The next big market for data and connected devices? Agriculture

Between efforts to eat more food grown locally, a younger generation of farmers and cheaper component-farming is getting an infusion of data and technology. Most of us know about the connected cows, where the milking operations are governed by connected sensors and algorithms that determine how long to milk and cow and which cows need milking. But it’s not just dairy farmers upgrading their technology and connecting their fields: it’s vinters, soybean growers and wide assortment of agricultural interests.

Alicia Asin, the CEO of sensor-making company Libelium, said in a recent interview that 18 percent of her company’s €3 million (about $4 million) in sales this year came from agricultural buyers. By the way, you can see Asin speak at our Mobilize conference in San Francisco on October 16 and 17.

DIY for the farming guy

Libelium gear.

Libelium gear.

Libelium has a powerful case study with several connected vineyards in the Rias Baixas region of Spain that saw a 20 percent reduction in the application of fertilizers and fungicides, and a 15 percent improvement in growing productivity. But vineyards aren’t the only interested cohort. Modern Farmer had a story in May on a greenhouse farmer used sensors to track the temperature in his greenhouse and notify him when temperatures rose too high. The same article detailed how Steve Spence, an amateur organic farmer in South Carolina, built a system that uses water (and waste) from his fish pond to irrigate and fertilize his vegetables. The water quality sensors help him know the right time to unleash the pond water.

The key in the Spence story (and the article) is that commercial sensors for farms are now getting cheaper and we have open protocols to help DIY farmers put it together.

Sensors are commercially available, but Spence found them too expensive and not nearly as flexible as he needed — ”they can only do the function you purchased them for.” So he decided to customize his own. Now he monitors the water’s pH, temperature and ammonia levels, along with soil temperature, moisture levels and barometric pressure, all from a system he built himself — on the cheap.

For those less inclined to DIY, there are startups such as the newly created Ola Smarts which is helping building automated irrigation systems for farmers who see the technology as a way to cut down on increasingly expensive water. Ola packages commercially available sensors and provide services around them, but are trying to bring what agricultural giants use today to smaller growers.
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Ola Smarts co-founder Brett Norman said the company has tried to keep the value proposition really clear. He said that at first they are hesitant, but once they understand what Ola is doing they get very excited about the data interpretation and use burden that the product relieves.

If selling to farmers is challenging, keeping the equipment in the (literal) field is tough as well. These sensors are put in areas where they will get covered in dirt, fertilizer, baked by the sun and soaked by the rain. Covering such areas with Wi-Fi can be tough given the distance some fields can stretch while rural areas can have dodgey cellular connections.

Data gets down and dirty

But it can be worth it — for both the farmers and the food chain. As the eating local and urban farming movements are growing, people trying to build out local, sustainable farms are finding out that the vast middle of America’s farming infrastructure has disappeared. We have giant industrial farms and backyard CSAs, but trying to build a business with farming in the middle requires creativity, said Narendra Varma.

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Varma is the director of a 60-acre farm outside of Portland, Ore. trying to grow local food for a variety of restaurants in the area. He explained that infrastructure like slaughterhouses or grain storage has disappeared at the local level. So while he’s not excited by the use of sensors, he is excited by the birth of DIY farmers trying to make a go of it, hoping they can help bring back some of that infrastructure.

He’s also hoping for more data, something that sensors could help gather and computers can help analyze. Farming is intensely local, and as the climate changes, the types of crops that grow well in an area and times to plant or harvest shift. Finding the right historical weather patterns that might match the current conditions is something connected weather stations could help with. At a more fundamental level, bringing the data about crops online and matching it to weather patterns could help him select better crops as the climate shifts.

But even if connectivity and data analysis help in giving him insight about what to plant, this former Microsoft executive, isn’t ready to trade his shovel for sensors.

“Farming is not just a science, it’s an art,” Varma said. “You still want to put your hands in the soil to feel it. You can’t only respond to the sensor input and the algorithms because they don’t see anything you haven’t asked them to see and they can’t respond to the actual ecosystem.”