David Phillips: Agriculture appears to have cloudy future

David Phillips
Reflection from my Notebook

While some people think the weather predictions in the Farmers’ Almanac provide as much assurance as flipping a coin, which was detailed in this column last week, IBM is trying to provide a high tech version of the almanac. The Weather Company, an IBM subsidiary business, predicts long-range and immediate weather conditions using technology, such as artificial intelligence (AI), global positioning systems (GPS) and the Internet of Things (IoT), which is the interconnection of computing devices embedding in everyday objects.

Whether that helps make long-range forecasting reliable is still a matter of opinion. The Weather Company’s spring forecast, like the ones by the Farmers’ Almanac, was vague enough and covered regions large enough to give multiple interpretations — plus most people don’t go back to check them.

However, in a look back at the high tech forecast for last spring, the North Central region was predicted to be drier than normal in May and June, which didn’t turn out to be the case for our area. As you should recall, we had a lot of rain, including flooding in June.

It’s likely that long-range weather predictions will never be reliable as there are just too many variables, but The Weather Company does have an intriguing offshoot called the Watson Decision Platform for Agriculture. This service combines AI, hyper-local weather data and Internet of Things data to give farmers greater insights about planning, plowing, spraying and harvesting.

IBM estimates that the average farm generates 500,000 data points per day, which is expected to grow to 4 million by 2036. The company claims the platform quickly processes massive, complex geospatial and time-based datasets collected by satellites, drones, aerial flights, millions of IoT sensors and weather models. It crunches large, complex data and creates insights quickly and easily so farmers and food companies can focus on growing crops for global communities.

"These days farmers don't just farm food, they also cultivate data – from drones flying over fields to smart irrigation systems, and IoT sensors affixed to combines, seeders, sprayers and other equipment," stated Kristen Lauria, general manager of Watson Media and Weather Solutions, IBM, in a news release. "Most of the time, this data is left on the vine — never analyzed or used to derive insights. Watson Decision Platform for Agriculture aims to change that by offering tools and solutions to help growers make more informed decisions about their crops." 

Although it is hard to know the reliability as this service has a narrower field of users since it costs more than the mere purchase of a Farmer’s Almanac, one Nebraska farmer quoted in the release explained that IBM overlays weather details with his own data and historical information to help him verify and make decisions.

The platform, which goes far beyond weather forecasting to real-time growing advice, is indicative of the way technology is changing farming.

Many farmers already use auto-steer systems, with the help of GPS, to keep rows straight when planting. Precision systems for seeding and fertilizing can be guided by satellite for accuracy within less than an inch.

Some equipment companies, such as John Deere, Case IH and Kubota, are working on developing autonomous tractors. This development isn’t as far along as ones by companies making self-driving automobiles, but it seems that it may be the wave of the future and one way to address the labor shortage in the industry.

Historically, farming is seen as a simple life, but agriculture today is a complex business to address its many uncertainties, not just from the weather, but also from growing conditions, markets, yields and other factors. Technology is helping to make farms more productive, efficient, profitable, safer and environmentally friendly.

Innovations include solar powered ear tags to remotely manage cattle, precision weed-spraying drones and robots to pick fruits or vegetables.

The National FFA Organization is recognizing the change and preparing its members for a technological future in agriculture through an FFA Blue 365 project, which was unveiled at last year’s national convention.

The convention featured a Blue Room dedicated to agricultural technology tools such as drones, robotics and data analytics. The initiative, though, is an online digital platform through FFA.org that connects FFA members and instructors to experiential learning in innovative technologies. 

“The future of the agriculture industry will be directly impacted by professionals with experience in programming, robotics, genetics and artificial intelligence,” stated Blaze Currie, team leader of the Leadership Development Team for the National FFA Organization, in an announcement. “FFA Blue 365 gives us the opportunity to combine these experiences with people who have a deep understanding of agriculture so when FFA members enter the workforce, they will make innovative decisions that truly fit the needs of the agriculture industry.”

The Farmer’s Almanac still has a nostalgic pull for many people, but agriculture has become a technological industry that now looks to the technological cloud — the on-demand availability of resources through the internet — to monitor the clouds in the sky as well as assist with operations on the ground.