Big Data Could Bring Big Benefits

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Big data

By Taylor Hillman

The flood of technologies hitting the market hasn’t slowed since developers turned their attention to precision agriculture. One thing that remains common among these technologies is the use of data, which has been previously ignored or unmonitored. Now, developers are focusing on algorithms and patterns in data sets that are collected during farming practices that will improve production. There is a great deal of concern regarding the data and who owns it, yet precision farming continues to prove it can maximize production, which means utilizing that “big data.”

Whether it’s a drone in the air or a sensor in the ground, most agriculture technologies are tracking a vast array of data sets. That information is referred to as big data. Developers have found ways to quantify this data and make it a trackable number that can increase efficiency in production. For example, producers can see exactly what is going on 2 feet under their grove floor and determine when the optimal time is for a plant to take up nutrients.

Developers needed to find a way to organize that data and make it easy to utilize. Companies are focusing on programs, like Syngenta’s AgriEdge Excelsior program, to manage data. Reagan DeSpain, AgriEdge manager, says Syngenta’s program helps a grower understand his farm inputs.

“We have learned over time that growers like to have exclusivity and like to have a farm management software that helps them manage their business by improving their returnable investments and that helps them with their farm stewardship,” says DeSpain.

These types of programs basically act as a record keeper for the farmer. University of California Cooperative Extension farm advisors Emily Symmes and Mary Bianchi recently stressed the importance of keeping detailed records. Data management systems make getting, taking and filing information a lot easier.

“It’s important to keep track of things like re-entry intervals and harvest intervals. These are so important to know if a grower is starting to exceed their limits.” DeSpain says. “It’s hard to write that down on a piece of paper and know where you are during the year if you have exceeded your active ingredient load on this particular crop, on this particular field.”

Developers are finding new data sets all the time that can track the smallest changes in everyday practices. Remote sensing is a system in which an algorithm processes individual pixel temperatures in an aerial thermal image. Although the technology is still being developed, University of California Water Management Specialist Emeritus David Goldhamer says remote sensing could change how irrigation is managed in the future.

“We take measurements from the air of crop canopies with thermal cameras that can give us the temperature of sections in that canopy,” explains Goldhamer. “We can convert that temperature into a stress index, and growers can use that index as an aid in water management.”

Development on this technology has been stifled by the lack of access to high-elevation imagery on a regular basis. The recently amended small drone rules may ease some of those issues. The technology could lead to the ability to irrigate each tree individually as needed.

Data sets are also improving application efficiency. Growers can use data management programs to save on product use. This is especially valuable in a grove that has seen significant stress, such as Florida groves suffering from HLB. DeSpain says most spray nozzles will often detect if a tree is present or not, or if it is too small to treat. Logging that information can help to maximize your inputs.

“Maybe because of greening, a grower has had to remove some 5-year-old trees and now has some trees in there that are 1 or 2 years old. The sprayer will recognize there is a smaller tree there and will shut off application,” says DeSpain. “This saves the grower money. He probably wouldn’t know to do that if he was just writing it down. Whenever he comes back and looks at his AgriEdge program, it’ll be able to tell him he has extra product to apply somewhere else. It’ll sync up correctly in his database so the product he’s applied matches up with the acres he’s applied it to. And that’s hard to do by hand.”

A lot of growers are still concerned about their data privacy. The question “Who owns my data?” remains, and many believe is the reason why some technologies are slow to be fully adopted. The attitude in the ag tech industry has shifted some in the last year. Groups and companies are realizing that clarification of ownership will increase adoption and sales.

The Agricultural Data Coalition (ADC) was officially announced early this year. ADC is a partnership between several groups, including the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF), formed to create a central repository for data and keep the grower in control.

“Farmers must retain ownership and control of the private agricultural data that originates from the work they do in their fields,” AFBF President Zippy Duvall said in a press release. “Harnessing that proprietary information for field-level efficiency and effectiveness is the key that will unlock more profitability and the greater adoption of precision agriculture. That’s good for business and the environment, too.”

Companies are recognizing how important the ownership conversation is. DeSpain says AgriEdge has a very comprehensive privacy policy in place that it makes sure the grower understands. “One of the big things growers are concerned about is trust. This is their information, livelihood and farm. This is their business, and they don’t want all the information spread all over the internet,” says DeSpain. “Take a year like this year, when there is a lot of stress in the marketplace. When people are uncertain about the future of their business and the future of agriculture, they turn to people they can trust.”

Taylor Hillman is the assistant farm news director for AgNet Media’s AgNet West in California.

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Taylor Hillman