The reach of the internet of things, or IoT, can be found in home appliances, sensors and even the food we eat. Over the past few years, farmers have increasingly turned to interconnected devices to help them grow food using fewer resources.
Yield monitors, for example, are growing more and more common, said Dr. Jeffery Dahlberg, director of the UC Kearney Agricultural Research and Extension Center.
Farmers can use such devices to draw maps showing them where they are having yield problems with crops.
“The yield maps have helped farmers identify spots in their fields that need extra work,” Dahlberg said. “It draws their attention to this part of the field that is yielding a percentage that is much lower than the rest of the field.”
Israeli company CropX, which has its U.S. headquarters in Santa Cruz, uses sensors to detect moisture in the soil as well as temperature. The data it gathers is sent to the cloud. It can then be used by farmers to create irrigation systems.
“There’s really not a lot of real time data that comes from the field while the crop is growing,” said Dr. Michael Dowgert, vice president of sales and marketing at CropX. “This is where our focus is. We get more data during the growing season into the hands of farmers so they can make better decisions.”
Dowgert said the company works to make data easy to understand. To do this, CropX integrated the sensor with communication with software.
The sensor looks like a mushroom with a stem. There are two different size models; one measures at 8 and 18 inches deep and the other one measures at 8, 18 and 36 inches deep. It can help tell farmers when to water and how much water to use. CropX is also working on adding a sensor to look at fertilizer.
For crops like corn, Dowgert recommends three sensors for every 125 acres. For something like grapes, he would recommend a sensor every 10 to 20 acres.
CropX works with big companies, as well as individuals who are “very serious about their gardens," said Dowgert.
San Francisco-based Planet Labs helps map farmer's fields a different way.
The company uses satellites to take pictures of the Earth, allowing farmers to see and understand changes as they occur.
“There’s a large body of knowledge that has been gathered over the last 40 years since we’ve put satellites in orbit,” said Keith Beckett, Planet principal remote sensing scientist said. “It helps us understand what we see in the images and how it relates to performances of crops on the ground. What Planet is working on is improving the resolution of that from a time perspective and in terms of resolution so we can say this area of the field is doing well and this area of the field is stressed.”
He said this is important now because of population growth and climate change.
“It’s putting a lot more pressure on farmers to deliver more with less: less land, less water, less allowable use of pesticides and herbicides. They’re under a lot of stress right now. Our data and technology helps them,” Beckett said.
The imagery allows farmers to see what areas need more water and where weeds are approaching.
Some farmers work with Planet directly, but often times, Beckett said, the supply chain partners or farming co-ops will work with Planet.
Not without cost
Dahlberg said that while a lot of farmers in California are turning to new forms of technology it can be expensive.
“You have to have the acreage to justify it,” he said. “You may not have a yield monitor on a 10-acre plot. It might not be worth the money.”
Such technologies are often created for larger farms, which might not make sense for many of the smaller operations in California.
“In some cases, theses small farms don’t see a benefit to doing these yet, but a lot of them are moving to drip irrigation for the water savings. In some cases, the technology just hasn’t caught up to the agriculture here in California yet," Dahlberg.
Other uses of IoT
“What you see now is a big drive to bring things from Silicon Valley into agriculture so you can make smart decisions for agriculture and to monitor plant health,” Dahlberg said.
Self-driving tractors with auto steer are becoming more common.
“It’s using GPS technology hooked up to your tractor,” Dahlberg said. “You let go and let the tractor drive. You still have to have an operator to turn the tractor but you can let the tractor steer itself. Its already being used. It’s not fully automated yet. That will come as we get better navigating technology and better maps of the farms. I don’t think it’s ever going to really replace anybody, though. You need somebody to fix things.”
Companies like New Holland Agriculture, a leg of CNH Industrial, make self-driving tractors.
Luke Zerby, New Holland PLM Marketing Manager, said a car GPS is accurate within 25 to 40 feet but the tractors are accurate at, at lowest, 6 inches.
“We can geolocate exactly where things are located to put the right amount of fertilizer in the right spot,” Zerby said.
The tractors also plant seeds spaced out in a way that maximizes their growth. Doing this manually results in some errors and takes much longer, Zerby said.
In February, the group announced a partnership with E. & J. Gallo Winery, in Modesto, California. The two are working on a pilot project testing the NHDrive autonomous technology.
“This is the next step in this NHDrive project moving forward,” Zerby said. “We’ve done the testing on our larger tractors. Now we’re looking at some of the other things they are going to do inside the vineyards like mowing and spraying with these tractors.”
Indoor vertical farms like South San Francisco-based Plenty don't use tractors, but the company is using IoT to maximize growth.
“We manage the environment intensely to maximize the quality,” said Nate Storey, Plenty’s chief science officer.
Plenty uses sensors to monitor things like carbon dioxide, oxygen, temperature, humidity and air flow. Plenty is focused on baby greens and herbs but will soon add other crops as well. The company is currently building an additional indoor farm in Seattle and is looking to expand in other cities as well.
"[The system] requires a lot of management and logistical work. We’re trying to do everything. Most of the technological challenges have been answered. The last big hurdle for us is going to be scaling this and executing on that complexity of scale," said Storey.