How data analytics could transform farming

Producing enough food to feed a growing population is a perennial challenge worldwide, but it shouldn’t be about clearing forests to plant crops. How to farm efficiently should be the goal, and data collection and analytics could help in a big way.

GigaOm’s Katie Fehrenbacher posted an interesting read today about a startup that is developing a $5 plug-in device that will turn a mobile phone into a tool for measuring soil moisture levels. The company, Re:char,  envisions adding other features, such as fertilizer-level readings, that will help rural farmers to figure out where to plant and boost the productivity of their land.

Collecting soil and other field data may be common for big agribusinesses, but the world is filled with small farms. And those farmers don’t always have the means and access to technology that could improve their work. For example, how well fertilizers are used is apparently a mystery, at least in the part of the world where Re:char hopes to make a difference. The startup said rural Kenyan farmers could spend 30 percent of their income on fertilizer, but 80 percent of that fertilizer could go to waste because they don’t know whether their ways of applying it is really producing the best results possible.

A broad push to use cleaner energy, manage our resources more efficiently and reduce our carbon footprint has made us aware that data analytics could play a significant role in achieving those goals. Agriculture is an energy intensive effort, and it is attracting the attention of venture capital investors and entrepreneurs, said Sheeraz Haji, CEO of the Cleantech Group, when he spoke about cleantech trends earlier this year.

A United Nations report said food production will have to grow 70 percent by 2050 in order to feed what by then will be 9 billion people on Earth.

The use of weather data to help farmers manage their production was one of the topics covered by a panel I moderated at Data 2.0 Summit in San Francisco last month. I learned quite a bit from Jim Ethington, vice president of the Climate Corporation, who talked about the weather and soil data that the company provides to its agricultural customers.

We are following the farm tech space because growing food sustainably is an interesting challenge, and the field is open for new innovations for resource and yield management.

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