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The Most Useful Tool on the Modern Farm is Data

Data miners are now courting the agriculture industry in a big way.
Image: ackab/Flickr

If you have an image of farming as a down-home haven of the technophobe, think again.

Once stuck with thermometers and shovels, farmers now have access to scans that probe groundwater conditions, soil nutrient levels and long-range sensors on grazing farm animals, so they know when a cow out to pasture is sick. And that data has become essential to a modern day farm's success.

Data collection and analysis companies have begun to focus the agriculture industry over the past few years. These companies are positioning themselves as data providers, rather than agribusinesses, focusing on increasing their user metrics to compete with traditional tech businesses.


Gabe Schwartz, spokesman for energy storage company Stem, said his company currently has about 3.5 million runtime hours, a metric the company said measures how many hours the combined systems in its portfolio have been in operation.

A presentation from Aero Systems West shows users how their data analytics system works at the World Agriculture Expo last month. Image: Meredith Rutland Bauer

Smart technology within agriculture is still a niche tool. Less than 10 percent of farms use data and smart technology in their irrigation systems as of 2013, according to a 2016 analysis report prepared for the CTIA Wireless Foundation, a nonprofit focused on expanding wireless communication.

But that number is growing rapidly. The report says "the use of moisture sensing devices was the fastest-growing irrigation decision-making method between 2003 and 2013," the report stated. "Agriculture, and irrigation management in particular, is seen as one of the most fertile areas for the Internet of Things."

Farmers and ranchers have a range of data-focused tools at their disposal. At the World Agriculture Expo in February, companies that focused on providing data collection and analysis showed off their wares.

Using drones to collect crop data has taken off in the agriculture industry. Using drones and small computer-operated aircrafts, farmers can take readings of crop yield, plant height, groundwater basin health, soil nutrient loads and other metrics that would be difficult to collect on a regular basis across an entire farm.

"Now you can take the same data that used to be accessed by a satellite or a manned aircraft" said Charles Neal, president of Aero Systems West, a company that uses drones to collect data on farms.


Keeping the user interfaces easy to understand is critical since few of their users will want to spend time pouring over spreadsheets, said Cord Nuñez, a sales manager for irrigation company Hortau. Instead, farmers pull out their smartphones or computers to read graphs or illustrated graphics that show them what the data means.

Hortau has smart irrigation devices that farmers can use to evaluate the moisture content of their fields. To make it easier, the user interface shows a graph and alerts the user if the moisture levels show the soil is too dry or too wet for healthy plants.

"It's great to have a lot of data," he said, "but you have to filter through it or it's pointless."

Even with good user interfaces, companies deploying data-driven analytics in agriculture need to make sure they work with farmers' routines.

If a sensor or data collection system doesn't make their lives easier, then no one will use it, said Melissa Brandão, CEO of HerdDogg, which makes smart tags to collect biometric and location data on livestock. For example, her company styled their smart tags so they could be installed with traditional ear tag pliers.

"It's a very traditional space to be in," she said, "but there's great ways to apply technology without disrupting their way of doing things."