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Staying Connected Down on the Farm

Modern farming has become a large operation physically and complex from a management standpoint. Many farming processes have become highly scientific in nature and need constant monitoring of things such as soil conditions and irrigation. Other processes are reminiscent of manufacturing plants, with supply chains that extend into and out of the farm.

With the new complexity and level of investment in technology required to succeed, it is no wonder that large commercial farms now account for more than 50 percent of the U.S. total agricultural output and are the most willing to deploy computer and now networking technologies. Farming is increasingly a global market, and to compete with lower land and labor costs abroad, technology is squeezing unprecedented efficiencies and economies.

For example, wireless and GPS technologies are now being used to guide and drive tractors in real time. John Deere has a set of technologies marketed as GreenStar Guidance that use GPS and can accurately locate tractors down to a few inches in the field. Tilling and other similar operations are traditionally a manual operation that can result in nonparallel tracking, which means that either sections are missed or overtilled (leading to measurable wasted time). Some tractors even have the actual "turning" automated so that the lane tracking can be 100 percent controlled remotely, perhaps even operated at night for even more efficiency.

Certainly, GPS/WiFi-equipped farm equipment also aids in inventory tracking of these expensive assets, but the values go far beyond asset tracking. Precision agriculture is a fairly recent term used to describe some new methods of farming that exploit remote-sensing information to drive a number of values. Crop quality and yield can vary greatly based on specific characteristics of a small region of the land, yet historically fertilizing and irrigating are uniformly applied to large areas of a farm. Information can now be gathered in-field and in real time for every square inch of land. For example, the new harvester machines can measure the amount of grain and its moisture content on-the-fly6 of each swath (and coordinates) and transmit that data in real time (wirelessly) back to the operations center. This data can then be correlated and saved for use in seeding, fertilizing, and irrigation, controlled again by automated machinery that knows precisely where it is in the field. Essentially, every square inch of land can be treated uniquely and automatically controlled by computers through wireless networks, and those computers know exactly where the equipment is.

Many data streams come together to help the modern farmer. One is real-time remote sensing, such as the harvester previously mentioned, and similar devices that taste the soil as machinery moves across it. Another is weather forecasts and real-time weather-related data, such as wind direction and speed and cloud cover. Satellite imagery, topographical data, and thermal data can all be combined to understand how to best deal with a given set of conditions. (It turns out that plants grow better in the cooler sections of a farm because of a complicated energy-balancing operation constantly navigated by the plant). This in turn leads to more accurate fertilizing and pesticide usage, higher yields, and less pollution.

On the more business side, real-time yield information coupled with real-time market prices nets more accuracy in managing the supply-demand balance. WiFi-connected farms now have data streams and databases that match real-time inventory and projected inventory against market feeds and price fluctuations. Like other businesses we will examine, the connected farmer has real-time links to his suppliers and can better negotiate prices and far more accurately estimate quantities.

The farmer in the Inescapable Data world is a business man now using connectivity as one of his primary tools—completely unrealistic just a handful of years ago due to the lack of wireless technology and nonexistent data sources. A 1 percent efficiency increase nets more than $2B in the U.S. $200B farming business. Wireless, GPS, satellite images, soil tasters, yield-measuring equipment, climate databases, weather forecasts, spot and future prices, and so on combine to bring a new level of efficiency. If it is part of business, any business, it is going to be connected and exploited and in real time. Even farming. Crossing the divide.

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