From AeroFarms to Syngenta, ag tech sowed new solutions in 2015

Courtesy ofBlue River Technologies
Blue River Technology developed an agricultural robot that uses data collected from fields by sensors to make decisions on which lettuce plants to pick and which to leave in the field for further growth.

In 2015, tech came to agriculture in a big way.

Responding to pressing needs to farm in drought conditions in many parts of the world and to figure out how to feed 2.3 billion more people in a few decades, tech entrepreneurs and farmers alike produced a flurry of ag tech tools.

As one gauge of this growth, AgFunder reports that investment in ag tech soared to an estimated $4 billion this year, nearly doubling in one year from $2.36 billion in ag tech investment in 2014. 

In addition, big food companies poured R&D money into bringing precision farming to their agricultural supply chains, realizing that plentiful water and arable land won’t last forever in a climate-changing world. 

Kellogg and other big food companies invested in putting precision agriculture to use in their agricultural supply chains to boost productivity and partly to adopt climate-smart agriculture practices espoused by the U.N. — sustainability practices which result in using less water and producing fewer greenhouse gases in farming. Syngenta developed an intelligent water irrigation platform so farmers could use data to read moisture levels at the field level and time precise water release. And Monsanto paired up with biotech firm Novozymes to develop microbial solutions to plant health.

Urban agriculture pioneers, intent on bringing locally grown produce to cities, developed new paradigms in farming such as vertical agriculture and freight car farming. AeroFarms started nine urban farms using aeroponics or growing vegetables in a mist environment without soil under LED lights, employing data algorithms to figure out exactly the amount of nutrient inputs and mist needed.

Capitalizing on tech interest in agriculture and investor interest in ag tech, incubators and accelerators have started up, promising yet further growth in ag tech, as well as collaborative entities and tech platforms. The Farmer Business Network is one such collaborative platform, started by an ex-Googler and funded by some of the biggest names in venture capital, including Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, DBL Investors and Google Ventures. It offers a platform to all the ag tech companies pursuing data solutions to agriculture problems.

Clouds — or cloud services — hover over agriculture

Nowhere has the meeting of tech and agriculture had such an impact as in the proliferation of cloud-based data software and services. The pairing of sensors that can collect myriad types of data, cloud-based storage that can store all that data and data analytic software that crunch the data to produce actions or actionable information has disrupted many industries. Agriculture is one of the latest.  

"In recognizing the huge potential benefits that access to big data analytics can have on the farm, a number of different ag big data technologies have cropped up for farmers and their various service providers to use," wrote AgFunder contributor and law professor Lauren Manning.

"Big data has been a key driver of the progress made in precision agriculture, whereby farmers and agribusinesses are using the resources at their disposal in the most efficient way possible to get maximum yields."

Sensors to read soil needs and moisture content, such as Syngenta's, sensors to monitor plant uptake of nutrients such as the evapotranspiration sensors developed by Tules Technoloigies and sensors to read localized weather patterns have proliferated on the fields of water-starved farmers in developed countries. Even in developing countries where smallholder farms dominate, cloud-based data services are being introduced to help farmers adapt farming practices to climate change.

Drones and sensor-laden tractors are part of the agricultural landscape in the U.S., as are computerized dashboards on combines and irrigation control stations. Those drones use aerial images of fields to help farmers make calculations on fertilizer applications, irrigation decisions and even pest and disease control. In irrigation, the once common practice of turning vast shoots of water to spray indiscriminately over fields has been replaced for many crops in the West with precision-timed drip irrigation near plant roots and sometimes underground. Numerous companies have been peddling data-linked drip irrigation systems that measure and time watering to invididual field and plant needs.

Blue River Technology has developed farm robots — contraptions that appear to be tractors but are equipped with so much data intelligence that those tractor-robots are making decisions on which lettuce plants to pick and which to leave in the ground for more growth potential. 

Whether all these technology platforms and data products can solve the quandary of how to produce 70 percent more food in the next three decades as the world population grows to 9 billion people is a daunting question. Even as the need for increased productivity rises, the amount of land available for farming is slowly shrinking thanks to development as well as rising sea levels and heat levels that make formerly arable land not usable. 

The U.S. Department of Agriculture was a major funder of some water solutions that moved from lab to commercialization this year and last, through its Farm Credit System and Rural Business Investment Program, and the United Nations is a vocal proponent of ag tech solutions in advocating climate-smart agriculture.