Most combines traveling across fields in the Midwest this fall had a GPS receiver located in the front of the cab. Although agriculture has been experimenting with this technology for a decade or so, only now is the industry starting to consider all the uses of this transformative technology. For several years, farmers have had the ability to map yields with global positioning data. Using that information, firms can design “prescriptions” for the farmer, who uses the “scrips” to apply seed and fertilizer in varying amounts across the field. Where the yield maps show soil with a lower yield potential, the prescription calls for fewer seeds and less fertilizer. This use of an individual farmer’s data to design a different program for each square meter in a field spanning hundreds of acres could replace a farmer’s decades of experience with satellites and algorithms. What we have gained in efficiency and by avoiding the overuse of scarce and potentially environmentally damaging inputs, we may be losing in the connections of the farm family to the ancestral place. Precision technology will allow managers to cover more acres more accurately and will likely lead to increasing size and consolidation of farms. While Michael Pollan, Mark Bittman, and Alice Waters continue to argue that we need to turn back the clock on technology in agriculture, much of the world is moving in a quite different direction.
Advice for individual fields is only the beginning of the uses for this technology. The leading agricultural equipment firm, John Deere, is running a pilot program this fall with 500 farms and 1,000 combines across the Midwest. Data is uploaded every several hours to the cloud, where it can be used… well, we don’t really know all the ways it can be used. If 1,000 machines randomly spread across the Corn Belt were recording yield data on the second day of harvest, that information would be extremely valuable to traders dealing in agricultural futures. Traders have traditionally relied on private surveys and Department of Agriculture yield data (the latter delayed by a month this year because of the government shutdown). These yield estimates are neither timely nor necessarily accurate. But now, real-time yield data is available to whoever controls those databases. The company involved says it will never share the data. Farmers may want access to that data, however, and they may not be averse to selling the information to the XYZ hedge fund either, if the price is right — but that’s only possible if farmers retain ownership of the data.