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Growers struggling to make use of ‘overwhelming’ data, experts say

Advances in drone and sensor technology have created a wealth of data for growers, but putting it all together and making it easy to use has been a challenge.
Tim Hearden

Capital Press

Published on April 6, 2017 10:32AM

From left, Monsanto strategic account manager Candace Wilson moderates a panel discussion on ag technology with David Slaughter of the University of California-Davis, Erik Ehn of Blue River Technology and nut and row crop farmer Bob Payne. They agreed that a lot of data is available to farmers, but the hurdle is making it useful.

Tim Hearden/Capital Press

From left, Monsanto strategic account manager Candace Wilson moderates a panel discussion on ag technology with David Slaughter of the University of California-Davis, Erik Ehn of Blue River Technology and nut and row crop farmer Bob Payne. They agreed that a lot of data is available to farmers, but the hurdle is making it useful.

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Sam Eathington

Sam Eathington


WOODLAND, Calif. — There’s a wealth of digital data available to growers, but the challenge is to put it all together and present it in a way that’s easy for them to use, experts say.

The advent of drones, smart sensors and robotics is revolutionizing farming and enabling growers to “trade knowledge for effort,” said David Slaughter, a biological and agricultural engineering professor who runs the University of California-Davis SmartFarm project.

The challenge, however, is keeping track of it all and being able to access it quickly, said Bob Payne, a tree nut and row crop farmer in the southern Sacramento Valley.

“Now we have so much data that managing the data is just overwhelming,” he said. “There are different platforms for every program.”

Payne said he’s looking forward to the day when different sets of data “can talk to each other.”

“Sometimes right now it’s hard to make a decision because there’s just too much of it,” he said.

Slaughter and Payne were taking part in a panel discussion on the opportunities and challenges of new ag technology during a recent media tour and presentation at Monsanto’s vegetable seed research and development lab in Woodland.

The discussion comes as new technology is becoming a game changer for many commodities. For instance, the dairy industry is developing technology that can distill cow manure into dry fertilizer and clean water, making polluted runoff from dairies a problem of the past.

UC Cooperative Extension researchers are also testing tree monitors and weather gauges connected to online data systems and new advances in aerial imagery to help growers with precision irrigation. And automation is being developed for harvesting everything from raisins to apples.

Blue River Technology, a Sunnyvale, Calif., company with about 50 employees, has developed a machine that helps lettuce growers thin their crop. Growers typically overplant to be sure to get enough top-quality lettuce, and the camera-equipped machine weeds out the rest by applying a lethal dose of fertilizer that won’t harm neighboring plants or the soil, said Erik Ehn, Blue River’s director of product management.

“There’s a tremendous amount of innovation going on in agriculture,” said Sam Eathington, chief scientist for The Climate Corp., a Monsanto subsidiary. The company examines weather, soil and field data to help growers determine potential yield-limiting factors in their fields, according to its website.

Variability is a factor in every agricultural field, and the key is finding the right inputs and hybrid plants that will work better in each soil type, Eathington said.

But the hurdle is getting the data to where it can be used, he said. For example, many tractors and other machines used in fields aren’t connected digitally, so they’re unable to respond to information from drones and sensors and make adjustments without human input.

The experts agree that industry, universities and growers will have to work together in the coming years to find ways to collate all the information that’s available.

“We do need a partnership between universities, private industry and growers to solve all of this,” Payne said. “Robotics are going to be the wave of the future.”



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