24 July 2020

Data: from blunt instrument to precision tool in farmers’ drive for sustainability

AgriTech

Becky Dodds

The future is not so distant. A future in which a farmer could wake up in the morning, make a coffee, and instead of heading to a field, heads to their home office to manage the farm.

The ability to manage crops and livestock remotely, predict harvest dates accurately and take interventions like irrigation based on weather data are not such a remote possibility anymore – far from it. The technology exists and all we need is a little bit of infrastructure, integration, and adoption.

Data is a hot topic in agriculture and has been for several years. Since Agri-TechE’s inception in 2014, we have run events on all aspects of managing data and extracting value from it. While some farms have come a very long way since then, others have yet to invest in making the most of their data. This is due to a number of valid reasons – one being the amount of new knowledge you need to acquire to be able to identify the right data platform for your farm; the shift change required in how they manage their business operation; and on some occasions, a lack of clarity from tech developers can make it difficult to identify the return on investment. This leaves a lot of room for improvement in clear communication strategies to enable better understanding of the value of data – the technology is no longer the limiting step.

There are clear examples of how better data usage could have a big impact on farm. Whilst accurate information on its own can be helpful – for example, weather data might suggest that you irrigate tomorrow as we are in for a dry spell – once you explore the relationships between data, you will find a very different picture. Perhaps you link that same weather data with soil type, crop variety data, and soil moisture sensors. All of this data combined might result in a different action; for example, perhaps this is a variety that has high drought tolerance, and it’s growing on soil that holds water quite well. Over a season, that additional information might save 5 rounds of irrigation – cutting down costs to grow the plants.

That’s quite a basic example, but you can see how bringing together multiple reliable sources of data could help inform and validate business decisions. It should be noted that data isn’t the decision maker here – it should support the farmer to make reasoned decisions, factoring in their own knowledge and experiences as well. That, I think, should be the cornerstone of any company looking to make the use of data in agriculture as a service; ensuring the farmer is at the heart of any decision making, supported by the data insight. That is part of what makes agriculture such a unique industry – unlike something like manufacturing, where data is more often absolute, in farming there are many more (currently) unquantifiable factors– which is where an experienced farm manager is needed to make the final decision.

Thinking again to the future, the agriculture industry is facing a number of challenges – meeting NFU net zero targets by 2040, feeding a growing population, and mitigating the effects of climate change on yields and quality. These are certainly big tasks for the industry to face, but there is great opportunity to offer data driven solutions to the industry. As the new Ag Bill moves through Parliament, new ways of measuring and managing data to evidence the support of ecosystem services on farm will be key. As data insight providers, ensuring clear communication of the return of investment, the value of data-driven insight, and communication in a language that is tailored to end users is key.

 As we all move towards a more sustainable future, with agriculture responsible for a good percentage of emissions, data will be the enabler for the industry to ensure we can feed the planet for years to come.

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Photo by Becky Dodds

Becky Dodds is Membership and Events Manager at Agri-TechE an innovative connected community of farmers, food producers/processors, scientists, technologists and entrepreneurs.