Our traditional view of farming owes more to childhood tales than reality with the harvesting of data almost as important as the harvesting of crops. Greg Emerick, co-founder of Sentera, an agriculture mapping software firm, tells Iprosurv how the future of farming is digital and how Sentera and Iprosurv are bringing that future to UK farming.
Our view of agricultural is often a romantic one, jolly farmers tending to their crops or their livestock and being one with the nature that surrounds them. But that owes more to the storybook version of farmers we are given as children than it does to the reality of making a living from the land.
The real face of farming is big business, worth billions to the UK exchequer, employing hundreds of thousands of people and providing 64% of the food eaten in the UK alone. Farming is serious stuff with serious consequences if anything goes wrong.
And when you’re reliant upon Mother Nature’s benevolence for your success, you’ll try everything possible to reduce the impact of her volatility.
Farmers have been finding innovative ways to do just that from the earliest times. Managing water through irrigation began around 3100Bc; harnessing the energy of animals with the plough was introduced in 3500BC; getting the most out of the land with crop rotation started somewhere in modern Belgium in the 16th Century; the widespread commercial use of fertilisers on soil really kicked off in the late 19th Century; the mechanization of tractors and implements began in the mid 20th Century; and seed breeding and traits accelerated in the late 20th Century.
None of this will surprise you but the point is that farmers have always been innovating and today is no different.
The only real difference is the form that innovation takes. Where once it was strapping a plough to an ox, now it is strapping a high-tech light sensor to a drone to conduct an aerial survey. But the motivation is the same – using any means or tools at their disposal to profitably improve production and quality while reducing risk as much as possible.
This focus has manifested itself in the last ten years or so in precision agriculture which in short, is the practice of precisely managing nutrients, water, seed and other agricultural inputs to improve economic outcomes in a wider range of growing conditions.
But it also encompasses the use of automated farm equipment like tractors, guided by GPS systems. And farmers in the US, where Sentera is based, have really embraced this new approach to agriculture. They’re applying tech to gain insight into a range of issues including:
• electromagnetic soil mapping
• soil sample collection
• crop yield data collection
• remote sensing or aerial imagery
• crop or soil colour index maps
• soil types
• soil characteristics
• drainage level
• potential yields
Not quite the picture of the jolly farmer ploughing his fields in his trusty red tractor that we all grew up with. This is the face of modern agriculture and it is changing all the time. When you look at that list of applications for the tech being used, one thing is common throughout – data. Agriculture experts are always looking for new and more efficient ways to gather that data and, most importantly, to act on it.
At a basic level, Sentera gathers and analyses data. The way we gather that data is with simple-to-use sophisticated sensors on drones or satellites and analytic tools, but when you boil it down to the basics, that’s what we do.
Farmers and their advisors use the analysed data Sentera’s sensors gather to manage their operations more efficiently – be that to measure the germination and emergence of their seed, evaluate the health and viability of a young crop or produce weed maps for precision spraying applications.
But there are broader applications. For example, asset managers use it to track and understand the value of their investments and to predict crop yields allowing for better crop marketing decisions.
And insurance companies are using drone surveys to gather the data to provide a more accurate view of what they are underwriting and, when there is a claim, calculating the most accurate payment.
In fact, the data is completely agnostic – it can be used by a range of people involved in the sector but the most important thing, and the biggest benefit, is that everyone is working from the same data.
This approach to agriculture is becoming increasingly more common in the US. With our recent partnership with Iprosurv, we are now bringing this drone mapping capability to the UK.
Because what drones do is make the application of our technology so much easier and accessible for farmers and their affiliates. Top of the rage equipment, well trained and experienced pilots and a platform that allows for quick, efficient and accurate collection and delivery of the data, allows growers or analysts, asset managers or insurance companies, to act quickly and effectively, whatever the situation is.
It may seem like science fiction stuff now, but I can assure you that tech is the future of farming. In the US it’s the present and it is fast becoming the same in the UK.
Today, agriculture is the least digitised industry globally. However, it is quickly changing into a sophisticated, tech-enabled industry that has, since its inception, been all about innovation. Now is an excellent time to be adding these capabilities to your operation.