The Australian Dairy Farmer

By Matthew Cawood

IN 2013, US colossus Monsanto paid just shy of US$1 billion for a company called Climate Corporation. In doing so, it signalled “big data” as the next era of agribusiness.

A basic description of Climate Corp is that it analyses data to help farmers lock in management plans, insurance and profit.

It’s how Climate Corp does this that interests Andrea Koch of the United States Studies Centre, and co-ordinator of the upcoming conference, Soil and Big Data.

Started by ex-Google employees, Climate Corp provides “field level” information, simultaneously tracking metrics like nitrogen levels, soil hydrology and weather to deliver forecasts of field performance.

It links soil probes with radar, satellites and a network of 10,000 automated weather stations to provide its guidance. Climate Corp is thus an agricultural precursor of the “internet of things” — the fast-approaching time when many different things - vehicles, fridges, livestock, soil probes, watches — will be digitally connected in order to provide meaningful data.

Andrea Koch, who leads the US Studies Centre’s Soil Carbon Initiative, has put together the Soil and Big Data conference on June 25 to explore the opportunities and threats of this next phase of digital evolution.

Climate Corp’s Stategy and Operations Leader, Pradip Das, is one of the speakers at the conference.

Ms Koch’s chief interest is in how to boost “soil productivity”, an area she thinks has been neglected in the push for other forms of productivity.

“In areas like plant breeding, agronomy, fertiliser management, we’re at the end of the technology curve, and we’re now looking for incremental improvements,” she said.

“We haven’t focused on soil productivity at all as a big area of focus for productivity growth. And the technology will enable it.”

“I can see a future where you will have a three-dimensional soil map going down the profile, and you will be managing inputs and agronomy according to that map.”

“From a cropping perspective, it’s a natural progression on from precision agriculture. We’re going to see that at the conference with one of the farmers who is talking. He’s done a lot of soil sampling across his farm, and he’s managing to a high level of granularity across the paddock, and down through the profile according to the chemical and structural conditions.”

But the term “big data” tends to also carry with it a sense of threat, and the notion of loss of personal sovereignty.

Ms Koch thinks that Australian agriculture needs to quickly deal with big data’s privacy and security issues, so it can get on with exploiting the opportunities.

“Farm data privacy and security is the first concern that comes up. Rather than let that be a barrier to entry, the farm sector should engage with it. The United States is about two years ahead of us on this.”

In the US, the American Farm Bureau Federation led an initiative to put a set of principles in place for farm data security and privacy. “Which means that the US ag sector is now leading rather than being led by the corporate players,” Ms Koch observed.

“And it doesn’t have to be about big enterprises. This can drive down to mobile phone apps. There is some great work in Africa using mobile phone apps to link into national databases. I don’t see this as being just for the big end: it can apply to efficencies across the board.”

“If we can get out ahead of the fear factor, we can craft solutions for our way of doing things in Australia, rather than just be buyers of the technology.”

“It’s the next step — that’s why it’s so important that Australian farmers and policy maker understand where this is heading. Ignore it at your peril.”

This article was originally published at The Australian Dairy Farmer