Big Data Hits The Dirt

Author

Howard Baldwin, Contributor

December 10, 2014

One of the great things about big data and analytics is occasional entrance of serendipity – when an unexpected but highly legitimate pattern appears, suffused with an aura of enlightenment.

I know the feeling, because I was astonished to find in my ongoing research into big data issues a burst of activity revolving around big data and agriculture. Certainly the technology press has occasionally delved into the use of electronics on the farm, and the topic continues to be a source of interest to mainstream publications as well, based on this Wall Street Journal article from a few weeks ago on the use of drones in farming, and this New York Times article last week on the use of technology by organic farmers.

But who knew that the specific crossover of agriculture and big data was such a big deal? I don’t think it’s just because the Farm Futures Business Management Summit is devoting one of its evening panels in St. Louis early next month to The Great Debate Over Big Data. No, everyone from Mother Jones to the New York Times has focused on the topic in the last couple of weeks.

Stay with me here. Even if you’re not necessarily interested in agriculture, these articles reveal a lot about the zeitgeist of big data and how its effect on one industry can be extrapolated into others.

The most interesting foray into the topic comes from two separate articles in Mother Jones. The first one, Monsanto Is Using Big Data To Take Over the World, published in late November, is actually rather benign by that muckraking publication’s standards. It quotes Monsanto CTO Robb Fraley saying, “I could easily see us in the next five or 10 years being an information technology company.”

Contributor Tim McDonnell notes that “Monsanto is making a big move into big data” through the use of a smartphone app it acquired when it purchased a company called Climate Corp.: “At stake is an opportunity to adapt to climate change by using computer science alongside the controversial genetic science that has been the company’s signature for a generation,” McDonnell writes. With the app, Monsanto is aggregating climate data from a variety of sources to better inform farmers about what to plant and when.

As if in response, Mother Jones’ food and agriculture correspondent, Tom Philpott, responded last week with the less-surprising How Monsanto’s Big Data Push Hurts Small Farms. Philpott’s inspiration seems to come as much from a New York Times article, also appearing last week, as from the McDonnell article. In the former, Quentin Hardy talks about the increasing importance of technology – and the data it provides – to farmers. “Technology offers [farmers] a lifeline, a way to navigate the boom-and-bust cycles of making a living from the land. It is also helping them grow to compete with giant agribusinesses.”

Philpott seems to be most worried about two things. First, the cost of technology – that big ag can afford to invest in technology more than small farmers. Proponents bandy about this argument frequently in support of small business, but it’s becoming less pertinent as technology becomes less expensive (more about this below). Second, he worries that farmers will use the data to limit crop diversification.

I know that Monsanto is leading the charge into genetically modified food, which doesn’t thrill me, but I still think it’s unfair to tar the company when it’s just one of many applying big data to agriculture. Nor is it solely responsible for farmers limiting their crops to items like corn and soy that currently have the best ROI. That’s just capitalism at work.

Tellingly, Hardy followed his first article with a blog post specifically focusing on big data: A Low-Cost Alternative to Pricy Big Data on the Farm. He wrote, “Help for the little guy may be at hand, however, because of the same influences that are reshaping big business: The so-called consumerization of IT is moving once-expensive software onto smartphones that can connect to cheaper cloud systems. The ever-shrinking cost of semiconductors is making once exotic tech a commonplace on much farm equipment. And, in the prairie tradition of agricultural cooperatives, smaller farmers may pool resources to get a better result.”

What’s the takeaway here? As with any technology, companies like Monsanto can spend billions on apps (as it did with Climate Corp., which, admittedly, is more than an app), but unless the actual users see some value in it, the vendors will just be stuck in the mud like a tractor after a soggy rain. But they do see the value: at the same time that the big-time publications were looking at the subject, so too was the Appeal-Democrat, way up in the reaches of Northern California, far away from Silicon Valley.

There, one of its columnists quoted Tom Nassif, president of Western Growers, about the value of big data to farmers, no matter what size their farms might be. “Data gives you the ability and veracity to tell your story … [to] a regulator who might claim you are wasting water, or a buyer whose customers want products grown with sustainable and ethical practices.” Nassif insists the industry benefits as well, noting that when farmers aggregate their information, “we can begin to tell performance stories on behalf of the industry and engage with the regulatory community on policy with a foundation of fact behind us.”

That, in a nutshell, is the value of big data – the micro and the macro compiled, aggregated, and analyzed for a whole lot more insight, whether you’re dealing with detergent or dirt.

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