Where it all began...

by Andrea Koch, Event Director

Long Beach, California in November 2014 - the annual meeting of the American Society of Agronomy, the Crop Science Society of America and the Soil Science Society of America. A massive event, thousands of delegates and so many sessions to choose from, but I was there to attend the symposium on Computing and Big Data in Agriculture, and get a read on where the buzz is on big data in agriculture in the US. I wasn’t disappointed. Speakers from familiar companies John Deere and Syngenta as well as start up Adapt-N and others all talked about how farm productivity will be transformed through sensing technology and telematics, data storage in the cloud, and decision support systems for agriculture based on data analytics.

Charles Schleusner laid out John Deere’s approach to developing solutions for their customers. Deere is actively working on ways to move farmers along the curve from using the computerised documentation systems to gaining actionable insights and then applying these to management decisions. It is about optimising machine use in order to optimise agronomic decisions, and ultimately to optimise yields and profits.

Chris Winkler from Syngenta spoke about how research will be disrupted by big data analysis. Computing power in the cloud is now so great, and so cheap, that there will no longer be the need to create and analyse samples to predict future outcomes (e.g. working out the best planting time based on data from controlled experiment plots). Future events will be predicted based on analysis of what has actually happened in the past (e.g. combine all the seasonal yield, weather and historic planting dates across a region to show when the best planting time was, and what it will be given certain conditions in the future). The implications for policy makers and researchers are profound.

Josh Beniston from the USDA talked about a USAID project developing mobile phone applications for small-holder farmers in Namibia and Kenya, using crowd sourced data to predict soil productivity and degradation risk. This technology won’t be just for the big, industrial end of farming. It will be accessible through mobile device apps and available to farmers at all levels across the globe. It has the potential to help leapfrog developing agricultural countries into new levels of productivity through improved soil and land management.

And there was much more. By the end of the symposium I was convinced that these insights into the realm of big data and the digitisation of agriculture need to be shared with the Australia. The result is the Soil, Big Data and the Future of Agriculture conference, and I invite you to join us.

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