Big Ag, big data and big money

Every day, according to the coconut milk-drinking nerds in Silicon Valley, the world generates 2.5 quintillion bytes of electronic data.

Yes, 2.5 quintillion. Think two, comma, five and then 17 zeroes.

If a picture helps, picture this: If you placed that data on iPads equipped with a 32-gigabyte memory, you would need 57.5 billion iPads to hold it.

Then you need another 57.5 billion iPads to store tomorrow’s data.

You get the idea. Big data is really big and Big Ag is investing big bucks in what it sees is the next big thing on your farm or ranch.

Mining the data

In fact, on Nov. 1, Monsanto Company completed its $930 million cash purchase of The Climate Corp., a San Francisco-based tech company that, under Monsanto’s umbrella, hopes to change global farming.

A profile titled “Climate By Numbers” in the Nov. 11 New Yorker magazine explains how. The company, writes author Michael Specter, “hopes to transform the weather business… into a system driven solely by numbers. And there are a lot of numbers. Company scientists process fifty terabytes” — 52.43 million megabytes — “of weather information every day… The data include eight years’ worth of soil, moisture, and precipitation records for each of the 29 million farm fields in the U.S.”

Wait with the wows; there’s more.

Prescription crop insurance

A Climate Corp. “algorithm divides the country into nearly a half a million plots, then generates 10,000 daily weather scenarios for each of them. This information is used to create individualized insurance policies for corn, soybean, and wheat farmers covering major perils…”

Then, “When data show that a field is too wet, for instance, or that hot nights will interfere with the growth of a crop, an insured farmer simply gets a check. No claims, forms, adjusters, or negotiations are required.”

Now you can “wow.”

More prescriptions

Climate Corp.’s whiz-bang crop insurance scheme stands on two pillars. First, it lifts buckets of free weather and yield information from the National Weather Service and the U.S. Department of Agriculture and, second, Monsanto’s 2012 purchase of Precision Planting, an Illinois firm that specializes in on-the-go seed selection and placement.

Together it’s Big Data meets Big Seed meets Big Iron and the pairings will drive your tractor, select and place your seed (from personalized varieties) by the foot or meter and fertilize, irrigate and insure the crop while you’re monitoring it all from your kitchen or farm office.

This isn’t a touch screen, agronaut fantasy. In July, Informa Economics floated an investment prospectus to underwrite a broad study of what it called “AgInformatics.”

This “actionable information,” explained Informa, has Big Ag — the offer listed Deere, Dow, Monsanto, Pioneer, and Syngenta — “on the verge of going ‘all in’ on data collection, analysis and operational planning.”

(Deere & Co. already is in, betting on an open architecture — think iPhone and apps — to manage your data. Go to www.youtube.com/watch?v=jEh5-zZ9jUg for a long, warm, green look.)

No one, however, will go boldly into a data-driven tomorrow alone. Everyone sees you and Uncle Sam as partners. Climate Corp. was approved to peddle heavily subsidized — and, very likely, expanding — federal crop insurance three months before Monsanto bought it. Deere already owns a crop insurance arm.

And, of course, none of this is free.

Climate Corp. “charges roughly $40 per acre to insure crops,” notes the New Yorker, and Monsanto believes the $1 billion it spent on the company will yield $20 billion in the coming years.

Curiously, that big money will be spent to do pretty much what small-farm agriculture has done for millennia: grow better crops and livestock through small plot management using soil and weather knowledge gained over years of farming and ranching.

But our quantified, digitized and monetized big-data future awaits and it can’t, or won’t, compute what these changes mean for farms, ranches, farmers, ranchers or rural America.

About the Author

Alan Guebert was raised on an 800-acre, 100-cow southern Illinois dairy farm. After graduation from the University of Illinois in 1980, he served as a writer and editor at Professional Farmers of America, Successful Farming magazine and Farm Journal magazine. His syndicated agricultural column, The Farm and Food File, began in June, 1993, and now appears weekly in more than 70 publications throughout the U.S. and Canada. He and spouse Catherine, a social worker, have two adult children. farmandfoodfile.com More Stories by Alan Guebert

One Comment

  1. Mary Gibson says:

    Add to this list Big Farm Bureau! Big has taken control of Farms and it is not for the better..Big promotes too many animals, on too little space, making too much waste! Industrial livestock operations are growing in Ohio and the waters of Lake Erie are suffering, not to mention the neighbors of the commercial operations. I walked away from my home since 1976. We loved it, that is until the broiler CAFO operated by Park Farms moved in in 1990 and destroyed our enjoyment of it. Every realtor in Stark County had listed it for sale, dropping the price as the years went by, 26 of them to be exact. We were also Farm Bureau members but obviously, not important, as they did nothing to protect our personal property rights instead protected the rights of the commercial Park Farms operation. After suffering for this many years, I walked away from my lifetime investment in our property. When is Ohio going to be fair about the laws? When the farm is manned by folks that do not own it, and who have no concept of spraying chemicals onto the neighbors property destroying the landscape, is this truly a family farm? Not in my book! Farm Bureau should be ashamed of itself calling itself a Farm Bureau when in reality it represents commercial operations totally, without a conscience or concern for the damage foisted on other members. Wake up Ohio or you may find yourselves sharing the same capsizing boat!

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