Big-data technology and agriculture are meant for each other. The ag industry has enough data to keep the most ardent data analyst happy. And while farmers aren't typically considered to be among the digerati, maybe they should be; They can use what big-data technology does well - decipher mountains of data.

On a recent trip to Salinas Valley, I talked with Chris Drew, product manager for Ocean Mist Farms. He explained that technology like sensor arrays can measure ground moisture, soil conductivity and atmospheric conditions. That information is then sent to John Deere’s data centers via satellite or cellular transmitters.

At the data centers, John Deere algorithms crunch the sensor data, meld it with other pertinent historical data and present the results in a Web-based format Drew and others at Ocean Mist Farms use to determine when to water, when to fertilize and how much water to add so the fertilizer ends up where it’s needed — at the plant’s roots.

This technology saves water and fertilizer, reduces costs, saves Drew from digging exploratory holes in fields that stretch from horizon to horizon and results in cheaper, better produce.

Sensor Data Overload

That’s just one example of the myriad types of data that farmers keep track of. To learn about other types of sensor data, I referred to Quentin Hardy’s New York Times documentary Working the Land and the Data. Hardy asked Kip Tom, a seventh-generation farmer now running Tom Farms, to diagram the different data Tom Farms accrues. The following slide was the result.

Historically, farmers relied on ledgers. In turn, computers introduced farmers to spreadsheets, and a better way to keep track of farm data. However, looking at the above white board diagram one can see spreadsheets are inadequate to compile and make sense of all that information. Enter big-data technology, which can easily handle it all.

Tom Farms sends its data to Agriculture Technology Providers (ATP) via the cloud. One of these providers is Monsanto, whose big-data platform is called Integrated Farming Systems. After the data is compiled and crunched by algorithms, it is presented on Web or mobile applications that Kip Tom and other employees use to figure out what’s what with their farm.

Planting and Harvesting by the Numbers

Please note the third-party vendors on the right side of the white board above; they also benefit from the melding of big data and agriculture, especially during harvesting. This may not be apparent to most of us urban-types, but Patrick Christie, founder and CEO of Conservis Corporation, an ATP in Minnesota, explained that a farmer’s entire yearly earnings could be determined during harvest.

That said, it is not unusual for farmers to rely on paper crop weight receipts in the field and paper receipts from storage facilities, all of which need to be entered into spreadsheets. Conservis automates that entire process. "Automating data entry reduces human error, gives farmers instant visibility from field to elevator sale and every point in between," explained Christie.

One example is how Conservis replaces the paper crop weight receipt with digital data using mobile technology. The screen shot to the left displays all the information pertaining to a grain cart filled with corn. Each grain cart contains a scale and Bluetooth transmitter.

When in range, the user touches the Bluetooth symbol in the app, and the weight is sent to the application and appears in the "Net Weight" box. The weight along with other distinguishing information is then added to the farmer’s database at Conservis.

No more paper tickets are lost, and the farmer no longer has to input all this information after a hard day in the field.

Proof of Compliance

Tom Nassif, president of the Western Growers Organization, outlined another advantage of big data to farmers in his post "Why Big Data? It Yields Big Benefits for Growers and Industry." Farmers are audited by numerous regulatory bodies, each having the ability to shutter the farmer's operation for noncompliance.

"Telling regulators you are 'a caring and concerned grower doing all you can to minimize your impact while producing more food at the same time,’ is just not enough," writes Nassif. "You have to have the quantitative documentation to back up that statement to convince that regulator or customer you have knowledge about your operation that can be utilized to make improvements."

Some Concerns About Agriculture and Big Data

It’s easy to see how technology and big data analytics will benefit farmers. However, there is some concern that the melding of ag-technology with big data promotes single-crop farming. Farmers, following Mother Nature’s advice, have planted a diversity of crops for many years. However, employing big-data technology works best and offers the highest return on investment if a very limited variety of crops are selected and the planted acreage is as large as possible.

Another concern: The path ag-tech and big data suggests to farmers is to plant "easy-to-grow" and "easy-to-sell" crops to increase return on investment. However, that again limits diversity.

Big Data Changes a Farmer’s Life

Kip Tom told NYT’s Hardy that combining agriculture and big data has changed everything. Tech helps the bottom line, but ask farmers what they think and many will say the biggest benefit is how much their personal lives have improved. Tom added, "We used to farm with horsepower, fertilizer, and hard work. Today, we’re farming smart."