Farming by the sub-inch: What the future of food looks like


Farmers for decades have relied on gut checks and generations-deep knowledge to make crop decisions. This tradition of land stewardship has meant preemptively wiping out an entire field to thwart what might be, for example, a small localized pest problem.

But agriculture, like many industries, is increasingly digitized. More farmers are turning to technology, including tablets and real-time data-monitoring tools, to make pinpointed decisions about crops — down to the exact row location in a massive field. “So instead of farming a field, technology allows us to farm a sub-inch within the field,” said John May, president of agricultural solutions for Deere & Co., the farm equipment maker.

So-called precision farming is a growing agricultural trend that harnesses a wide swath of data, including soil information, seed data and weather analytics. Sometimes also referred to as precision agriculture or “site-specific ag,” for short, the strategy allows farmers to analyze and adjust nearly every aspect of their operations.

Growers essentially are able to manage large fields as if they were smaller, micro fields and subsequently tailor water, nutrients, seeds and other inputs to smaller sites’ specific needs. The end goal is boosted efficiency and higher land productivity — or growing more food on the same amount of soil. This is a big goal for many researchers and scientists as the planet will exceed 9.7 billion by 2050 from around 7.3 billion, according to United Nations figures.

Adding to population pressures, China’s ruling Communist Party last week said it will ease family planning restrictions and allow couples to have two children after decades of a one-child policy. It’s early in the game to gauge whether the policy change will have an immediate or big impact on China’s population of 1.4 billion people.

“The cultural and social norm of a smaller family size has been ingrained in the current generation,” said Ryland Maltsbarger, an agricultural economist at IHS. Any cultural shifts about family size could take decades to unfold. “I am a little skeptical that the social norms would shift that quickly just because of the government’s announcement,” he said.

Meanwhile, China’s growing middle class and mass migration to cities already are influencing the kinds of specialty crops American farmers grow and prioritize. Higher Chinese earners are stockpiling their kitchens, still filled with pork and vegetables, with more wine, almonds and milk products from California, the nation’s largest agricultural producer and exporter.

Adding to growing threats to food and water security, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced September was the hottest September on record, since the U.S. agency began tracking worldwide temperatures 136 years ago. With the planet getting more crowded and hotter amid human-induced climate change, how will we feed the world?

“I can tell you right now the productivity gains in growing, in agriculture, are not growing fast enough to be able to meet that demand,” said Mark Young, chief technology officer at Climate Corp., a start-up that’s using a data trove to help farmers better manage weather shifts and crop decisions. “As we stand today, we are not experiencing a growth rate to be able to feed all those people in 2050. So what do we do about that?”

It’s a very good question and a potentially lucrative market that a lot of companies, from multinationals to start-ups, are chasing.

Halfway through 2015, investment in agriculture technology — including precision farming — reached $2.06 billion, according to forecasts by AgFunder, an online platform focused on ag tech companies. Prior to 2012, investment in ag tech was largely flat, hovering around $500 million annually.

In 2014, about $276 million was invested in precision agriculture alone, according to AgFunder. Midway through 2015, that figure had reached nearly $400 million.

Scientists at San Francisco start-up Climate Corp., for example, analyze national weather databases and soil data. They have access to roughly 30,000 acres of test farm data in 17 states. In 2013, the seed giant Monsanto acquired Climate Corp.

“Having access to all of that data allows us to model that for the grower, to allow the grower to make better decisions about which seed, which seed population, which soil zones will be best,” said Young. “And we can even look ahead to certain weather patterns.”

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