The tone was set early as some 70 participants in a field day gathered at a Farm of the Future at West Hills College in Coalinga, Calif. to examine the value of collecting data using technology – and then to discuss what to do with the data.
With software and hardware already in place to enable growers to collect reams of data to help them more efficiently water their crops and improve yields, it can be expected that farming will be still more “data driven” in the future, said David Zoldoske, director of the Blue Tech Valley innovation cluster and the Center for Irrigation Technology located at California State University, Fresno.
Zoldoske said regulation is helping drive the quest for data, and buyers are seeking it so they can weigh the degree to which their suppliers are good stewards, sustainable, and socially responsible.
In the course of the field day - presented by the college, Blue Tech Valley, PowWow Energy, the University of California, and the California Energy Commission - presenters covered the latest in data integration to improve farm productivity and resource efficiency.
It started with hands-on demonstrations on continuous pump monitoring, irrigation automation, soil mapping, and remote sensing. It finished with a grower panel that looked at the challenges of collecting and handling this data, including what it will mean for changes to the work force.
“Fragmented systems . . . which were not talking to each other” was cited by panelist Ryan Nelson, business workflow analyst at the City of Clovis. He said it’s important, if you lack expertise in this area, to bring someone into the system who can address the flaw and the resulting failure to communicate.
Nelson cited a need for “API” systems that allow application program interface so systems can talk with each other. He thinks it’s unwise to ask a ranch manger to go out “and look at 15 different systems to get a view of the farm.”
Grower data use
Curtis Garner, senior data analyst at Bowles Farming, said their farming operation looks at more than 30 different applications of technology. Each supplies a piece of information, he said, “but we need something to pull these together.”
Britton Wilson, in charge of field technology and remote data logistics at Morning Star, said another challenge is major equipment manufacturers are unwilling to share data they consider proprietary; information that could otherwise be part of an integrated system.
Wilson said it may be easy to identify a need for a certain technology and the data it can bring, but there can be resistance to change, particularly in “ag technology.” He emphasized a need to train technicians.
Daniel Hartwig, procurement manager at Woolf Farming, agreed on the need to get “buy-in” from those who will be using the new hardware and software.
Lack of standards
Tulinda Larsen, executive director of the Agricultural Aerial Remote Sensing Standards Council, said that group’s basic challenge is struggling with the lack of standards, particularly for data imagery gathered from remote sensing devices on manned or unmanned aerial vehicles.
She said the lack of common calibration makes it tough to compare data collected in separate fly-overs of an area.
Panel moderator Garner said another challenge has been that some business startups in recent years which were providers of new technology have gone by the wayside.
Garner asked Hartwig how he sees the challenge of feeding a growing world population. Hartwig said it’s helpful to look at past successes, including the processing tomato industry which has drawn on variety selection and gone from flood to drip and seen growth from “the mid 20s to 50 tons per acre.” He sees hope in precision agriculture.
Earlier, Tim Hartz with the University of California, Davis, discussed the change from flood to drip in processing tomatoes, and of the impact of deficit irrigation on processing tomato yield and quality.
Garner said wrestling with the new technologies can be helped by private-public partnerships with universities and others.
Common language is key
Jeff Dahlberg, director of the UC Kearney Agricultural Research Center, moderated another panel on research, and said “uncommon collaboration” will be a key to “transformative innovation.”
“Bridging Silicon Valley and California’s ‘food valleys’ is key to innovation in food and agriculture,” Dahlberg said, saying there is a need for “a common language.”…“A statewide ecosystem that amplifies and connects innovation hubs is needed.”
Better trained workforce
Garner said much of the agricultural work force is not prepared and needs to be “precision ag certified.” With the planned minimum wage to reach $15 an hour, he says it’s important to get more value out of workers paid at this level.
“We’ve had people who have worked with us for 30 years,” he said. “What are we going to do with them if they can’t use a smartphone or they may not able to read and write? We need to retrain and retool to help these people out.”
Garner and others discussed security concerns, noting that financial data is encrypted.
Wilson noted that even a smartphone can be used for tracking unless care is taken. He believes it’s important to periodically change passwords to avoid being compromised.
Hartwig said it is important “to have boots on the ground, people who are fact-checking what you are seeing.”
PowWow, in collaboration with West Hills College, UC Santa Barbara and WiseConn Engineering, proposes to test a programmable farm management system that will integrate cutting-edge technologies.
The goal is to provide more than 20 percent in additional energy savings and 15 percent in additional water savings compared to existing energy efficiency programs or commercial irrigation offerings.
New technologies will be tested at two farms at disadvantaged communities in the Central Valley. A 563-acre orchard near Delano with permanent crops is serviced by Southern California Edison. A 156-acre section of a field in Huron with rotating crops is serviced by Pacific Gas and Electric.
An important goal of the proposed project is to improve energy efficiency from irrigation automation without eliminating farm jobs in areas already suffering from economic distress.