Big data: Farming by the numbers


Data is everywhere: online, internal files, websites, databases, social networks, sensors and everything in between.

I’ve been reading about “data journalism” for many years — combining traditional newsgathering and reporting with the sheer volume of digital information now available. Digging deep into online or digital public documents and records, and harnessing the power of software, helps journalists uncover and track new information.

It’s a new way to shine a light on things some would rather stay buried in the dark. In fact, Farm and Dairy Reporter Kristy Seachrist attended a Rural Computer-Assisted Reporting Workshop last May at the University of Kentucky to try and bolster our own data journalism skills.

Information — numbers — have always been essential to farm management, too, so now I’m starting to read more things about “big data” agriculture.

We’re talkin’ more than just pushing the pencil, unless your pencil has a microchip processor.

The latest John Deere equipment use sensors to track and store real-time information on weather, soil conditions, crop features and other data. The information can be accessed online or via an application on your iPad or iPhone to help farmer make better decisions. And along the line, John Deere is gathering information itself that could, say, help forecast demand for spare parts.

Equipment can take soil samples as it moves across your field, analyze the samples and feed the results back to you.

Wireless plant sensors help record and track factors in research plots (an Australian research project generated some 2 million data points per week from 40 sites).

Switching livestock feed? See how well an animal, or a group of animals, is performing with an intelligent weighing system to compare real-time information with historical information.

The USDA participated in a two-day G8 Open Data for Agriculture Conference at the end of April, where U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced a new U.S. data-sharing network for food, agriculture and rural issues (

This open-source data from a variety of sources can now be layered to find connections we couldn’t see before.

Vilsack said open data is triggering a digital revolution that can do for agriculture what the industrial revolution did during the 1900s.

For example, open data from satellites can monitor vegetation growth. Couple that with tracking of insect pests and you could get a super scouting system before you even sweep your first acre.

The conference also drew someone who knows a thing or two about computing and data: Bill Gates. Gates challenged the international attendees to develop minimum standards for accountability and evaluation, and interoperability (making sure systems and data can talk to each other).

The pessimist in me worries a little about the Big Brother aspect of all this information gathering, and I also recognize the old adage of “garbage in, garbage out.” But let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. This will be a new skill set for farmers. How do we make meaning of and extract insight from data? If that’s not your forte, you’d better find someone to do it for you.

Two former Google employees have founded Climate Corporation using free soils type information for every two square miles and crop yield data from the USDA, and historical precipitation and temperature data published by the National Weather Service. They added other sources, and real-time data and now know how the average weather at one spot differs from another 2 miles down the road.

They came up a crop insurance product, even for speciality crops, that’s customized according to each farm’s risk factors. If a farm gets dumped on with May rain, Climate Corp.’s computers know about it as soon as the first raindrop falls, and cut a check soon enough for the farmer to buy more seed to replant.

I like how Successful Farming Editor Dave Kurns put it in the April edition: “The key to the data is not precision technology; it’s decision technology.”

This is a lot to absorb, and I’m not sure I grasp its potential. But I predict we’ll see more innovation and creativity and science in agriculture than ever before — all driven by data. After all, information is power, and time is money. Data-generated information lets farmers make fact-based decisions faster.

Better data drives better ag decisions.


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