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

    Video Somali, AU Forces Face Resurgent Al-Shabab

    Somalia’s Western backers frustrated over country’s slow progress in establishing its armed forces to bring security after 25 years of chaos

    Israel Makes Push for Gaza Strip Recovery

    After years of economic blockade and attempts to disable Hamas, Israeli leaders eventually realized that Hamas’ downfall could lead to chaos or the rise of a more radical Jihadist group

    Slump in Chinese Tourists Hitting Hong Kong Retail

    Mainland Chinese account for up to three-quarters of visitors to Hong Kong, but that number is falling, and shopping centers are struggling to 'shift gears' and maintain sales

    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.
    Somali, African Union Forces Face Resurgent Al-Shababi
    X
    Henry Ridgwell
    April 28, 2016 4:20 PM
    The Islamic State terror group claimed its first attack in Somalia earlier this week, though the claim has not been verified by forces on the ground. Meanwhile, al-Shabab militants have stepped up their attacks as Somalia prepares for elections later this year. Henry Ridgwell reports there are growing frustrations among Somalia’s Western backers over the country’s slow progress in forming its own armed forces to establish security after 25 years of chaos.
    Video

    Video Somali, African Union Forces Face Resurgent Al-Shabab

    The Islamic State terror group claimed its first attack in Somalia earlier this week, though the claim has not been verified by forces on the ground. Meanwhile, al-Shabab militants have stepped up their attacks as Somalia prepares for elections later this year. Henry Ridgwell reports there are growing frustrations among Somalia’s Western backers over the country’s slow progress in forming its own armed forces to establish security after 25 years of chaos.
    Video

    Video Bangladesh Targeted Killings Spark Wave of Fear

    People in Bangladesh’s capital are expressing deep concern over the brutal attacks that have killed secular blogger, and most recently a gay rights activist and an employee of the U.S. embassy. Xulhaz Mannan, an embassy protocol officer and the editor of the country’s only gay and transgender magazine Roopban; and his friend Mehboob Rabbi Tanoy, a gay rights activist, were hacked to death by five attackers in Mannan’s Dhaka home earlier this month.
    Video

    Video Documentary Tells Tale of Chernobyl Returnees

    Ukraine this week is marking the 30th anniversary of the world's worst nuclear accident, at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. Soviet officials at first said little about the accident, but later evacuated a 2,600-square-kilometer "exclusion zone." Some people, though, came back. American directors Holly Morris and Anne Bogart created a documentary about this faithful and brave community. VOA's Tetiana Kharchenko reports from New York on "The Babushkas of Chernobyl." Carol Pearson narrates.
    Video

    Video Nigerians Feel Bite of Buhari Economic Policy

    Despite the global drop in the price of oil, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari has refused to allow the country's currency to devalue, leading to a shortage of foreign exchange. Chris Stein reports from Lagos businessmen and consumers are feeling the impact as the country deals with a severe fuel shortage.
    Video

    Video  Return to the Wild

    There’s a growing trend in the United States to let old or underused golf courses revert back to nature. But as Erika Celeste reports from one parcel in Grafton, Ohio, converting 39 hectares of land back to green space is a lot more complicated than just not mowing the fairway.
    Video

    Video West Urges Unity in Libya as Migrant Numbers Soar

    The Italian government says a NATO-led mission aimed at stemming the flow of migrants from Libya to Europe could be up and running by July. There are concerns that the number of migrants could soar as the route through Greece and the Balkans remains blocked. Western powers say the political chaos in Libya is being exploited by people smugglers — and they are pressuring rival groups to come together under the new unity government. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
    Video

    Video Russia’s TV Rain Swims Against Tide in Sea of Kremlin Propaganda

    Russia’s media freedoms have been gradually eroded under President Vladimir Putin as his government has increased state ownership, influence, and restrictions on critical reporting. Television, where most Russians get their news, has been the main target and is now almost completely state controlled. But in the Russian capital, TV Rain stands out as an island in a sea of Kremlin propaganda.
    Video

    Video Kurdish Town Receives Refugees but Lacks Resources

    A wave of refugees is pouring into the Kurdish town of Afrin in northern Syria as a result of fighting between rebel forces and Islamic State militants. VOA’s Amina Misto went to the town and reports local authorities are finding it difficult to cope with this influx of internally displaced people. Bronwyn Benito narrates her report.
    Video

    Video Scientists Build Human Tissue on Animal Matrix

    The question has always been, if a gecko can grow back its tail, why can't we regenerate our lost body parts? Well, maybe we can, someday. Scientists are moving towards the ability to rebuild fully functioning organs, and have made significant progress replacing muscles and other tissue.
    Video

    Video Containing Chernobyl Radiation Continues 30 Years After Explosion

    April 26 marks the 30th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Hundreds were killed following the explosion and it's estimated that thousands more have died from cancers caused by the radiation. Henry Ridgwell traveled to Chernobyl and reports for VOA on the continuing efforts to decommission the site -- and on the fledgling plans for a new future in the vast exclusion zone.
    Video

    Video Frustration Builds Among Refugees Trapped at Macedonian Border

    On the Greek border with Macedonia, 12,000 refugees continue to wait. Since the route to the rest of Europe was closed last month, the makeshift camp at Idomeni has seen protests and tear gas. But while those here wait, their frustration grows — as do reports of people attempting to find new ways of continuing their journey. John Owens reports from Idomeni.
    Video

    Video Researchers: Bees Help Kenyan Farmers Fend Off Elephants

    Elephant crop-raiding continues to be a major source of human-wildlife conflict in Kenya, so one elephant researcher is helping to alleviate the problem near Tsavo East National Park with beehive fences, which use elephants’ natural aversion to bees to deter them from farms. VOA’s Jill Craig visited the area ahead of this month's Giants Club Summit, which will bring together dignitaries at Mount Kenya to find solutions to combat poaching, the No. 1 threat to elephants.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora