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Big Data on the Farm

Alabama farmers have been leaders in hitching information technology to productivity — a practice that dates to the mid-’90s on some farms.

William Griffiths, who graduated from Auburn 21 years ago, says there is brinkmanship in trying to “stay current with new technologies and incorporate them when the time and price is right.”

William Griffiths, who graduated from Auburn 21 years ago, says there is brinkmanship in trying to “stay current with new technologies and incorporate them when the time and price is right.”

Photo by Matthew Coughlin

Don and Brian Glenn started looking into the use of automated data collection on their Hillsboro farm in the mid-1990s to help improve their land’s productivity. After investigating the possibilities and being encouraged by Auburn University researchers, they invested in combines integrated with yield monitors.

With that first step and their continuing adoption of new, worthwhile information technologies, the brothers became much-admired pioneers in precision agriculture in Alabama. Over the years, they’ve skillfully used farm data collection and analysis to drive up their profits for producing corn, wheat, soybeans and canola.

“I guess it was just curiosity that got us started, and it just snowballed from there,” Don Glenn says. “Now I couldn’t imagine farming any other way.”

Don Glenn, who manages and analyzes the data for Glenn Acres Farm, says that continuing advances in information technology have allowed him and his brother to make better use of their 1,500 acres. “We might not have the largest farm in Alabama, but we’re making sure we’re getting the most from every acre we do have,” Don Glenn says.

“We want to be good stewards of the land and not using excessive amounts of inputs, such as insecticide and fertilizer.”

Don (left) and Brian Glenn began exploring automated data collection on their Hillsboro farm in the mid-1990s.

Photo by David Higginbotham

While the Glenns were early adopters, these days a growing number of Alabama’s other large row-crop farmers are using information technology to increase their own operations’ productivity and profitability, says Paul Mask, assistant dean for Extension of Auburn University’s College of Agriculture. Sensors, satellite imagery, GPS, software, computers, wireless modems, cloud-based data storage and other modern tools are allowing large farmers to better control costs and boost yields.

Although Alabama isn’t always known for being on the cutting edge, its farming industry is relatively sophisticated, says Mask. “Alabama is way ahead of surrounding states when it comes to using information technology in farming, and it’s paying off.”

High tech is commonly used here to help row-crop farmers better steer their equipment; more carefully disperse seed, fertilizer, herbicide and insecticide, and better assess the health of their crops, which often are a combination of Alabama’s biggest — wheat, corn, soybeans, cotton and peanuts. With increasing yields thanks in large part to information technology, those principal row crops have generated up to about a $1 billion a year in revenues in Alabama in recent years, according to the Alabama Cooperative Extension System.

Corn yields at 2,500-acre Griffiths Farm Inc., a fifth-generation enterprise in Baldwin County, for example, have quadrupled in recent years, in large part because of improved technologies, says William Griffiths. “A hundred years ago, it took 60 percent of the population to generate enough agricultural production to feed themselves and the other 40 percent of the people. Now 0.9 percent of the population is feeding the world,” he says.

Griffiths, an Auburn graduate, primarily raises corn, soybeans, wheat and peanuts, in addition to some turf grass and sod. “It’s been 21 years since I’ve graduated, and it continues to amaze me how farming has changed. I would never have believed it if you had told me then what technological developments were coming,” he says. “I’ve tried to stay current with new technologies and incorporate them when the time and price is right.”

Mask credits the Alabama Cooperative Extension System and Auburn University for helping promote and spread enabling technologies and precision agriculture techniques through continuing farmer education.

But the learning curve for using information technology on the farm has become steep, says Extension Specialist John Fulton, an associate professor of biosystems engineering at Auburn. Fulton is considered the expert in precision agriculture developments and research in Alabama.

“Farming has changed dramatically and likely will continue to,” Fulton says.

New data management technologies using large data sets, called “big data,” are helping Alabama farmers refine their decision making, so that they are able to get the highest and most profitable yield possible from their land. That’s important both in keeping farms viable and producing enough food to meet the world’s needs. “Pretty much all the land that can be farmed in the world is being farmed,” Griffiths says.

A monitor drone is the latest gizmo William Griffiths put to work at his 2,500-acre Griffiths Farm Inc., in Baldwin County. Other modern farm implements include GPS, remote sensors, wireless modems and cloud-based data storage.

Photo by Matthew Coughlin

Information technology also is being used by a number of Alabama’s small farmers, many of whom primarily produce fruits and vegetables. But small farmers’ use of big data is limited in comparison to their larger-farm colleagues.

“Investing in advanced technologies doesn’t always pay off for the smallest farmers. But if you plant cotton on 500 acres and you can save $40 an acre, it doesn’t take too long for a new technology to pay for itself,” says Max Runge, an Extension specialist in agricultural economics.

And even large farmers need to be careful to consider the business case for new technologies, Runge says, looking at the potential return on investment. Making a few mistakes in adopting new technologies may be inevitable. “We tended to rush in to adopt every new technology at first, but now we wait a bit to see whether a technology is really worth the price, just like with consumer electronics,” Don Glenn says. “Do you really need the latest smartphone if the one you have is getting the job done?”

Bert Driskell, one of the owners of Driskell Cotton Farm, a 6,000-acre farm in Grand Bay, says the farm’s entry into the realm of precision agriculture in 2000 was less than smooth, but that it was well worth the effort. It has helped boost production of the farm’s top row crops — peanuts, cotton, corn, soybeans and wheat. “We have learned it’s not best to try to adopt something new as quick as you can. We try to stay a little behind the first adopters and see how things go,” Driskell says.

Proactive larger farmers in Alabama are taking advantage of worthwhile big data technologies to help them more precisely determine the best amounts of inputs — seed, fertilizer, herbicide and insecticide — to use within various soil and terrain zones of their farms. The more sophisticated the technology and the data management, the better defined those zones can become.

Glenn Acres Farm, for example, has been divided into numerous small growing zones based on soil samples and topography. Multiple years of data collection and analysis have allowed the Glenns to generate highly refined variable-rate technology maps that control inputs to help make the most of the productive areas of the farm and reduce costs by sometimes reducing inputs in the areas of the farm that just don’t produce well.

“We used to make decisions based on hunches but now we have a clearer picture,” Don Glenn says.

Glenn Acres Farm, in Lawrence County, has been divided into numerous small growing zones based on soil samples and topography.

Photo by David Higginbotham

The big data trend is gathering momentum, Auburn’s Fulton believes. “Use of big data on the farm is rapidly expanding in Alabama and elsewhere,” Fulton says.

“Technological advances have made it much simpler for farmers to take advantage of the data their machinery is generating.”

Within the past two years, the addition of wireless modems to farm machinery and the development of secure data cloud storage has allowed for easier transfer of large amounts of data. “That’s had a major impact. It’s much easier than having to download the data from every machine to a flash drive and transfer it to a computer,” he says.

While about 10 percent of larger farmers who are committed to precision agriculture manage and interpret their own data with farm management information systems, about 90 percent rely on a data management consultant, Fulton estimates. Being able to transfer data via a wireless modem makes such partnerships easier to develop and maintain. “Farmers are busy. The easier it is for them to harvest and use data, the better,” he says.

Fulton does advise farmers who outsource their data management to consider keeping a copy of their own data in case they need it in the future — perhaps if the data management company goes out of business or the farmer decides to change vendors.

A potential downside to the big data trend in some farmers’ minds is the possibility that their data will be misused or used by someone else to make money. The American Farm Bureau Federation has been negotiating guidelines to protect farmers from farm industry heavyweights including John Deere, Monsanto and DuPont Pioneer.

The bureau and others also have been urging lawmakers to better protect farmers’ data. “On the most benign level, it’s kind of like credit card companies or companies on the Internet using the data you generate to market to you,” Fulton says. “Some farmers are more concerned about keeping their data private than others.”

Kathy Hagood is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. She lives in Homewood.

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