Growing Crops with Big Data

Growing Crops with Big Data

This piece was originally published in the September 2018 issue of electroindustry.

Fred Ashton, Economic Analyst, NEMA, and Alex Boesenberg, Senior Manager, Government Relations, NEMA

There is nothing more important than ensuring a plentiful food supply. From Florida oranges to Idaho potatoes, farmers are faced with abundant challenges from seed to harvest. Big data is changing that. As farming transforms to a more data-driven industry, sensor technology is becoming as important a tool to farmers as the tractor.

Sensors in the fields are providing farmers with real-time data on seed placement, soil composition, weather, water availability, and even pest invasion. Data analytics may help the farmer predict what areas of the field will yield the greatest harvest and reduce spoilage. Drones flying above the fields help monitor crops and alert farmers to problems. Big data will help automate labor-intensive processes like seed planting and chemical application and even allow farmers to plant different hybrids of seed in certain areas of the field, all based on the data collected.

The emerging counterpoint and companion discipline to traditional outdoor agriculture is that of indoor agriculture. Modern automated indoor agricultural ventures are being built in major urban areas where sufficient unused warehouse space, local demand for produce, and available distribution paths are available. Leafy greens are the forerunner of urban agriculture, since freshness in storage is a challenge and demand for them is high.

A Spread Co. indoor lettuce production facility near Kyoto yields 21,000 heads of lettuce per day, and thanks to better automation and improvements in harvesting, they expect their next improved facility to double that capacity with a 900-square-meter vertical facility. That sounds like a lot of lettuce until considering that the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications notes that vertical farming is responsible for just 0.15 percent of Japan’s vegetable market.

A pessimist might say that this is less than a drop in the bucket and not worth doing, but the optimist would look at the same figures and see a gigantic opportunity. Indoor farming enthusiasts agree heartily with the latter opinion.

As arable land becomes maximized and concerns of water and pesticide use grow, the ability to transform empty urban warehouses into sources of locally produced food and jobs is an attractive option.

The technology revolution in farming will ultimately make planning easier and fields more sustainable. Sensors and big data in agriculture help farms be more efficient, increase production, cut costs, and become more profitable.

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