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Q&A: David Friedberg, Climate Corporation

Gil Gullickson 03/05/2014 @ 2:09pm Crops Technology Editor for Successful Farming magazine/Agriculture.com

David Friedberg would probably turn few farmer heads if he popped into your local coffee shop. Those same farmers, though, would likely be amazed by how much data the company Friedberg heads -- The Climate Corporation -- can compile on each of their individual fields.

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Friedberg doesn’t have your typical agricultural background. Growing up in Los Angeles, he once headed his high school’s Healing Our Planet Earth Club. A University of California-Berkeley astrophysics graduate, he cut his Big Data teeth with Google before founding the precursor of The Climate Corporation in 2007.

Initially a supplement to federal crop insurance, the firm has expanded its product line into agronomics. This will grow, due to a $930 million purchase by Monsanto in 2013.

Friedberg gives the following insights to Successful Farming magazine about the firm’s start and where it’s headed.  

SF: Why did you start The Climate Corporation?

DF: Agriculture is the most weather-sensitive industry.

A store like Nordstrom, for example, will have a drop in winter coat sales if there is a warm winter in the Northeast. But it is diversified, with stores in other locations of the country.

Farmers, on the other hand, are mainly concentrated in one place. The market is huge because they are really sensitive to weather.

SF: How does the firm give farmers weather protection?

DF: We offer parametric insurance that pays out on specified parameters rather than loss adjustment. A producer selects fields, and we provide coverage by paying out automatically for weather events like rainfall.

SF: How can this be determined on individual fields?

DF: Hyperlocal weather monitoring monitors weather at a field level, rather than at an airport 20 miles away. We expanded a whole network of data and technologies like remote sensing into models. This way, we don’t have to install a weather station in each field.

We had a research team using applied mathematics, physics, statistics, agronomy, and wide-scale distributive computer science develop agronomic models. We acquired lots of data on the crop-production side and also a lot of geospatial data.

We also built weather simulation models that enable us to have weather events monitored in every field in the U.S.

SF: Is The Climate Corporation moving beyond insurance?

DF: Yes. Climate Basic, which is free, gives a recent snapshot of individual fields. It gives information like moisture levels and crop-growth stage. You can access it by registering at climate.com.

Climate Pro is a paid service. It puts together a number of advisers who give recommendations for planting, adding nitrogen, pests and diseases, harvest, and variable-rate applications.

SF: Why did you sell to Monsanto?  

DF: We have to have high-quality data to build weather models that allow us to make agronomic recommendations. Monsanto has a data set unmatched in the industry. We have the ability now to get more detail around genetics and soils.

Monsanto owns 100% of the shares of the company, but we will run as an independently run business within Monsanto.

As we get growers to tell us what their farming practices and genetics are, we can do a better job of giving them agronomic recommendations.

SF: How do you obtain this data from farmers who may be reluctant to share it?  

DF: We clearly state that each farmer will own the data he or she creates or provides to us. The Climate Corporation will use it only to improve the services to which that farmer is subscribing. There will be safeguards, and data will not be sold to any third party.

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