FFA members across the country will have access to some of the latest on-farm technology as part of a new effort backed by computer software giant Microsoft.

The Microsoft FarmBeats Student Kit includes preconfigured Microsoft Azure cloud services and a Raspberry Pi computer with soil moisture, light, ambient temperature and humidity sensors to collect data.

According to Microsoft, the data is “brought to life” in an online dashboard using Microsoft Azure IoT Central, providing insights to understand how to improve productivity, increase yield and save resources.

“It’s almost like a real simulation of precision agriculture in the workforce, using the exact same technology as working agriculturists themselves,” a Microsoft representative told the Capital Press in an email.

In addition to the kits, FFA and Microsoft are working together to create activity guides and resources to help chapters get started with using the technology.

As part of a pilot program, 100 kits will be sent to 50 chapters, with each chapter receiving two kits, said Blaze Currie, team leader for the national FFA leadership development team in Indianapolis.

Chapters in the West receiving kits include Nezperce and Weiser, Idaho; Sutherlin, Ore.; Chiawana, Pasco 49ers, Sequim and Wapato, Wash., and Ripon Christian and Surprise Valley, Calif.

“Many of our longtime sponsors ... have also asked us to do more in this technology space because they see their businesses transforming,” Currie said.

Partnering with Microsoft was a natural fit for FFA’s Blue 365 initiative, designed to connect members with innovations and technology that are transforming agriculture.

Currie pointed to the potential for a “digital skills gap” in rural areas. About 60% of rural high schools have an FFA chapter, he said.

The pilot program will be used in urban and rural chapters of varying sizes.

The goal is to get members and teachers more comfortable using the technology.

“Sometimes, the outside world thinks agriculture is old, labor, dirt, soil and hard work,” Currie said. “While there is a lot of that, we also know that agriculture is very high-tech. One of the purposes of these kits is to dispel any fear of technology for our students.”

The kits will offer students a chance to solve problems and develop skills.

“It’s not just technology for technology’s sake,” Currie said.

Some students will have the job of setting up the kits. Others might use them to collect and analyze data. Another set of students will decide the agronomics of using the kits and the data, Currie said.

“We think it can be a great collaborative tool that mimics what happens in real business and real industry, where you have different folks (with) different expertise coming together and working with technology to solve problems,” he said.

The student kits are a for-student adaptation of FarmBeats, used by farms of all sizes to employ precision agriculture techniques, according to Microsoft.

“We have seen several studies show the need to significantly increase the world’s food production by 2050,” the Microsoft representative said. “But, there is a limited amount of additional arable land, water levels have been receding and many lack the training needed to access viable technology solutions.”

FarmBeats aims to help overcome such problems.

“With the FarmBeats Student Kits, we are aiming to give an early introduction to this solution to get students prepared for precision agriculture before graduating,” the representative said.

FarmBeats requires an internet connection. A connection is critical for the sensors to send signals about things like soil conditions to the cloud, according to Microsoft. In some cases TV white spaces — the unused spectrum between television stations — are used, but in others FarmBeats may use whatever connectivity solution is already available on the farm.

FFA first announced its partnership with Microsoft in 2018. Currie said it continues to grow, with planning in the works for 2020 and beyond.

“One of the big, core missions of FFA is career success,” Currie said. “We’re focused on doing the best we can to prepare our students for meaningful careers. We give them the tools we need. In the agriculture space, there’s a lot of transformation happening. Digital agriculture is becoming more and more important.”

If the kits prove to be a valuable tool, Currie said, “I suspect we’re going to double down on the number.”

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