The IoT Can Revolutionize Every Aspect of Small Farming

When the New York Times weighs in on an Internet of Things phenomenon, you know it’s about to achieve mainstream consciousness, and that’s now the case with what I like to call “precision agriculture,” enabled by a combination of IoT sensors in the fields and big data analysis tools.

The combination is potent and vital because an adequate supply of safe food is so central to our lives, and meeting that need worldwide depends increasingly on small farms, which face a variety of obstacles that big agribusinesses don’t encounter.

Chris Rezendes, a partner in INEX Advisors, who’s been particularly active with IoT-based ag startups, pointed out to me in a private communication that the problem is world-wide, and particularly matched to the IoT’s capabilities, because food security is such a ubiquitous problem and because (surprisingly to me) the agricultural industry is dominated more by small farms, not agri-biz:

“… most people do not have an understanding of the dimensions of food security beyond calories. Feeding the world demands more than just calories. It demands higher nutritional quotient, safety, affordability and accessibility.

“And all that translates in many models into a need for a more productive, profitable and sustainable small ag industry.

“Most folks do not realize that that there are nearly 700 million farmers on the planet. In the US alone, we have 2.3 million ag operations (and, BTW, the number of millennials entering the field is nearly doubling each year) — and that is not counting processing, packaging, distribution, or anything related to fisheries. Most of those farms are pretty small … less than 500 acres on average, and when you strip out the conglomerates and the hobbyist farmers, you are left with hundreds of thousands of small businesses averaging nearly $4 million per year in revenue.”

As reported by The Times‘ Steve Lohr, Lance Donny, founder of ag technology start-up, OnFarm Systems, said the IoT’s benefits can be even greater outside the US:

“.. the most intriguing use of the technology may well be outside the United States. By 2050, the global population is projected to reach nine billion, up from 7.3 billion today. Large numbers of people entering the middle class, especially in China and India, and adopting middle-class eating habits — like consuming more meat, which requires more grain — only adds to the burden.

“To close the food gap, worldwide farm productivity will have to increase from 1.5 tons of grain per acre to 2.5 tons by 2050, according to Mr. Donny. American farm productivity is already above that level, at 2.75 tons of grain per acre.

“’But you can’t take the U.S. model and transport it to the world,’ Mr. Donny said, noting that American farming is both highly capital-intensive and large scale. The average farm size in the United States is 450 acres. In Africa, the average is about two acres.

“’The rest of the world has to get the productivity gains with data,’ he said.”

The marketplace and entrepreneurs are responding to the challenge. The Times piece also reported that IoT-enabled ag is now big business, with a recent study by AgFunder (equity crowdfunding for ag tech!) reporting start-ups have snared $2.06 billion in 228 deals so far this year (compared to $2.36 billion in all of 2014, which was itself a record).  When you add in the big funding that companies such as Deere have done in IoT over the last few years (in case you didn’t know it, this 178-year old company has revolutionized its operations with the IoT, creating new revenue streams and services in the process) and the cool stuff that’s even being produced here in Boston, and you’ve got a definite revolution in the most ancient of industries.

Rezendes zeros in on the small farmers’ need for data in order to improve every aspect of their operations, not just yields, and their desire to control their data themselves, rather than having it owned by some large, remote conglomerates. Most of all, he says, they desperately needed to improve their profitability, which is difficult with smaller farms:

“Those 2.3 million farmers will deploy IoT in their operations when they know that the data is relevant, actionable, profitable, secure and theirs.

“They are not going to deploy third-party solutions that capture farmers’ operational intelligence, claim ownership of it, and leverage the farmers’ livelihood for the solution vendors’ strategic goals.

“For example, we went into a series of explorations with one ag co-op in the East this spring, after going into the exploration thinking that we might be able to source a number of productivity enhancement solutions for vegetable growers and small protein program managers. We were wrong.

“These farmers in this one part of a New England state had been enjoying years of strong, if uneven growth in their output. That was not their challenge: their challenge was with profitability.”

Think of small farms near you, which must be incredibly nimble to market their products (after toiling in the fields!) relying heavily on a mix of CSAs, local restaurants that feature locally-sourced foods, and on farmers’ markets. Rezendes says the small farmers face a variety of obstacles because of their need (given their higher costs) to attract customers who would pay prevailing or (hopefully) premium prices, while they face perceptual problems because small farmers must be jacks-of-all-trades:

“They have only one ‘route.’ They market, sell, and deliver in the same ‘call,’ so their stops are often longer than your typical wholesale food routes. They also have only one marketing, sales and delivery team – and that is often the same team that is tilling, planting, watering, weeding, harvesting and repairing, so they often show up on accounts wearing clothes, driving vehicles, and carrying their inventory in containers that aren’t in any manual for slick brand development manual!

“To complicate things, many of their potential customers could not accept the shipment for insurance purposes, because the farmers didn’t have labels that change with exposure to extreme temperature, sunlight or moisture, or digital temperature recorders.”

Who would think that the IoT might provide a work-around for the perceptual barriers and underscore local farms’ great advantage, the quality of the product?  The farmers suggested to the INEX team once they understood the basics of IoT technology that:

“if we could source a low-cost traceability solution that they could attach to their reusable transport items, they thought they could use that data for branding within the co-op and the regional market. This would reduce the time needed to market and sell, document and file.  The farmers also told us that if the solution was done right, it might serve their regulatory, permitting and licensing requirements, even across state lines.”

Bottom line: not only can sensors in the field improve yields and cut costs for fertilizing and water use through precision, but other sensors can also work after the food is harvested, providing intelligence that lets producers prove their safety, enhance their sales productivity, and drive profit that enables re-investment.

What a great example of the IoT at work, and how, when you start to think in terms of the IoT’s “Essential Truths,” it can revolutionize every aspect of your company, whether a 50-acre farm or a global manufacturer!  

I Have Seen the Future of Agriculture & It is the IoT (Grove Labs)

Agriculture is a passion of mine, partially because of environmental concerns, and also because I love veggie gardening. There has been an encouraging trend in the US recently, with the advent of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) and the localvore movement. However, that’s counterbalanced by the terrible continuing California drought, and the sobering realization that, worldwide, there are more than 805 million who are undernourished. Clearly, we need to produce more food — and do it much more efficiently and in line with natural principles.

Grove Labs Aquaponics system

That’s why I’m so excited about the new Grove Labs system being developed in, of all places, Somerville MA (which has become a start-up haven for ag-related companies through the Greentown Labs incubator. They include Freight Farms [ I will blog about them later..], which is pursuing a similar closed-loop approach on a larger scale, and Apitronics, which presented at one of our Boston IoT Meetups last year.).

It was developed by two young MIT grads, Jamie Byron (who became “obsessed” with the problems of current worldwide agriculture while on an internship) and Gabe Blanchet, who created the primitive precursor of the aquaponics system in their frat house. Now, in its beta testing form (sign up ASAP if you live in the Hub to buy a prototype!), the “Grove” is an integrated ecosystem attractive enough to be placed in your kitchen.

According to The Verge  (which pointed out that dope growers’ experience with hydroponics may have helped Byron and Blanchet, LOL!):

“The Grove system looks like a 6-foot-tall wood cabinet with four LED-lit boxes for plants. Three are smaller, for leafy greens and herbs, and one is larger, for things like tomatoes or peas. On the bottom left is an aquarium whose fish provide fertilizer for the plants. The fish are what make the system ‘aquaponic,’ a particularly organic variant on traditional hydroponics.

….” ‘Essentially we took the philosophy and biology of an actual ecosystem and shrunk it down and put it in a bookshelf tower,’ Blanchet says. The fish produce ammonia in their waste, which gets pumped to the plants, where bacteria convert the ammonia to nitrate. The plants consume the nitrate, filtering the water, which gets returned to the fish. ‘If you keep the system running optimally you can grow plants faster than you can outside,’ says Blanchet.”

A critical component that qualifies the system as an IoT one is the “Grove” app, which will tell owners important information about lighting schedules, when to add nutrients, etc. The all-important sensors will provide critical real-time data about growing conditions and what’s needed.

The Grove isn’t a panacea for world hunger: for one thing, it’s pricey ($2600), although economies of scale when the company is in full swing may bring that down. It also requires involvement by the owner: you can’t just sit there and admire how things grow. You’ll need to actively monitor the app and do routine maintenance. The LED lighting system, as efficient as it may be, won’t work in remote, poor areas where there’s no electricity (but that might come from an nearby PV panel!

Nonetheless, I can see the grove playing a growing (groan, sorry for the pun..) role in meeting the world’s food needs, and, best of all, doing so in a way that capitalizes on one of my key beliefs about the IoT, that it will bring about an era of unprecented precision in use of raw materials, manufacturing, whatever, because of real-time monitoring, and, increasingly, M2M systems where a sensor reading on one device will trigger operation of another. Large-scale farming is also getting more precise due to systems such as John Deere’s FarmSight, so count agriculture as yet another industry that will be revolutionized through the IoT.

The Grove Labs approach really resonated with me because I’ve been using two 8′ x 4′ 30″ high modules for my own veggies for the last twenty years, planted according to engineer/gardener Mel Bartholomew’s great “Square Foot Gardening” system, with varying levels of success. I had grand visions of manufacturing modules from recycled plastics and adding greenhouse-fabric domes to extend the season, and an app to remind owners of when to plant and fertilize but never followed through, so I really admire those who did, and the way they’re incorporating IoT technology.

New Alchemy’s Institute’s “Ark” (in rear)

When I contacted the co-founders, they were unaware that they stand on the shoulders of giants who have developed a natural systems-based approach to agriculture right here in the Bay State, especially John Todd, who (I believe) pioneered the approach with his wonderful New Alchemy Institute on the Cape, where he methodically added new elements — plexiglas water storage, tilapia, etc. — to the passive-solar “Ark” until he had a balanced, self-sustaining system.  John, who has since gone on to develop great natural-systems based wastewater treatment facilities, had a young apprentice, Greg Watson, who went on to become the Commonwealth’s incredibly innovative ag commissioner.

Oh well, it appears these guys have more than reinvented the wheel! Good luck to them.

Agriculture and the Internet of Things

Posted on 21st October 2013 in agriculture, environmental, Internet of Things, M2M, management

I’m particularly interested in how very traditional businesses will make the transition to the Internet of Things (Exhibit A: see my post from last year about the incredible way the Union Pacific Railroad has been able to switch to “predictive maintenance” by stringing sensors all along its tracks).

What could be older, and more basic, than agriculture?

Lance Donny, the founder and ceo of On Farm Systems, gave an overview of the potential of the Internet of Things to radically increase productivity and cut costs in agriculture at last week’s GigaOM Mobilize conference, saying that agriculture is a “sleeping giant,” when it comes to real-time data.

At present, the industry is handicapped by the high cost of sensors — they can run hundreds of dollars apiece — and lack of infrastructure — there’s no wi-fi, and, more often than not, bandwidth on the farm is limited.

Despite that, On Farm and other firms in the field (ooh, bad pun) are already helping farmers, especially with the critical issue of managing water use. He said there are already 14 million “connected farms” in the US and Europe, and by 2020 there will be 70 million connected devices on farms (interest in the technology is also increasing in developing nations.

Donny mentioned that a big issue with really serving farmers’ needs is that since they’re operating in a moving tractor, “you can’t give them too much data,” but must pay a lot of attention to the user interface, and only give them limited amounts of actionable data.

This “precision agriculture” yields tremendous volumes of data, and one of the problems facing IT firms in agriculture is that there are no common platforms (On Farm uses ThinkWorx), so adding a new data source from another provider requires contacting them directly and then connect to their API.

He said that reducing water usage by pinpointing when it is needed and how much is the biggest challenge, pointing out that 70% of fresh water usage is for agriculture —  even a 5% reduction in use could have tremendous implications not only for farmers, but a world with inadequate water supplies.

Donny said that Monsanto’s recent purchase of Climate Corp., which underwrites weather insurance for farms, for nearly a billion dollars “started a data war” in agriculture. He said that the goal will be to combine enough real-time data so that farmers would have 90% or more accurate 5-day weather forecasts in order to manage water better.

If the IoT is emerging as a priority for as basic an industry as farming, can other mainstream businesses be far behind?