Alan Guebert: Big ag and big data
December 30, 2013
Everyday, according to the coconut milk-drinking nerds in Silicon Valley, the world generates 2.5 quintillion bytes of electronic data.
Yes, 2.5 quintillion. Think two, comma, five and then 17 zeroes.
If a picture helps, picture this: If you placed that data on iPads equipped with a 32-gigabyte memory, you would need 57.5 billion iPads to hold it.
Then you need another 57.5 billion iPads to store tomorrow's data.
You get the idea. Big data is really big and Big Ag is investing big bucks in what it sees is the next big thing on your farm or ranch.
In fact, on Nov. 1, Monsanto Company completed its $930 million cash purchase of The Climate Corp., a San Francisco-based tech company that, under Monsanto's umbrella, hopes to change global farming. A profile titled "Climate By Numbers" in the Nov. 11 New Yorker magazine explains how.
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The company, writes author Michael Specter, "hopes to transform the weather business… into a system driven solely by numbers. And there are a lot of numbers. Company scientists process fifty terabytes"–52.43 million megabytes–"of weather information every day… The data include eight years' worth of soil, moisture, and precipitation records for each of the twenty-nine million farm fields in the U.S."
Wait with the wows; there's more.
A Climate Corp. "algorithm divides the country into nearly a half a million plots, then generates ten thousand daily weather scenarios for each of them. This information is used to create individualized insurance policies for corn, soybean, and wheat farmers covering major perils…"
Then, "When data show that a field is too wet, for instance, or that hot nights will interfere with the growth of a crop, an insured farmer simply gets a check. No claims, forms, adjusters, or negotiations are required."
Now you can "wow."
Climate Corp.'s whiz-bang crop insurance scheme stands on two pillars. First, it lifts buckets of free weather and yield information from the National Weather Service and the U.S. Department of Agriculture and, second, Monsanto's 2012 purchase of Precision Planting, an Illinois firm that specializes in on-the-go seed selection and placement.
Together it's Big Data meets Big Seed meets Big Iron and the pairings will drive your tractor, select and place your seed (from personalized varieties) by the foot or meter and fertilize, irrigate and insure the crop while you're monitoring it all from your kitchen or farm office.
This isn't a touch screen, agronaut fantasy. In July, Informa Economics floated an investment prospectus to underwrite a broad study of what it called "AgInformatics." (http://www.informaecon.com/MCSFutureBigDataJul2013.pdf.)
This "actionable information," explained Informa, has Big Ag–the offer listed Deere, Dow, Monsanto, Pioneer, and Syngenta–"on the verge of going 'all in' on data collection, analysis and operational planning."
(Deere & Co. already is in, betting on an open architecture–think iPhone and apps–to manage your data. Go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jEh5-zZ9jUg for a long, warm, green look.)
No one, however, will go boldly into a data-driven tomorrow alone. Everyone sees you and Uncle Sam as partners. Climate Corp. was approved to peddle heavily subsidized–and, very likely, expanding–Federal Crop Insurance three months before Monsanto bought it. Deere already owns a crop insurance arm.
And, of course, none of this is free. Climate Corp. "charges roughly forty dollars per acre to insure crops," notes the New Yorker, and Monsanto believes the $1 billion it spent on the company will yield $20 billion in the coming years.
Curiously, that big money will be spent to do pretty much what small-farm agriculture has done for millennia: grow better crops and livestock through small plot management using soil and weather knowledge gained over years of farming and ranching.
But our quantified, digitized and monetized big-data future awaits and it can't, or won't, compute what these changes mean for farms, ranches, farmers, ranchers or rural America.
© 2013 ag comm