OnFarm offers recipe for smarter field management

More farmers are planting technologies, including machine-to-machine (M2M) sensors, across their fields and growing operations to conserve water, cut the use of fertilizer and pick the best harvesting times.

But the data being generated by these solutions usually must be accesses, assessed and managed in many software applications. And that can be a turnoff because of the time involved, especially for a younger generation of farmers accustomed to the instant gratification of mobile apps.

Enter OnFarm Systems, a startup from Fresno, Calif., that is creating a cloud-hosted dashboard that aggregates and analyzes the hundreds if not thousands of data points being created by systems in agricultural fields.

"We can bring together the Big Data from weather systems, soil, other sources and provide predictive capabilities and modeling so that growers can make better decisions," said Lance Donny, founder and CEO of OnFarm.

The company is gaining notoriety after being named as a co-winner in IBM's SmartCamp entrepreneurship competition in late September. (OnFarm was one of two winners for the North America regional event, which qualifies it for the global finals in San Francisco in February.)

The technology is still nascent: it is already used commercially with almond farmers and in vineyards; and is being piloted with farmers raising potatoes, corn and wheat in the Midwest and Pacific Midwest regions of the United States, Donny said. Aside from helping visualize data, the platform supports collaborative exchanges among growers, so they can benefit from each other's expertise, he said.

"What excites us about this application is that it is an almost ideal example of where we see smarter analytics going," said Drew Clark, director of corporate strategy for IBM's venture capital group.

At the center of OnFarm Systems' service is the ThingWorx technology platform, which the startup is using to combine and process sensor data related to soil moisture, weather, pesticide usage and other growing conditions. Farmers can use the dashboard to evaluate this information and apply advanced imaging and mapping technology to locate specific issues of concern. The information will be offered up through a Web browser or on a tablet computer.

"OnFarm has developed what will be the gold standard in smart agriculture, enabling growers to access actionable data and make more informed decisions about their growing operations," said Russ Fadel, CEO of ThingWorx, in a press release about the companies' relationship. "Our connected application platform has allowed OnFarm to accelerate its time to market for its solution."

Aside from support through IBM's programs, OnFarm has raised some early-stage venture capital and seed funding from Boston-based backers.

There are approximately 2 million connected farms in the United States and Europe, about 12.5 percent of the total farming population, according to data cited by Donny. Many of those are commercial farms, but he is especially interested in helping smaller growers and those in emerging nations who could benefit from the business intelligence that OnFarm could provide.

"How do you take expertise from larger operations the U.S. and enable growers in other markets to use it? We would love to create expert models that can be used in other markets, to help improve global agriculture," Donny said.