A Farmer's Perspective: 4 reasons why collecting data is important
Thanks to GPS and the Internet, many farmers have been collecting data about their farms – water usage, inputs, crop yields – for over 20 years. Only in recent years has the term “big data” taken on a new meaning, given the plethora of new tools and technologies available today to help farmers collect and analyze data on all aspects of their farm operations.
This week also marks the launch of the first-ever Big Data Roundtable Series, an annual event that brings together experts from across the agricultural arena to discuss how major retailers can leverage data to improve business sustainability, and how growers can utilize measurement tools and analyze data to use fertilizer more efficiently and save on input costs.
Here, I ask Kristin Weeks Duncanson, a crop and livestock operator and member of the AGree advisory committee, to explain the value of collecting data for farm operations and the environment and why many farmers are still hesitant to collect data.
What are the benefits of measuring farm practices with the technologies available today?
There are four major benefits for farmers who embrace the use of data tools:
- Measurement data can help farmers better manage their operations – the more information they have, the more they can make decisions that are tailored to their farm’s specific needs.
- The information obtained can help farmers identify efficiencies that lead to higher productivity and profitability, lower input costs, and optimized fertilizer use.
- The more a farmer knows about his or her farm, the better their opportunities to strengthen supply chain relationships. Data help farmers eliminate volatility and risk which is beneficial not just to the grower but also to the supplier – so the supplier is more apt to work with that farmer on a long-term basis. At the same time, the data allows the producer to work with the supply chain to help companies and retailers increase the transparency of their ingredients.
- Data collection allows for farmers to approach conservation at a landscape-scale, versus at the farm or even the county level. The more information growers have, the better the opportunities to work together with others at a watershed-scale to make informed decisions about conservation priorities.
What does big data and measurement have to do with sustainability?
While the vast majority of farmers and ranchers have done great work maintaining or increasing soil health using conservation practices alone, measurement tools will be instrumental for ensuring a sustainable farming future. In order to maintain yields and meet the food demands of a growing population while also protecting natural resources, we will need to make additional changes – and data tools can help us determine what these changes should be.
For example, we need to measure not just bushels or pounds grown but also what happened to the soil, water and air to get that production level. For example, high levels of organic matter in the soil often lead to better yields, and fertilizer optimization can improve water quality.
What kinds of data management tools are available to farmers?
Recently, one of our suppliers came to our farm offering a data measurement tool that records hundreds of data points at a premium cost, and the results can be integrated into our financial records. I think the supplier could tell by the look on my face that I was overwhelmed by how we could use and analyze that amount of information. There are only so many days in the year and so much money in the budget, but I am so excited by the limitless possibilities to analyze farm operations and improve the health of our environment.
There isn’t a week that goes by that we don’t have a new measurement or data collection tool at our disposal. Data tools are being developed at astonishing rates – and this is a great thing. These new tools provide us with a good opportunity to take a step back and examine what sustainable farming goals we want to achieve.
What are the barriers to embracing the use of measurement tools?
The number of tools and technologies available is overwhelming – this can be daunting for farmers interested in measuring farm practices. What’s really important is for growers to think about what they want to accomplish when making choices about tools and technologies. Measurements can certainly add to productivity and efficiency, but growers need to think critically through which tools can help them achieve particular outcomes. Then, tools and measurements can be matched to help meet environmental and business outcomes.