The New Data Wave In Agriculture- Farm to Fork

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The Farmer’s Almanac has been in publication since 1818 and contains long-range weather predictions, calendars and information related to full moon dates, natural remedies and more. It is one of the oldest examples of reference data in America.

This makes it stranger that many farms and agriculture companies lag behind peers in other industries when it comes to business analytics. Part of the problem is scale. According to 2018 data from Statista, there are over 2 million farms in the U.S. Many of these businesses are not large enough for farmers to hire full analytics teams. Instead, they use data collection methods ranging from paper and pencil to spreadsheets and farm-specific software packages such as Famous or FarmOS. But getting by will become increasingly difficult.

Urban farming consultant Seedstock notes that "over the next 40 years, the world population is expected to swell to 9 billion people ... In that time global food production will need to increase by 70% in order to prevent massive famine. Simultaneously, producers must learn to cope with changes in climate, intensification of floods and droughts, depletion of resources, and dramatic political shifts. Meeting the coming demand for food will mean addressing these large challenges head on.”

Meeting this demand requires large transformations within the agriculture value chain. Agricultural industries increasingly compete on the best data, not just the best produce. Benefits accrue to farms that produce more yield and better crops from the same data-optimized acreage and to distributors and retailers that reduce food waste through detailed demand forecasting and inventory management. These changes require farms to ingest and analyze dynamic data from field sensors to front office sales forecasts.

In short, these changes require farms to participate in the data value chain. The pressure to digitize and analyze is common across many industries; however, in the past decade, agriculture has lagged behind other sectors like retail and manufacturing. The reasons are as complex as the problems — from a lack of telecommunications connectivity in rural America to disinterested analytics vendors overlooking the market opportunity.

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Things are changing. More startups have emerged in the agtech space. Technology hubs focused on agriculture have emerged in Salinas, California and Yakima, Washington. Agtech venture capital companies like Yield Lab and iSelectFund have also sprung up. And the global pandemic and West Coast wildfires have added urgency to answering questions about food safety and security. 

Agriculture is truly one sector we can’t live without. So it makes sense that more companies focus on building solutions that help farmers. However, the global agriculture industry as a whole has a long way to travel before it reaches the kind of technology maturity needed to generate, store, analyze and deploy data solutions.

Our company, a 100-year-old hop farm in Eastern Washington, has set out to solve this problem by establishing a data consulting company, Loftus Labs, to focus on giving agribusinesses access to data expertise at every stage of developing a modern data architecture. Rather than a farm business having to build an entire analytics capability from the ground up, Loftus Labs provides all the resources a company needs to build out a comprehensive analytics ecosystem. It combines engineering, analysis and advanced analytics expertise into a single service model with a team of people who are closely tied to agriculture. 

Other companies, such as PickTrace and Arable, focus on ways to enhance data collection in the land itself, helping track and analyze everything from labor to plant conditions. Other companies, such as, are leveraging hardware vendors to measure individual aspects of farmland in order to build a comprehensive and combined view of what's happening out in the field. And other well-known platforms in the ag space, such as Famous, are further enhancing their data analysis capabilities in order to allow agribusinesses to get a better handle on their data. 

This is adding up to record investments in emerging agtech companies: VC investments in the agtech space have increased 75% since 2014. As more and more startups continue to focus on agtech, both global and local organizations will begin to focus more on building a more resilient food supply chain in light of the disruptive changes facing agriculture in the coming years (e.g., the European Commission's recently released "Farm to Fork" strategy). 

From emerging data focused agtech startups to government agencies focusing on data availability, it is clear that analytics can have a major impact on agriculture with better analytics as the means to provide enhanced visibility on how, why and what is impacting agribusiness at every stage of the supply chain. Data by no means is a silver bullet, but having more intelligence and analysis available can be a major boost in any business, let alone an industry like agriculture with so many dynamicelements at work each day.