Agriculture technology and solutions are increasingly driven by the need to solve problems in poorer and less-food-secure areas of the world.
Companies developing technology are keeping both traditional farms and developing farms in mind because it is the socially responsible thing to do and because both are serious business markets.
Why it matters: A focus on global agriculture means that the attention may not be on large acre production as it has been in the past.
Claudia Rossler, Microsoft’s director of agriculture strategic partnerships, says that productivity is a driver of sustainability for agriculture. She differentiates between work the company does for agriculture as a business and return-on-investment-driven farming, and “rural farming,” by which she means farmers who are just trying to feed their families with the food they grow, with a bit extra to sell.
What Microsoft is learning about agriculture data management can be applied across both farming worlds.
Rossler was one of the speakers at the recent Sustainability and Digitalization Leaders in Agriculture conference in Miami. The conference drew agriculture technology funders, sustainable development organizations, researchers and entrepreneurs from across North America and parts of the rest of the world.
Microsoft, like several of the other major technology companies including IBM, sees a future role for itself in pulling together the growing amount of farm-based data. Microsoft’s FarmBeats program is an extensive attempt to help bring together the many potential data sources on a farm in to one system.
Rossler talked about a farm in Washington state near the company’s head office in Seattle. It’s a diverse vegetable-producing farm that puts emphasis on working with the environment. However, it has significant challenges, says Rossler. It is located in a dry area and therefore needs to irrigate and it’s partially on a flood plain, which means its success is highly dependent on the ebb and flow of the river.
The farm has been using FarmBeats for four years and applying precision measurement and monitoring has meant 30 per cent less water used for irrigation and 44 per cent less lime needed to manage the pH of the soils.
Monitoring of yield showed where there needed to be better drainage. Moisture sensors are used to determine the optimal planting of seeds.
A helium balloon with a low-cost camera monitors parts of the farm day and night. It mostly watches for flood water rising on the nearby river, but it also has been useful to catch the bear that found the farm a bountiful place to snack.
It was evident from Rossler’s talk that Microsoft is thinking about technology in the food system from farm to consumer.
“When we think of food research and seed research, it’s mostly based on research farms,” she said. “We haven’t truly connected consumer demand and feedback back to research in order to produce faster and produce food for the future.”
Microsoft is also working in Africa, including a project that provided a solar-powered irrigation system to a woman who spent 17 hours per week just moving water to her plants. Being able to better control water and then spend more time on crop management has more than doubled her yield.
In India, Microsoft has created a project that helps provide weather information to farmers via text message. It gives farmers advice on when to plant seeds, when to water and when to treat a pest on the farm. In the first year, the system told the farmers to plant 10 days later than they were used to, which made the farmers quite nervous, said Rossler. However, the mix of satellite and locally generated data came up with the recommendation, which proved to be effective, with a healthy rise in yields.
“AI (artificial intelligence) enabled them to make decisions before something happened.”
Creating more information systems for small farmers
Krishna Kumar’s CropIn company also works in India. For small farmers, some of whom can’t read, access to capital is a challenge. His system records information about a farm to create a virtual income statement for farmers who are not in the commercial banking system. They can then take that to a lender to try to get credit.
They’re working with lenders from Rabobank and with small local banks.
“When (a) banker knows that a plot exists and there’s available information about it, they don’t have to visit the farms,” he said. “The moment a farmer needs capital, the farmer goes to bank, and the bank can get the information as a score.”
Having farmers in a trusted system also can mean quicker insurance claim resolution.
CropIn is also involved in sending information via text message, warning of a frost, for example, or to suggest fertilizer timing. It’s usually delivered in the local language or dialect.
Kumar says that there are no more technology barriers to delivering this sort of information to farmers around the world.