment than they are of the overall trends in their area. So, the ability of technology to help farmers focus on their unique operations and local conditions are more applicable than the bigger data trends over larger areas of production. This may seem counter to what other industries have used technology for, but in agriculture local results are the primary management challenge.” Ben remarked.
Various data services
Trimble has a deep history in agriculture, with experience in equipment monitoring hardware, positioning and guidance services, and Farm Management Information Services (FMIS) software available on both computer and mobile devices. With their global dealer network, Trimble has the ability to serve agricultural customers around the world, providing hardware, software, and guidance solutions with local support.
On November 7, 2016 Trimble announced the combination of three previously successful products, Farm Works, Agri-Data, and Connected Farm, into one new and complete software offering known as Trimble Ag Software. The software platform simplifies data management to drive profitability, productivity, and sustainability for farmers, crop advisors, ag retailers, and food processors. The new offering has end-to-end functionality and strong support for mobile devices, even if they lose their cellular signal. Farmers can license Trimble Ag Software at their website for an annual fee that depends on the number of users, vehicles, and functionality that they desire.
The Weather Company, an IBM Business, has made a huge push into the agriculture industry over the past year. Since the acquisition from IBM, The Weather Company not only has the resources and analytical power of IBM, but they are also now able to incorporate farm level weather information from any point across the world.
The company has provided clients with some of the following solutions: highly accurate current observations and forecasts on a 500m global grid; the ability to ingest, and maintain personal weather stations (from fields, etc.); obtain customize alerts for customers (growers) alerting on hail, lightning, wind, temperatures, etc.; analytics such as crop yield forecasts, pest and disease modeling and detection, fertilizer selector, crop calendar generator, reporting tools and more.
CropIn Technology, is a Farm Management-Monitoring-Traceability (agriculture data and analytics) business solution provider based out of Bengaluru, India. CropIn provides SaaS-based service to Agribusinesses in India and abroad, enabling partners to analyze, interpret and gain real time insight on crops and farms, so as to be able to take corrective measures on time. The company, currently six years into its operations and presently in seven countries, has covered more than 70 percent of the states in India with a client base of more than 70 and an experience of managing more than 100 crops. CropIn has also been able to assist 500 thousand farmers and manages over one million acres of farmland by solving 50 thousand farming issues in its scale of operations.
Four main products of CropIn Technology are as follows:
● SmartFarm: The mobile and web-based application helps users to manage their farm operations from planning to harvesting, at each stage.
● SmartSales: An intuitive sales effectiveness application which caters to providing solutions for agrochemical and input seed enterprises.
● mWarehouse: An application which helps to manage entire packhouse operations of agri businesses starting from inventory management, order management, GS1 compliant label printing till dispatching the order there by extending the SmartFarm and enabling users to provide farm to fork traceability.
● SmartRisk: An advanced analytics platform with a strong backend of big data, machine learning, AI and remote sensing to create farmer and plot rating and risk index. This helps input companies, banks and NBFC companies to identify viable leads for their business.
aWhere is an agricultural intelligence company. They provide information and insights to support agriculture across the value chain. They have a big data platform that processes billions of information points a day relating to the agricultural environment such as historical weather, forecast weather, soils, pest and disease risk, agronomics and planting characteristics. This enables aWhere to provide best in class agricultural information at the field level across the entire agricultural earth every day. It also enables macro level predictive modeling insight into crop stress, crop suitability and crop production globally.
● Ownership of data and privacy protection
The agriculture big data industry was facing some issues and challenges during the early developing stage, although it seemed likely to have a promising future. Concerns on the ownership of data and privacy protection were the most pressing problems among the others. At this point, aWhere and CropIn both emphasized that it was not as much an issue for them as they were B2B solutions and did not store farmer information on their platforms, but that it is an issue the industry needs to address with transparency around the value of sharing information.
Chittaranjan Jena, CTO of CropIn Technology, further explained, “Since we offer our platforms to businesses who in turn work with farmers, we have strict non-disclosure agreement with our customers so there is no threat to privacy of farmer’s data. Besides, we have implemented best in class technological processes for data security and privacy. Data in transit is encrypted at all layers and critically masked as opted by the customer. We use the best in class AWS cloud (Amazon Web Services) for our infrastructure.”
Carrie introduced The Weather Company’s confidential solutions, “The analytical tools/models we build can be provided in many ways. For instance, we pull in all the data keeping all data sources from client proprietary, or provide the model where the client pulls in the data and houses the data.”
● Translate the data to profit
The biggest challenge collecting data in Stewart’s opinion was turning that data into information and insight. “Not all data is created equal while devices are getting smaller and cheaper – in agriculture there are still significant challenges with scale. For example, we model historical daily weather data globally in real-time by blending many weather information sources, such as satellite radar, ground radar, high grade weather stations and smaller cheaper personal weather stations. As such there is a balance between obtaining data and getting an ROI on that investment. That is why at aWhere we work very hard on integrating, blending and modeling to meet the needs of the decision being made and provide the most value,” he added.
● Adaptability and mobility
Besides all factors mentioned above, CropIn thought adaptability was also an obstacle. “A majority of companies working in agrochemical, organic or contractual farming, and input seeds, have been working with old book keeping practices. Though tedious, but any drastic change towards digitization, is viewed with skepticism, especially with their field team, who believe that with use of the application, they are being merely tracked and their performance is being evaluated, ignoring the bigger picture,” Krishna illustrated.
Moreover, with current limitations in penetration of broadband and mobile communication, reach of expansion in working directly with the farmer is also limited.
Cost vs. profit – why do people buy it?
In this interview, the author asked the same question to all interviewees: Due to the downturn in the economy and agriculture industry during these two years, farmers are struggling with low crop prices, lower incomes and higher costs of using agri-inputs. How could farmers afford additional costs in using data services?
They gave similar answers: data could be used to enable better decisions across the farm, and the savings that could be realized through better decision making far outweighed the cost of using these data services.
Ben brought in some examples to explain how data helped in making better decisions. For example, a farmer may analyze machine productivity data (time stopped, idling, working, etc.) and discover an issue with an operator. With additional operator training, the productivity of that operator could increase moving forward. Another example: soil analysis data may reveal a soil nutrient deficiency or a soil hardpan issue, and fixing these issues will lead to greater yield. Or, data analysis of a field over time may show certain portions that consistently deliver low yield and the farmer may determine the cost to fix those areas was not worth it, so the data may lead him to decide to focus more of his inputs on the high performing areas of the field. “The examples for how data can increase profitability are endless,” Ben added. “With the profit margins in agriculture being squeezed it is more important than ever to track the details that include costs, products, and field activities.”
Stewart emphasized that information services should be looked at as any other cost of an agricultural business. Information providers need to demonstrate there is a significant enough return on using these services that justifies them being prioritized. Information services can for example reduce the cost of other inputs – thereby justifying spending money on them even in challenging years.
With regard to the obligation on educating the industry on the value of digitization, Chittaranjan agreed with Stewart. He said that CropIn was a pioneer in digitizing the agribusinesses and took the lead in defining agribusiness processes in India. “A lot of effort is taken to educate the industry on the value of digitization. We do not sell products but partner our customers to create value for their business,” he added.
CropIn witnessed how farmers received better yields, crop insurance, farming advisory to right package of practices, without directly burdening them with additional costs to use data solutions. “The Indian agriculture industry has been growing at a pace of 3 to 4 percent CAGR while the IT industry at a pace of 17 to 19 percent, which speaks volumes on how we can capitalize on technology growth and marry the same with agriculture sector on high volumes, enabling lesser costs,” Chittaranjan enthused.
The interviewees also talked about future planning on the development of their companies and the perspectives of the agriculture data industry.
“Farmers are increasingly choosing to use their smartphones as a key technology on their farms,” Ben said. “These devices are very powerful, portable, and much more user-friendly than laptop computers. For this reason Trimble continues to invest in leading mobile apps, which support the mobile life that our farm customers lead. With these devices, farmers are finally able to take advantage of technology while standing in their fields,” he added.
“In the next five years, we are poised to position our self at the TOMA (top of mind awareness) concerning IoT in Agriculture – Internet of AgTech. CropIn is looking at adding value to over 20 million farmers globally, entering into commodity trading markets, connecting better with financial institutions, expanding to Africa and South East Asia and importantly raising the next series of financial equity,” Krishna said.
“I think the increasing amount of information we will have concerning the agricultural value chain – from R&D, to production to financial services and retail will allow us to become more efficient and streamline our food supply. Many markets in the world are starting from different places along the ag-tech spectrum and I think this will start to normalize. The fundamental challenge we have with producing enough food for our growing population, in the face of changing weather conditions, is a huge challenge that I think big data and ag-tech are essential to help solve – as such I think market forces will drive more innovation and adoption of more and more sophisticated systems in agriculture. It is an exciting time to be part of the agriculture industry,” Stewart said in conclusion.
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