News / Science & Technology

With High-tech Tools, Farmers Hope to Turn Data into Higher Returns

Shelley Finfrock has been testing Climate Basic to check the accuracy of its rainfall estimates and other features. (V. LaCapra/VOA)
Shelley Finfrock has been testing Climate Basic to check the accuracy of its rainfall estimates and other features. (V. LaCapra/VOA)
Farmers increasingly rely on technology to reduce their costs and improve their yields and profits.

Along with high-tech machinery, farmers are trying out agribusiness services that promise to turn data about their farms into higher returns.

The Finfrocks farm about 3,200 hectares of corn and soybeans in central Illinois in the U.S. Midwest. It’s a family operation ― the couple runs it with just their son and one employee.

To farm all that land with four people, the Finfrocks use some pretty high-tech equipment.

The tractor is attached to a planter that can seed 48 rows at a time - that’s a 24-meter swath, on one pass through the field. And on the straightaways the tractor can steer itself.

But Shelley Finfrock says there’s one thing no amount of technology can control.

Tracking rainfall

“Weather’s probably the most important thing, and the most uncontrollable thing,” she said.
A farmer uses Monsanto's FieldScripts program to plant his field. (Photo courtesy of Monsanto)A farmer uses Monsanto's FieldScripts program to plant his field. (Photo courtesy of Monsanto)
x
A farmer uses Monsanto's FieldScripts program to plant his field. (Photo courtesy of Monsanto)
A farmer uses Monsanto's FieldScripts program to plant his field. (Photo courtesy of Monsanto)


Finfrock says weather affects every aspect of a farmer’s operation: from soil fertility, to pests and weeds, to yields and profits.

The soil in the field behind Finfrock’s house looks and sounds dry. But below the surface, there's just enough moisture for corn seeds to sprout.

The problem is rainfall varies a lot ― even from field to field. And because the Finfrock farms are spread out across five counties, they can waste a lot of time driving out to a field, only to find out when they get there it’s not fit to plant.

So for the past year, Finfrock has been beta-testing an online service called Climate Basic.

Every morning at about 4:15 a.m., the service sends her an SMS text message listing the family farms and how much rain each one received in the past 24 hours ― down to hundredths of a centimeter.

“We have a farm from where we’re sitting right now, just a mile south, and it’ll say it was dry, and you got a good half inch rain [up here], and you go down there and it’s dry," she said. "So it was a pretty good tool to use.”

But giving farmers that kind of precise weather information takes lots of data.

“We are dealing every day with more than 10 million points for precipitation, updated on an hourly basis,” said Tristan D’Orgeval who is with Climate Corporation, developer of Climate Basic.

He says the company uses data from the U.S. National Weather Service and other sources, some public, some private. “Including radar, rain gauges and satellites, to have the best picture of the rainfall on a field-per-field basis.”

Agricultural advisor

Climate Corporation has set itself a lofty goal: to help “all the world’s people and businesses manage and adapt to climate change.”

The paid, "Pro" version of its software just launched this year. It aims to give farmers advice about all aspects of their operations: what to plant, when to apply fertilizers and pesticides, and even how much money they can expect to make off their crop.

Agricultural advising isn’t new. People like Eric Gordon have been doing it for a long time.

“I’m on the phone with several of my farmers two and three times a day during planting season. It’s a people business,” he said.

Some of his older colleagues worry technology might make human crop advisors obsolete, but he doesn’t think so.

“I don’t see it as a replacement. I see it as a tool to make us better, more efficient,” he said.

Climate Corporation’s D’Orgeval agrees. He says the computer models are only as good as the data that people put into them. That means the company needs detailed information about each farm ― things only the farmer would know.

“That’s why I think it’s very important for us to have very clear guidelines and principles with what we do with farmers’ data,” he said, adding that Climate Corporation keeps that information confidential.

Privacy concerns

But farmer Shelley Finfrock is wary of how much data she should really share.

“Because of competition, and because of…having big brother watching, I don’t know how else to put it,” she said.

In this case, “big brother” is Monsanto, the agricultural biotech seed giant that acquired Climate Corporation last fall for close to a billion dollars.

As apprehensive as farmers may be about their data being misused, an increasing number seem willing to take the risk.

According to Monsanto, they’re already using Climate Pro on more than 400,000 hectares. And the company plans to keep expanding: from corn to soybeans, and then to other crops, here in the U.S. and internationally.

You May Like

Brutality Eroding IS Financial Support

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper says IS's penchant for publicizing beheadings, other brutal forms of punishment hurts group’s bottom line More

Studies: Climate Change a Factor in Disasters in Syria, California

The studies point to the possibility of clear and present dangers from a threat often considered to be far in the future More

Video Afghan Refugees Complain of Harassment in Pakistan

Afghan officials and human rights organizations assert that Pakistani authorities are using deadly attack at school in Peshawar as pretext to push out Afghan refugees More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Kerry Seeks Assurances of Russian Non-Interference in Ukrainei
X
March 03, 2015 3:11 AM
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has told his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, that his country could face further consequences to what he called its “already strained economy” if Moscow does not fully comply with a cease-fire in Ukraine. The two met, on Monday, on the sidelines of a U.N. Human Rights Council meeting in Geneva, where Kerry outlined human rights violations in Russian-annexed Crimea and eastern Ukraine. VOA State Department correspondent Pam Dockins reports from Geneva.
Video

Video Kerry Seeks Assurances of Russian Non-Interference in Ukraine

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has told his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, that his country could face further consequences to what he called its “already strained economy” if Moscow does not fully comply with a cease-fire in Ukraine. The two met, on Monday, on the sidelines of a U.N. Human Rights Council meeting in Geneva, where Kerry outlined human rights violations in Russian-annexed Crimea and eastern Ukraine. VOA State Department correspondent Pam Dockins reports from Geneva.
Video

Video Smartphones May Help in Diagnosing HIV

Diagnosing infections such as HIV requires expensive clinical tests, making the procedure too costly for many poor patients or those living in remote areas. But a new technology called lab-on-a-chip may make the tests more accessible to many. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Afghan Refugees Complain of Harassment in Pakistan

Afghan officials have expressed concern over reports of a crackdown on Afghan refugees in Pakistan following the Peshawar school attack in December. Reports of mass arrests and police harassment coupled with fear of an uncertain future are making life difficult for a population that fled its homeland to escape war. VOA’s Ayesha Tanzeem reports from Islamabad.
Video

Video Ukrainian Volunteers Prepare to Defend Mariupol

Despite the ongoing ceasefire in Ukraine, soldiers in the city of Mariupol fear that pro-Russian separatists may be getting ready to attack. The separatists must take or encircle the city if they wish to gain land access to Crimea, which was annexed by Russia early last year. But Ukrainian forces, many of them volunteers, say they are determined to defend it. Patrick Wells reports from Mariupol.
Video

Video Moscow Restaurants Suffer in Bad Economy, Look for Opportunity

As low oil prices and Western sanctions force Russia's economy into recession, thousands of Moscow restaurants are expected to close their doors. Restaurant owners face rents tied to foreign currency, while rising food prices mean Russians are spending less when they dine out. One entrepreneur in Moscow has started a dinner kit delivery service for those who want to cook at home to save money but not skimp on quality. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports.
Video

Video US, Cuba Report Progress in Latest Talks to Restore Ties

The United States and Cuba say they have made progress in the second round of talks on restoring diplomatic relations more than 50 years after breaking off ties. Delegations from both sides met in Washington on Friday to work on opening embassies in Havana and Washington and iron out key obstacles to historic change. VOA’s Mary Alice Salinas reports from the State Department.
Video

Video Presidential Hopefuls Battle for Conservative Hearts and Minds

One after another, presumptive Republican presidential contenders auditioned for conservative support this week at the Conservative Political Action Conference held outside Washington. The rhetoric was tough as a large field of potential candidates tried to woo conservative support with red-meat attacks on President Barack Obama and Democrats in Congress. VOA Political Columnist Jim Malone takes a look.
Video

Video NYC's Restaurant Week: An Economic Boom in Fine Dining

New Yorkers take pride in setting world trends — in fashion, the arts and fine dining. The city’s famous biannual Restaurant Week plays a significant role in a booming tourism industry that sustains 359,000 jobs and generates $61 billion in yearly revenue. VOA's Ramon Taylor reports.
Video

Video Brookhaven at Cutting Edge of US Energy Research

Issues like the Keystone XL pipeline, fracking and instability in the Middle East are driving debate in the U.S. about making America energy independent. Recently, the American Energy Innovation Council urged Congress and the White House to make expanded energy research a priority. One beneficiary of increased energy spending would be the Brookhaven National Lab, where clean, renewable, efficient energy is the goal. VOA's Bernard Shusman reports.
Video

Video Southern US Cities Preserve Civil Rights Heritage to Boost Tourism

There has been a surge of interest in the American civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s, thanks in part to the Hollywood motion picture "Selma." Five decades later, communities in the South are embracing the dark chapters of their past with hopes of luring tourism dollars. VOA's Chris Simkins reports.
Video

Video Deep Under Antarctic Ice Sheet, Life!

With the end of summer in the Southern hemisphere, the Antarctic research season is over. Scientists from Northern Illinois University are back in their laboratory after a 3-month expedition on the Ross Ice Shelf, the world’s largest floating ice sheet. As VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports, they hope to find clues to explain the dynamics of the rapidly melting ice and its impact on sea level rise.
Video

Video Lao Dam Project Runs Into Opposition

A Lao dam project on a section of the Mekong River is drawing opposition from local fishermen, international environmental groups and neighboring countries. VOA's Say Mony visited the region to investigate the concerns. Colin Lovett narrates.

All About America

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More