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7 Ag Tech Advancements From 2018

This past year was another banner year for ag tech advancements. From drones to blockchain, the myriad innovations developed by the seven companies that follow help farmers better manage their businesses now and into the future.

1. AeroVironment Develops a Complete Drone Package

According to research firm Global Market Insights, the market for agricultural drones will top $1 billion by 2024, up from about $338 million in 2016.

For the past five years, California-based AeroVironment has made a concerted effort to understand the markets and technology for agriculture. This approach has allowed the company to develop a system that addresses the issues (it’s really hard to use, it doesn’t meet farmers’ needs, the uncertainty with what to do with the data, etc.) hampering adoption.

“There really needed to be a complete ecosystem provided to farmers. What we mean by that is you have to have a drone that makes it really easy to collect the data, it has to be easy to fly, it has to have a good-quality camera, and then you have to have an easy-to-use software that easily stitches together the images and runs all of the analytics to make it meaningful for the farmer,” says Jonah Teeter-Balin, director, AeroVironment sales and marketing.

Experienced in both quad and fixed-wing drones, AeroVironment’s original pilot studies revealed that although the quad was easy to control, it didn’t offer the coverage need to really make it work in agriculture. 

While the fixed wing could go the distance, they found its stability in windy conditions a bit of a challenge when trying to take high-quality images.

“We combined the best of both worlds with our Quantix drone, which has the ability to cover 400 acres per 45-minute flight,” he says. “Because it has four propellers, it is very stable in flight, but we limit it to 15-mph winds because we don’t believe you can take high-quality images above that.”

The Quantix takes off and lands like a multirotor. It has the range, reliability, and efficiency of a fixed wing. Also, its unique hybrid design allows the aircraft to launch vertically and then transition to horizontal flight. 

With the touch of a button, Quantix initiates a fully automated takeoff, flight, and landing. The Quick Look maps allow you to instantly assess a field to identify potential issues before they start impacting yield.

Data is seamlessly integrated into the AeroVironment Decision Support System. This system automatically performs advanced image processing, analytics, and comparative and historical reporting to help you make quicker decisions.

Simple and seamless . . . two key criteria when introducing a new technology to agriculture.

2. IBM Works to Fulfill the Promise of Digital Agriculture.

“The information farmers are collecting in their fields holds the key to future innovation and competitiveness,” says Ben Craker, Kuhn North America. 

Yet, farmers continue to wrestle with how to capitalize on the information being gathered on every acre of their fields. 

“By nature, agriculture is a very fragmented and siloed business, which has prevented precision agriculture from advancing as fast as it could have over the past two decades,” says Mark Gildersleeve, vice president and head of business solutions, Watson Media and Weather, IBM. “We haven’t made it simple enough for growers because we’re not connecting the dots to give them better insights.”

With the introduction of the Watson Decision Platform for Agriculture, IBM is bringing together data and artificial intelligence to help growers make better decisions. This new platform is an innovation that draws on IBM’s most advanced capabilities in artificial intelligence (AI), analytics, IoT, Cloud, and weather to create a suite of solutions that span the farm-to-fork ecosystem. 

How it works

The platform begins by creating an electronic field record (EFR) as the single source of truth for each farm. Similar to an electronic medical record, the EFR is populated with information like:

• Weather data from The Weather Company, including historical data, near-real-time observations, and forecasts 15 days in advance as well as seasonal and subseasonal trends.

• Soil data like moisture at multiple depths, nutrient content, fertility, and type.

• Farm practice and workflow data gathered from cooperative growers (e.g., planting and harvesting dates, fertilizer and pesticide application rates, and harvest outputs).

• High-definition visual imagery from multiple satellites, drones, and airplanes.

Once the data for the EFR is gathered, Watson applies AI, machine learning, and advanced analytics to extract valuable insights and automatically generate recommendations to help farmers make smarter decisions. A unified dashboard enables growers to easily visualize data and alerts related to critical elements such as weather forecasts, soil conditions, evapotranspiration rates, and crop stress.

3. Blockchain is more than just a buzzword. 

By creating a digital passport for agricultural products, blockchain technology is breaking down barriers not only in tracking food from field to fork but also in farmers’ ability to better market and sell their crops.

For example, one of the projects Canadian start-up Grain Discovery is undertaking is tracking the path of soybeans as they are transformed into tofu.

“Everyone in that journey – from the seed company all the way to the supermarket – will be digitally recorded,” explains Rory O’Sullivan, Grain Discovery founder and CEO.

Not only is Grain Discovery trying to bring clarity to an opaque supply chain, it’s also working to move grain marketing into the digital age.

“While agriculture may be in the midst of a technological revolution, one thing has not changed – the way grain is bought and sold,” says O’Sullivan. “Farmers work as individuals and lack bargaining power, which undermines their ability to get a fair price for their product. They have been price takers for far too long.”

Utilizing blockchain, the company’s online commodity exchange connects farmers and buyers to a larger pool of customers locally, regionally, and globally. Both can view prior trade history, view what local cash prices are doing, as well as analyze the depth behind the bid and offer. This unique intelligence enables users to set a target price with confidence.

“Once a trade has been confirmed, self-executing smart contracts on the blockchain ensure instantaneous settlement, payment, provenance, and most importantly, the security of the transaction,” O’Sullivan explains.

Grain Discovery is not alone in this area. AgriDigital and GrainChain continue to make great strides in proving out the viability of this technology in agriculture.

4. The Climate Corporation and Farmers Mutual Hail Simplify Crop Insurance Reporting

By partnering with Farmers Mutual Hail (FMH), planting and harvest data captured in a farmer’s FieldView account will have the ability to flow into FMH systems – at the farmer’s request – for faster completion and delivery of planting and production reports. 

This will provide farmers and their agents with a more simplified reporting experience, eliminating the need for manual data entry, say company officials. In addition to enabling easy, digitized insurance reporting for farmers, Climate and FMH will be identifying further collaboration opportunities to partner in the area of digital risk management for farmers in the future, say company officials.

“FMH has been focused on enhancing and expanding our use of digital ag data to best meet the needs of today’s farmers,” said Ron Rutledge, FMH president and CEO, in a company news release. “We are excited about working with The Climate Corporation to add an easy-to-use reporting option for our policyholders who use FieldView and agents utilizing FMH Precision Crop Insurance Solutions. Not only will connecting our two systems enhance reporting processes, the data collected through FieldView can be used for adjusting crop losses, resulting in an enhanced claim experience for our policyholders.”

5. Farmers Edge Creates Imagery Easy Button, Establishes Key Partnerships.

Accelerating the speed of decision-making when crop issues emerge is the foundation of the Health Change Maps and Notifications function from Farmers Edge.

Designed to automatically scan satellite imagery and notify growers of changes in a field, this automatic detection tool pinpoints potential problems, including pests, disease, nutrient deficiencies, inclement weather, missed application, equipment malfunction, drainage issues, and more. 

The company also announced a number of strategic partnerships this year. Its partnership with CNH will give Case IH and New Holland customers access to agronomic services that will link data and decision-making to provide those real-time insights. In a tiered approach, customers will be able to choose the options, which include a transparent per-acre pricing structure, that best meet their operations’ specific needs.

A collaboration with Raven Industries will bring together Raven’s precision agriculture hardware, high-speed connectivity, and variable-rate technology with the precision digital solutions from Farmers Edge.

Under the terms of a four-year agreement with PartnerRe, the two companies will develop new agriculture insurance products, in main crop-growing areas worldwide, that are aimed at addressing the specific needs and challenges of farmers.

In addition, the Canadian company released a comprehensive R&D roadmap outlining its product enhancement and innovation plans through 2019. The plan includes an expanded digital agronomy product team, which will leverage the advancements in data analytics and machine learning, to extract value from data and develop innovative tools that help growers and ag professionals overcome obstacles on the farm. Its goal is to release over 90 additional digital agronomic tools that will further enable data-driven decision making and support high-yield crop production. 

“The ability to gather and integrate detailed information from growers’ fields, coupled with advances in weather forecasting, rapid processing, predictive modeling, and machine learning, is changing farming from a business that often reacts to the past to one that uses data to support decisions for the seasons ahead,” says Wade Barnes, president & CEO of Farmers Edge. “It’s about accuracy, efficiency, productivity, and ease of use.”

It's been a busy year for Farmers Edge, and it doesn’t look like the company plans on slowing down anytime in the near future.

6. Farmers Business Network Develops Crop Marketing Support Platform.

With its launch of the Commodity Crop Marketing platform earlier this year, Farmers Business Network continues to challenge the status quo.

“Farm profitability is at the core of what we do. But it’s hard to really have a comprehensive solution, from a business standpoint, unless you have support on the crop marketing side,” says Devin Lammers, head of FBN Commodity Crop Marketing. “We always knew we wanted to support farmers in this realm. Over the last year or so, we’ve made this a bigger focus in terms of going out and getting opinions from farmers and just having a lot of conversations.”

Those conversations revealed that farmers were clamoring for more support. Products and services in the lineup include FBN Cash Grain Management, FBM Market Intelligence, FBN Brokerage, and FBN Cash Contracts.

A key component to this platform, says Lammers, is building a network of active advisers to create a full-service advisory experience. 

“This allows us to make sure this isn’t passive information that a farmer may or may not absorb or even read,” says Lammers. “This is a person he can call, who he can have face-to-face meetings with, who he can bounce ideas off of, as well as a person who will reach out to keep a farmer proactively up-to-speed as well as accountable to his marketing plans and marketing goals he set at the beginning of the year.”

7. Plant Tattoos Offer Insight Into Water Use on Corn Plants.

Patrick Schnable is working with low-cost, graphene-based sensors that can be attached to plants. The technology measures the time it takes for two kinds of corn plants to move water from their roots, to their lower leaves, and then to their upper leaves. The information gathered will provide new types of data to researchers and farmers.

“With a tool like this, we can begin to breed plants that are more efficient in using water,” says the Iowa State University plant scientist. “That’s exciting. We couldn’t do this before. Once we can measure something, we can begin to understand it.”

That’s not all the sensors can do. 

They could also open new doors for a wide variety of other applications, including sensors for biomedical diagnostics, for checking the structural integrity of buildings, and for monitoring the environment. After some modifications, the sensors could be used for testing diseases or pesticides in crops.

Connecting the Unconnected

While all of these innovations are very exciting for agriculture, the reality is taking advantage of much of what ag tech has to offer means farmers must have access to robust, high-speed internet. . . an issue that continues to plague rural America.

“We are convinced data and data science are going to transform agriculture once again,” says John Raines, senior vice president of global commercial for The Climate Corporation. “In order for farmers to be able to have the type of information that provides those forward-looking insights to the farm, they have to have reliable, robust connectivity.”

According to the FCC, 24 million Americans still don’t have access to broadband internet. Millions more can only get slow, unreliable DSL service.

Sulligent, Alabama, dairy farmer Will Gilmer knows firsthand how the lack of a high-speed connection affects a business.

“Trying to use DSL is extremely frustrating,” says the fourth-generation farmer. “Improving connectivity means our efficiency would go up because we would be able to better manage things like how we monitor our cows when they’re getting ready to calve.”

Tombigbee Communications, a subsidiary of Tombigbee Electric Cooperative, in Hamilton, Alabama, is working to build a better future for its rural residents by installing its freedom FIBER across 1,000 square miles of northwest Alabama.

“We’re a communication world. So much of rural America, and certainly rural Alabama, is lacking the ability to have access to basic broadband services. It’s the issue for rural America in the 21st century,” says Steve Foshee, chief executive officer, Tombigbee Electric Cooperative

Through its five-phase fiber project, the company currently has over 3,000 customers and is connecting about 70 new customers a week. “We have a 5,000-customer-long waiting list,” he adds. “We can’t build this fast enough, which is a fascinating problem.”

Not only has adoption been successful, numbers were tracking so well (around 15% above goal with nearly 45% participation and well under the projected budget of $8 million for phase one) that the board voted halfway through the first phase to move forward with phase two, which has a $6.4 million price tag.  

“While I can’t divulge what the final cost was for phase one, what I will say is that we cut what we had initially projected by more than half,” Foshee says.

Investments from USDA, key partnerships with companies like CoBank, and a close eye on our financials are all crucial to successfully servicing these rural communities, he says.

Like many dairy farmers today, Gilmer’s long-term prospects for staying in dairy aren’t good. As they contemplate the future of their family farm, the services Tombigbee is offering open up new opportunities. “Whatever direction we decide to go, a fiber connection gives us the ability to look at and try new technology,” he says. “It’s hard to even wrap my mind around what the possibilities could be. It will be exciting to see where the fiber can take us.”

The success Tombigbee Communications is seeing should serve as a model for other rural communities who not only want to change the negative narrative about quality of life in rural America but also move the precision ag needle forward.

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