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The Internet of Growing Things

Richard Adler | June 5, 2015
As the American farm grows increasingly connected, the need for rural broadband will rise

A number of big names in agriculture are promoting the value of the new technologies. John Deere is now selling self-driving, GPS-guided tractors that, it claims, can make 7% more furrows in a field than a human-driven tractor. The company also offers a data management service that helps farmers collect and analyze the abundant data that is generated by the operation of the autonomous tractor. In 2013, Monsanto, the leading supplier of seeds for agriculture, spent $1 billion to acquire Climate Corp, a company that provides detailed hyperlocal weather information. Using this data, Monsanto is able to offer customized seeds for each field based on the composition of the soil -- in some cases, down to the level of each square foot -- and the weather pattern above it. The company is also developing machines that automate other tasks, including harvesting crops, probably the most labor-intensive of all farm chores.

Precision agriculture is making it possible to optimize the delivery of key inputs in other ways as well. You can, for example, increase the yield of a crop by deliberately stressing out a plant at just the right time. New monitoring technology makes it possible to identify when to withhold irrigation and when to provide it in order to maximize production.

This kind of data-driven, precision agriculture has other benefits as well. In the wake of the severe drought that has gripped California in recent years, awareness has grown of agriculture's vast demand for water, which accounts for nearly three-quarters of all water used in the state. (For example, it has been reported that it takes a gallon of water to produce a single almond, and growing alfalfa is even more water-intensive.) If farmers could identify just which plants in a field need water and when, total water use for crop irrigation could be significantly reduced, which would be a much more effective response to a drought than having city dwellers take shorter showers.

And by enabling farmers to track the development of their crops in detail, it allows them to satisfy the demands of consumers who are increasingly interested in knowing where their food comes from and how it was grown.

Broadband is the key

The technology that underlies all of these promising applications is broadband, and especially wireless broadband. Pervasive network connectivity makes it possible to monitor growing conditions on an ongoing basis and to communicate with and control the machines that operate autonomously in the farmer's fields. And this connectivity enables the collection of data that drives the predictive analytics that can provide quantum improvements in farm productivity and efficiency.

From this perspective, the wired farm is just another example of the Internet of Things. But in this case, the things that are being connected are not machines but plants and livestock. (An infographic created by Cisco to illustrate the power of the Internet of Things included a section that showed a group of "connected cows" in the Netherlands equipped with sensors that automatically keep a farmer informed of their health status.)


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