Farming, and farmers, are in trouble.
Between 2013 and 2016, net income for farmers and ranchers dropped 45%, the largest three-year drop since the start of the Great Depression, according to the USDA.
Farmers face "incredible financial, legal and emotional stress," according to Farmaid. Their businesses are affected by weather, disease, pests, prices and interest rates, which are beyond their control.
One possible solution: technology.
Eight-five percent of U.S. farmers are turning towards technology and 62% are already using apps in day-to-day farming operations, according to Ag America Lending, one of the largest non-bank agricultural lenders in the U.S.
"It boils down to how can they increase their yields, and how can they reduce their inputs," Brian Philpot, CEO of AgAmerica, told CIO Dive in an interview.
Big tech develops farming solutions
Right now, farmers employ GPS tracking and guidance technology to steer tractors and harvesting equipment, said Philpot. Farmers also use variable rate technology, which allows them to control inputs such as "applying fertilizer and water where it needs to go depending on how the yields are shaping up in local areas of the farm."
Major technology players have answered the call for farming technology. Microsoft recently launched a public preview of Azure FarmBeats.
The company says it enables data-driven farming through an end-to-end system that combines sensors and drones to create and collect data about a farm — including soil moisture, light, ambient temperature, humidity — to share with agricultural analytics firms.
FarmBeats is a way to extract data from farms, merge it together in a cloud, and "come up with unique insights for agriculture," Ranveer Chandra, chief scientist of Microsoft Azure, told Western Producer in August.
FarmBeats also addresses the typical lack of connectivity on farms by using TV white spaces — scanning the TV spectrum for unused channels, and transmitting through them.
"While it is transmitting in those spectral, it will keep listening to see if a TV transmission came back. If a TV transmission comes back, it's going to move to a different TV channel. And if needed, it's going to adjust its power level and its bandwidth," Chandra said during a keynote presentation at the InfoAg Conference this year.
Big Blue on the farm
IBM's Watson Decision Platform for Agriculture is targeted farming on the enterprise level.
It's being used by agribusiness companies that provide services to farmers, Jeff Keiser, lead offering Manager, Agribusiness Solutions IBM Watson, The Weather Company, told CIO Dive in an interview.
The platform takes information on weather, soil, equipment, and farm workflow and applies AI, machine learning, and advanced analytics to get insights and automatically generate guides for smarter decisions, not just on when to harvest and fertilize but also exactly where.
Keiser, who also has a corn and soybean farm in Indiana, said farmers have been on board with high tech solutions since the introduction of GPS technology in the late 1980s. But collected farm data is underused – often because the information is collected manually and hard to analyze.
"All the data that we've generated has not procured the insights and certainly not the business results we had hoped for," he said.
Right now, IBM estimates farms produce 500,000 data points a day, including what is being planted, where it's being planted, field yields and locations of those yields.
The platform takes data and "allows us to develop or generate an ROI based upon specific insights, like the best timing, best place in order to take an action," Keiser said.
Farms will continue to make more data. BI Intelligence predicts IoT device installations in agribusiness will hit 75 million in 2020, up from 30 million in 2015. OnFarm, which makes a connected IoT farm platform, expects farms to generate 4.1 million data points a day by 2050.
IoT will generate a lot of that data, using stationary and mobile devices attached to machines in the fields. Mobile sensors in the soil would collect data on on soil moisture, fertility and conditions.
"These kind of sensors are going to exponentially expand that amount of data that's both generated and probably right along with it the need of more insights form that data," he said.
Technology adoption is not from farmers in their 20s and 30s signing up to produce food, but from older, more established farmers, Philpot said. The average age of a primary producer in farming is 59.4 years old, according to the United States Department of Agriculture's National Agricultural Statistics Service.
While that statistic has raised alarm about who is going to take over as the next generation of farmers, it also points to experience.
"The adoption rate is happening much quicker with farms who have been at it for a longer while," Philpot said. "Farmers have always been that way. They've always been looking for an edge and advantage on the technological side."