The Internet of Things — the vision of a world brimming with communicating sensors and digital smarts — occupies the peak of Gartner’s most recent “hype cycle.” And a report released two months ago by the McKinsey Global Institute laid out the potential multitrillion-dollar payoff from the emerging technology.
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The third stage, which Lance Donny, founder of an agricultural technology start-up, OnFarm Systems, calls Ag 3.0, is just getting underway and involves exploiting data from many sources — sensors on farm equipment and plants, satellite images and weather tracking. In the near future, the use of water and fertilizer will be measured and monitored in detail, sometimes on a plant-by-plant basis.
Mr. Donny, who was raised on a family farm in Fresno, Calif., that grew table grapes and raisin grapes, said the data-rich approach to decision making represented a sharp break with tradition. “It’s a totally different world than walking out on the farmland, kicking the dirt and making a decision based on intuition,” he said. The benefits should be higher productivity and more efficient use of land, water and fertilizer. But it will also, Mr. Donny said, help satisfy the rising demand for transparency in farming. Consumers, he noted, increasingly want to know where their food came from, how much water and chemicals were used, and when and how it was harvested. “Data is the only way that can be done,” Mr. Donny said. In the United States, major agriculture companies are making sizable investments to position themselves for data-driven farming. John Deere, for example, wants to make the farm tractor a data-control center in the field. Monsanto made a big move with its $930 million purchase in 2013 of Climate Corporation, a weather data-analysis company started by two Google alumni. American farmers are embracing the technology, though warily at times. Yet the most intriguing use of the technology may well be outside the United States. By 2050, the global population is projected to reach nine billion, up from 7.3 billion today. Large numbers of people entering the middle class, especially in China and India, and adopting middle-class eating habits — like consuming more meat, which requires more grain — only adds to the burden.
To close the food gap, worldwide farm productivity will have to increase from 1.5 tons of grain per acre to 2.5 tons by 2050, according to Mr. Donny. American farm productivity is already above that level, at 2.75 tons of grain per acre. “But you can’t take the U.S. model and transport it to the world,” Mr. Donny said, noting that American farming is both highly capital-intensive and large scale. The average farm size in the United States is 450 acres. In Africa, the average is about two acres. “The rest of the world has to get the productivity gains with data,” he said.