Big Data Primed to Transform Farming

October 12, 2014 Print Friendly and PDF

Just as combustion-driven horsepower transformed farming in the early 20th century, farm technology experts contend that data-driven, analytical horsepower will spark a similar transformation of farming in the 21st century.

The driving force behind this new horsepower revolution is commonly known as Big Data. This term is used to describe the colossal amounts of data being generated throughout the world and within the agricultural sector at breakneck speed and that are becoming so large and complex that processing, transferring, assessing and storing it often proves challenging.

To say that Big Data is big is almost an understatement.  If the data now stored across the planet were printed in books, these books would cover the entire surface of the United States some 52 layers deep, according to Viktor Mayer-Schonberger and Kenneth Cukier, authors of “Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work and Think.”

In the view of many farm technology experts, this new technology could not have come at a more opportune time as farming gears up to feed an estimated 9.5 billion people by mid-century.

For now, Big Data, despite its immense promise, remains a sleeping giant with much of its potential still locked in the yield monitors and other precision farming technologies that farmers use routinely.

“Right now, the argument can be made that precision agriculture data has no value because it’s not yet being used,” says Dr. John Fulton, Alabama Farmers Federation professor of biosystems engineering at Auburn University and one of the nation’s leading experts on the implications of Big Data to farming. “I think the farming community would be surprised by how much data is left on machines and never downloaded and archived — or, for that matter, acted upon.”

But this is changing.  Analytical tools are now being developed to help farmers use this data to make highly refined decisions about their farming operations. This data can now be stored on the Web using services or cloud technology to enable farm consultants, ag retailers and machinery manufacturers to help farmers make better informed decisions.

At Iowa State University, Dr. Matt Darr, associate professor of biosystems engineering and national authority on precision farming and Big Data, says he is already seeing how this growing body of data will ultimately free producers of much of the day-to-day guesswork associated with farming.

“Big Data offers the ability to learn more each year about how you farm in a way that leads to accelerated understanding of production and implementation of new practices,” Darr observes.  “I often tell growers that Big Data offers them the opportunity to pack 50 years of farming knowledge into a 40-year farming career.”

Interest in Big Data adoption in farming has grown so intense that Darr, Fulton and a colleague at Ohio State University, Dr. Scott Shearer, planned the nation’s first major Big Data Workshop, for August 25 at Iowa State University.  The daylong conference was designed to help farmers gain a better understanding of how to fit Big Data technologies seamlessly into their farming operations. 

eXtension recently formed a Big Data learning community which is open to anyone with an eXtension ID.  This community will collaboratively examine and share information, resources, and expertise on the concept of "big data" within CES, the land-grant university system, and beyond. To join the community go to https://people.extension.org/communities/1709 and click "join community" button.

Written by Jim Langcuster, Auburn University, langcjc@auburn.edu

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This work is supported by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, New Technologies for Ag Extension project.