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Opinion: The Last Mile in Digital Agriculture

By Sam Eathington, chief science officer for The Climate Corporation

Having spent my entire life in agriculture, I can honestly say there has never been a more exciting time to work in this field. With technological advances across the board – mechanization, seed genetics, fertility management, crop protection options, and the digitization of the farm – farmers are realizing yield gains that seemed impossible just a short time ago.

While innovation in all these areas is exciting, it’s the digital agriculture evolution that captivates me most. With unprecedented investment fueling R&D at traditional agriculture companies and a fertile landscape of start-ups, it seems like there is something from and for everyone. Each week you see news stories about ag tech innovations, each with its own unique spin on improving farming. And we’re seeing more mainstream players tip their hat to the high-tech transformation in agriculture today.

Demanding More from Digital Agriculture

The start-up scene has been a boon for the ag industry, helping it garner the attention it’s long deserved. But there’s a key theme largely missing from the coverage: the last mile in digital agriculture. It’s the notion that the true value of digital agriculture is not stand-alone imagery, mechanization, or sensor data – it’s in the integration of all the relevant tools and data streams. It’s the substantial opportunity remaining after all of the low-hanging fruit has been picked. Not coincidentally, traditional ag and tech companies alike are finding this last mile of digital ag incredibly difficult to achieve.

But it’s urgent that we, as an industry, start telling this story more to continue building momentum and adoption of advanced techniques. Many farmers have been wowed with new data from advancements such as sensor and satellite imagery technology, but have then perhaps been left puzzled with what to do with that data. The days of a drone providing a pretty picture were short-lived and are officially over. Digital agriculture must do more – and it can.

Farm Data Analysis Through a Digital Agriculture Ecosystem

The framework to enable these farming gains is the digital ecosystem – where all data streams are interpreted and harmonized through advanced machine learning models. Crunching this volume and variety of data is challenging, but it’s the key to providing farmers with science-based insights that drive action and directly impact crop yields, profitability, and sustainability.

The ecosystem, like its name suggests, is a dynamic space with newly invented data streams emerging and interlinking others from big companies and start-ups alike. Much more than an app store for ag, what we’re seeing in the industry, through an increasing volume of partnership and collaboration agreements, is an environment where farmers can share their data nearly effortlessly between equipment brands, service providers, and farm management applications. Because each field is unique and complex, it’s only with multiple data layers working in concert that the true story of a field comes into focus. The outcome is twofold: It puts farmers even more in the driver’s seat for their operations, and it speeds up the pace of farm progress (yield, profitability, sustainability).  

You can find an increasing number of these solutions in the market today. Now is the time for the industry to not only market them, but to build confidence and trust in their value as a product class. Without grounded data, too many of these step-change advances may be overlooked as supplemental rather than essential to derisking farming operations.

Fortunately, with digital agriculture comes ample data and it’s more feasible than ever to show how these solutions deliver. For example, a recent assessment by our scientists at the Climate Corporation showed that users of the FieldView advanced scripting tool last season experienced a 5-bushel yield advantage over those who used manual scripting. Additionally, we’re seeing more farmers than ever – almost half of our customers this season – using digital tools to run their own split-planting trials and uncover meaningful yield differences.

Just like farming is a team sport, so is crossing the finish line with digital agriculture. As an industry, we have a rare opportunity to impact great change that benefits our customers, downstream partners, and the environment. To continue on this trajectory, we need to challenge ourselves to think more holistically, push the boundaries of what’s scientifically possible, and communicate frequently with the farming community about what’s delivering today and what’s on the horizon.

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