Big Data on the Farm

Written by
A high-tech combine harvesting soybeans. Photo courtesy Garry Niemeyer.

We live in an era of artisan kimchi and locally-grown farro. 

Nothing says authenticity in today’s food world than returning to the past. Some farmers are even ditching their tractors for horses.

But this is also the age of Big Data. Computer-driven farming equipment is changing the way our crops are produced and the way growers relate to their land.

This week on Good Food, journalist Vince Beiser tells host Evan Kleiman about precision planters, harvesters, and sprayers that are giving farmers unprecedented control over their fields. (This is also a good age for agricultural drones.)
These machines – and the computer code that runs them – tailor inputs to local soil conditions. The amount of water the soil needs in one place minutely varies as you make your way across it.
Better measurements create small increases in productivity that lead to important cost-savings, says Garry Niemeyer, a corn and soy grower with over forty years of experience.
His four pieces of high-tech equipment each cost around $30,000. The new technologies are currently accessible only to large enterprises – Niemeyer was once president of the National Corn Growers Association – though one company in Berkeley is hoping to bring them to backyard gardeners.
Niemeyer has watched agricultural technology change a lot over the years, but these most recent developments have been the most dramatic at all.
“I had to get my granddaughter to show me how to use the computers,” he says.
Garry Niemeyer in his corn field. Photo courtesy Garry Niemeyer.
Garry Niemeyer in his corn field. Photo courtesy Garry Niemeyer. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Beiser points out that while the ritzy new machines are impressive, farmers should look out for their privacy. Often, equipment manufacturers like John Deere and Monsanto retain access to their data.

The agricultural industry as a whole is also concerned about information leaking to ecoterrorists, as well as simple sabotage from competitors.

Still, Niemeyer says he wouldn’t go back to the old days, when he had just one test field whose needs he’d project all over his farm. Computers are coming to the field, and they look like they’re here to stay.