Making Sustainable Agriculture More Viable with Big Data and Advanced Analytics

Imagine a farmer checking a smartphone over breakfast to view a daily report detailing the status of the farm. The farmer quickly learns which fields require water, which rows of crops are ripe and ready for picking or even an alert on which plants may be taken over by pests. This is not a futuristic scenario, but rather a peek into the digital revolution already happening now in the agriculture industry.

 

Since the beginning of agriculture, farmers have been trying to grow better crops using their knowledge and available tools. It has always been a challenge for farmers to grow their crops unaffected by pests, natural disasters, and ever-changing weather. However, it is only recently that serious attention has been given to not only obtaining great produce, but also using methods that are environmentally friendly. Innovative technology in the agriculture sector opens up the opportunity to optimize farming practices in a way that leads to the most sustainable agriculture practices possible.

 

Sustainable Agriculture Meets Big Data Analytics

The goal of sustainable farming is to produce the highest yield with the least impact on the environment. Finding ways to use less water, resources and chemicals, while feeding our increasing world population is a huge challenge. Now, new innovative technologies are taking on that challenge. These modern tools provide farmers with a collection of data about the status of the soil, insects, crops, livestock, water, and weather, etc.  

 

Some of the ways farmers get all this data: 

 

• Agricultural drones monitoring fields

• Soil and crop sensors sending feedback on soil composition, soil moisture and plant health

• GPS-enabled tractors providing vehicle usage information

• Livestock trackers providing health data for each animal

 

The ability to collect such detailed data has the potential to revolutionize agriculture and move farming toward more efficient and sustainable practices. The real challenge is not the collection of data. The problem lies in how to analyze all the data so that you can actually make decisions.

 

Data Analytics is The Key

Data collection alone won’t help farmers make more sustainable farming choices. Farmers have limited time to sift through large amounts of data looking for trends and/or irregularities. Given this limited time, gaining actionable insights from all the crop sensors, drones and automated tractors is close to impossible. With the right blend of data and tools, including farm management software, a farmer could quickly decide which crops (down to the level of the plant) need insecticide, and then apply the chemicals sparingly in a way that limits environmental impact. 

 

Analyzing data only gets more challenging as problems become more complex. Take, for example, a farmer trying to understand the exact cause of dwindling farm production. With modern data collecting and analytical tools, it will become possible to find the exact cause of low productivity and take action before it’s too late.  

 

Challenges in Incorporating Big Data in Farming

Every industry has their own challenges when it comes to tackling big data. Agriculture is no different, but progress is being made. A great example of using big data analytics to facilitate sustainable farming came from research conducted by CIAT (International Center for Tropical Agriculture) in Colombia with assistance from Colombian government and CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security. The CIAT research uses data from FEDEARROZ (National Federation of Rice Growers in Colombia) to learn the exact causes of shrunken rice crop yields between 2007 and 2012. By analyzing past data and looking at climate predictions, they could make site-specific recommendations for crop variety and exact planting dates that are expected to increase yield to numbers that surpassed previous rice harvests.

 

We have a few recommendations for individuals interested in incorporating data and advanced analytics into standard agricultural practices. These include:

 

1. Step out of your comfort zone.

There will be a change in how farmers work. This process will include education and training on the use of new digital agricultural tools that take them away from their conventional farming methods. 

 

2. Be patient. 

Despite great technological advancements, the available technology is still in its initial stages. Big data is being produced at an immense pace, and the available processing powers of that data need to be upgraded and improved.

 

3. It’s about finding the right combination.

Getting it right requires a combination of advanced analytical tools, converting conventional manual methods into automated actions, and aligning businesses to calibrate the new working system.  

  

The world is on the cusp of a technological revolution in the agriculture industry, and big data and advanced analytics will be the key to harnessing the technology and converting the knowledge to action to support sustainable farming practices. With just a click on a smartphone, farmers will be able to remove the guessing from their daily work and make the best choices that benefit their business and the sustainability of the land.