I grew up in a small farming community in Iowa and if there’s one thing I can say with certainty, it’s this: farmers love, love, love to talk about the weather. There’s too much heat. Not enough. Too much rain. Not enough. Cold snaps, tornados, dust storms, late frosts, early frosts. Weather oddities like straightline winds that send locals out to rubberneck at corn fields flat as pancakes.
While plenty of that coffee-shop talk still goes on today, what’s changed is the way farmers have embraced sophisticated technology to make informed decisions about planting, harvesting and more. While growers can’t control the weather, understanding it in today’s climate-challenged world may be the next best thing. That’s why Wednesday’s headline that agribusiness giant Monsanto spent a whopping $930 million to purchase Climate Corporation is big news.
Climate Corp. was founded in 2006 by two former Google employees who took decades worth of data collected by the National Weather Service and other government agencies on crop yields, soil types, precipitation and more, and transformed it into an insurance product for farmers.
“Among the data the system knows are the shape of every single of the 20 million crop lands in the United States, what is grown on each every year, what the crop yields were, and the water-holding capacity of the soil. Each predictive simulation analyzes 5 trillion data points.”
Data points are adjusted for climate change, helping farmers to make decisions on the types of crops they’ll plant, when exactly they’ll do that planting or harvesting, and when it’s best to apply herbicides and pesticides. A method of precision that Monsanto found irresistible.
Data science is agriculture’s next major growth frontier, says the company in its press announcement. It’s “an area that represents a potential opportunity of $20 billion beyond Monsanto’s core focus today. The companies estimate the majority of farmers have an untapped yield opportunity of up to 30 bushels to 50 bushels in their corn fields, and they believe that advancements in data science and further unlock that additional value for the farm.”
Gene Takle, professor of agronomy and director of the Climate Science Program at Iowa State University says everyone understands weather and climate are the biggest drivers of variability in yields.
“Any improvement that can reduce that variability or provide advance information about weather that affects crops is valuable,” he says. “The idea is to provide more precise weather information available to producers—or on the other hand—more weather related products to help them reduce risk.”
Or in other words, precision in farming—which seems to be Monsanto’s focus.
Last year Monsanto purchased Precision Planting for $250 million. For $10 an acre, farmers will be able to use an iPad interface to adjust the depth and spacing of seeds they plant increasing yields by 5 to 10 bushels per acre.
The new acquisitions combined, mean the largest seed company in the world will now be harvesting a whole lot of rich data about the food our farmers produce.
As Andrew Leonard over at Salon reminds us, Monsanto is framing it as a way to protect the planet’s finite resources. “Maybe so, but Monsanto’s bottom line is not based on conserving the planet’s resources, but on convincing farmers to buy its seeds and herbicides. More data equals a harder sales pitch.”