Sustainable farming and big data: two sides of the same coin?

OAD / OAP

Farming in the future will also be digital. Because digital innovation is supporting sustainable farming. Over the last decade, digital technologies have invested farming to a significant extent. Now we need to understand why and how these new technologies enable us to grow more with better techniques…

Everyone's talking about "Big data". What’s the connection with farming?

The technologies that support farmers nowadays produce huge amounts of valuable data. This data can be collected and used to improve farming practices. Before the emergence of Big Data, we weren't able to aggregate data coming from highly diverse sources. Big Data enables us to extract relevant data, and make it meaningful to best help farmers with their activity. And the Big Data revolution is only just beginning!

What is this data and where does it come from?

Over the last 20 years, farmers have been using a variety of different sensors, GPS tools, satellite data, and decision-aid tools (DATs) to grow their crops. This generates huge, constantly growing volumes of data, complemented by the launch of connected technologies in the field, in combination with farming equipment, increasingly precise meteorological data, and satellite data.

So farmers are real technophiles!

Absolutely. Over the last few years, there has been a very rapid uptake in these technologies; first of all with connection to public interest data like weather forecasts, geophysical satellite data, or fluctuating raw materials prices on the stock market. Nowadays, satellite navigation is accurate to the nearest metre, preventing farmers from going over the same spot twice and, above all, allowing them to really do bespoke farming, to monitor the yield on each plot, to pilot equipment, and ultimately increase productivity and profitability. Like intelligent cars, robots will soon be soon be in the fields eliminating weeds autonomously and sustainably.

In concrete terms, how is this data useful for farmers?

DATs use algorithms that require a huge amount of input data. The calculations can only be made by a computer. They are based, for example, on climate data, the development of pests, and damage thresholds. The decision rules will also depend on the plot's history, the previous crop, or the type of soil. Once aggregated, the diverse data from every farm in a given area improves the quality of models and opens the door to many applications and new services.

How is Big Data helping progress in sustainable farming?

The DATs that use this data are increasingly precise and reliable. With more precise analysis of all of the data that characterises a grain growth cycle, the "Big Data" approach helps farmers to develop techniques that are more environmentally friendly but also more productive because they are optimised: inputs and treatments are only applied if necessary and calibrated to exactly what is needed. This also allows them to reduce costs and therefore increase the farmer's income. This is the case in precision farming, for example.

What is precision farming?

Precision farming, is using the right inputs, at the right time, in the right place, because a field is rarely homogenous. It uses decision-aid tools (DATs), like satellite imaging for example, which identify the characteristics of the whole field, any possible deficiencies (water, nitrogen, plant protection, etc.) in order to establish whether the plants need nutrients, where, when, and in what dose. As a result, farmers reduce input use, which saves them money. It is also particularly precious at a time when they are being asked to produce more with less, while consumers demand more traceability, and good quality, healthy food.

More and more people are talking about connected farming. What's that?

Simply put, connected farming is the totality of technologies and digital services needed to run a farm. Nowadays, many systems are interconnected thanks to APIs (Application Programming Interfaces). Enabling them to interact, to transfer the data harvested from one system to another, makes it possible to generate new data and obtain new services. In the future, there will be even more connected objects ("the Internet of things"), opening the way to even greater optimisation, and therefore more sustainable practices.

VIVESCIA is not a DAT designer or a Big Data specialist. What can you bring to farmers?

First of all, we give them access to a variety of tools like Farmstar, Atlas, etc. Faced with the relative abundance of tools and solutions on the market, our team tests and lists solutions that help to optimise farmers' income. Because we know every member's farm, and because we monitor technological developments on the market, we can help everyone choose the tools that best meet their needs.

So, the aim is to offer innovative, tried-and-tested, and customised solutions?

Yes. The idea is also to prevent farmers from investing in a technology that will soon be redundant or obsolete, or that has little added value. If necessary, we also help them make the best possible use of it. Nowadays, digital technologies are omnipresent and indispensable. Thanks to our experience, and our knowledge of the diverse practices of farmers on VIVESCIA's territory, we also work on designing different tools to help them produce more with less. To be continued…