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

    Ethiopia's Anti-terrorism Law: Security or Silencing Dissent?

    Yonatan Tesfaye was detained in December 2015 on charges under Ethiopia's Anti-Terrorism Proclamation; eleven statements from his Facebook page were used as evidence

    Egypt Orders Trial for Journalists Charged With Harboring Reporters

    Order targets journalists' union chief Yehia Qalash, Khaled al-Balshy and Gamal Abdel Rahim for allegedly spreading false news, harboring fugitive colleagues

    Nigerian Oil Production Falls as Militant Attacks Take Toll

    Country no longer Africa's petroleum king due to renewed militancy in its oil-producing region

    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.
    New Chapter for Tunisia's Ennahdai
    X
    Lisa Schlein
    May 31, 2016 1:56 PM
    Tunisia’s moderate Islamist Ennahda party says it is separating its religious and political activities in a broader bid to mark its so-called Muslim Democratic identity. The move appears to open a new chapter for a party that bounced back from the political wilderness of Tunisia’s pre-revolution days to become a key player in the North African country, and a member of the current coalition government. From Tunis, Lisa Bryant takes a look at how Tunisians are viewing its latest step.
    Video

    Video New Chapter for Tunisia's Ennahda

    Tunisia’s moderate Islamist Ennahda party says it is separating its religious and political activities in a broader bid to mark its so-called Muslim Democratic identity. The move appears to open a new chapter for a party that bounced back from the political wilderness of Tunisia’s pre-revolution days to become a key player in the North African country, and a member of the current coalition government. From Tunis, Lisa Bryant takes a look at how Tunisians are viewing its latest step.
    Video

    Video New Mobile App Allows Dutch Muslims to Rate their Imams

    If a young Dutch-Moroccan app developer has his way, Muslims in the Netherlands will soon be able to rate their imams online. Mohamed Mouman says imams rarely get feedback from their followers. He believes his app can give prayer leaders a better picture of what's happening in their communities — and can also keep young people from being radicalized. Serginho Roosblad reports from Amsterdam.
    Video

    Video Moscow Condemns NATO Plans to Beef Up Defense in Eastern Europe, Baltics

    NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said Monday an upcoming "landmark summit" will enhance the alliance's defensive and deterrent presence in eastern Europe and the Baltics. He is visiting Poland ahead of the NATO Summit in Warsaw. Zlatica Hoke reports
    Video

    Video Tech Startups Showcase Wares at Amsterdam Conference

    More than 20,000 tech enthusiasts, entrepreneurs and lovers of digital technology came together in Amsterdam recently at the Next Web Conference to discuss the latest developments in digital technology, look to the future and, of course, to connect. In recent years, there has been an explosion of so-called startup businesses that have created devices and applications that have changed the way we live; but, as Serginho Roosblad reports for VOA, there are pitfalls for such startups as well.
    Video

    Video US Military's Fallen Honored With Flags

    Memorial Day is a long weekend for most Americans. For some, it is the unofficial start of summer -- local swimming pools open and outdoor grilling season begins. But Memorial Day remains true to its origins -- a day to remember the U.S. military's fallen.
    Video

    Video Rolling Thunder Rolls Into Washington

    The Rolling Thunder caravan of motorcycles rolled into Washington Sunday, to support the U.S. military on the country's Memorial Day weekend
    Video

    Video A New Reading Program Pairs Kids with Dogs

    Dogs, it is said, are man's best friend. What some researchers have discovered is that they can also be a friend to a struggling reader. A group called Intermountain Therapy Animals trains dogs to help all kinds of kids with reading problems — from those with special needs to those for whom English is a second language. Faiza Elmasry has more on the New York chapter of R.E.A.D., or Reading Education Assistance Dogs, in this piece narrated by Faith Lapidus.
    Video

    Video Fan Base Grows for Fictional Wyoming Sheriff Longmire

    Around the world, the most enduring symbol of the U.S. is that of the cowboy. A very small percentage of Americans live in Western rural areas, and fewer still are cowboys. But the fascination with the American West is kept alive by such cultural offerings as “Longmire,” a series of books and TV episodes about a fictional Wyoming sheriff. VOA’s Greg Flakus recently spoke with Longmire’s creator, Craig Johnson, and filed this report from Houston.
    Video

    Video Chinese-Americans Heart Trump, Bucking National Trend

    A new study conducted by three Asian-American organizations shows there are three times as many Democrats as there are Republicans among Asian-American voters, and they favor Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump. But one group, called Chinese-Americans For Trump, is going against the tide and strongly supports the business tycoon. VOA’s Elizabeth Lee caught up with them at a Trump rally and reports from Anaheim, California.
    Video

    Video Reactions to Trump's Success Polarized Abroad

    What seemed impossible less than a year ago is now almost a certainty. New York real estate mogul Donald Trump has won the number of delegates needed to secure the Republican presidential nomination. The prospect has sparked as much controversy abroad as it has in the United States. Zlatica Hoke has more.
    Video

    Video F-35 Fighter Jet Draws Criticisms as Costs Mount

    America’s latest fighter plane, the F-35, has been mired in controversy. Critics cite cost, faulty design, and the attempt to use it to fill multiple roles. Even the pilot’s helmet is controversial. VOA’s Bernard Shusman reports from New York.
    Video

    Video Concerns Over Civilian Suffering as Iraqi Forces Surround Fallujah

    Thousands of residents are trapped inside the IS-held city ahead of a full scale Iraqi offensive aimed at retaking it.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora