Big Data meets Big Ag
From time to time I have noted the baleful effects on the Illinois countryside of factory-style grain production systems that require fewer and fewer farmers. The day is approaching when raising corn or soybeans won't need farmers at all.
From the May 24 Economist, a look at how things are going down on the farm. The topic is Monsanto’s "prescriptive-planting" system, FieldScripts, had its first trials last year and is now on sale in Illinois, Indiana, Iowa and Minnesota.
Its story begins in 2006 with a Silicon Valley startup, the Climate Corporation. Set up by two former Google employees, it used remote sensing and other cartographic techniques to map every field in America (all 25m of them) and superimpose on that all the climate information that it could find. By 2010 its database contained 150 billion soil observations and 10 trillion weather-simulation points.
The Climate Corporation planned to use these data to sell crop insurance. But last October Monsanto bought the company for about $1 billion—one of the biggest takeovers of a data firm yet seen. Monsanto, the world’s largest hybrid-seed producer, has a library of hundreds of thousands of seeds, and terabytes of data on their yields. By adding these to the Climate Corporation’s soil- and-weather database, it produced a map of America which says which seed grows best in which field, under what conditions.
FieldScripts uses all these data to run machines made by Precision Planting, a company Monsanto bought in 2012, which makes seed drills and other devices pulled along behind tractors....[which] can plant a field with different varieties at different depths and spacings, varying all this according to the weather. It is as if a farmer can know each of his plants by name.
Early reports are that the system boosts yields by roughly 5% over two years.