The Digitalization of Farming with Dr. Mike Stern of the Climate Corporation
On April 23rd, 2019, Dr. Mike Stern, Head of the Climate Corporation, presented at Princeton University on the digital tools transforming the landscape of farming and the current challenges facing the agriculture industry. In particular, over the past four years, the amount of arable land has been depleted by population growth and faced pressures from changing climate; harvest losses have advanced concerns towards food security as well. In the past, new land was usually brought into production to meet projected demand; for instance, in South America, pastures and rainforests were converted for farming. However, these efforts were ultimately unsustainable. The Climate Corporation, as Dr. Stern states, is dedicated to “sustainably intensify[ing] agriculture” and solving the problem of increasing productivity on farmland with the aid of technology.
Over the last two hundred years, the agriculture industry has experienced various booms due to innovations in productivity. In the 19th century, the Industrial Revolution brought forth the mechanization of farming with plows and seed drills; in the 20th century, the Green Revolution allowed us to harness biotechnology to modify plants’ genetic composition. In Dr. Stern’s perspective, the source of the boom for the 21st century is data science. The Climate Corporation intends to leverage this technology to increase yields for farmers by utilizing machine learning and data analysis. In one of their studies, they were able to yield 542 bushels per acre of corn in the area of ten acres, compared to the average of 175 bushels per acre in the area of 90 million acres. This yield gap illustrates that technology can enable farmers to generate far more value from limited farmland than previously conceivable.
With billions of venture capital invested into various agriculture-based technology solutions, the Climate Corporation has had to differentiate themselves from competition. One unique aspect of their business is that they are directly connected to farmers; in other words, their technology is not solely created and based in the Silicon Valley. In a similar vein, they act as a platform economy by matching ag tech products with farmers based in the Midwest. The Climate Corporation also has created a large data science warehouse of different data layers from which its models can use machine learning. It’s interesting to note that Dr. Stern pointed out that the creator of this data warehouse previously worked at Zynga under Farmville; their expertise for handling the game’s analytics translated over to create a large data stack for the Climate Corporation. Fieldview, another product from the Climate Corporation, can geospatially detect its own location and determine where to place seeds. Fieldview’s algorithm helped determine the optimal seeds, selected from thirty different genetic varieties of corn, and increased yield by nine bushels per acre; it also can rank fields by disease susceptibility and identify which areas of fields are diseased. The Climate Corporation operates its technology in 22 countries from North and South America to Europe.
Despite the enormous size of its business, the Climate Corporation still holds true to serving their customers and improving sustainability. They give farmers all ownership of their grower data, asking for approval before use and offering the option to delete data, too; farmers also have the ability to share their data with others. While many of its customers are large farms, the Climate Corporation also seeks to target smallholder farms. In rural India, its Farmrise app is used by over 500,000 farmers to monitor their crops. Similarly, they’ve adapted their strategy in areas where conventional technology would not suffice. For instance, in Brazil, iPads, which are often used to monitor analytics for agriculture, are too expensive. As such, they’ve used satellite imagery, which is much more readily accessible, coupled with a data mule on mobile phones for farmers to transfer and view their data on the cloud. In terms of sustainability, the Climate Corporation seeks carbon neutrality in its own operations.
In the long term, farming will become increasingly automated. Even today, autonomous cars are already on the roads; it won’t be too long before tractors, too, are autonomous. Dr. Stern states that while the number of farmers today has decreased from what it was a hundred years ago, the local knowledge that these farmers possess is indispensable. This knowledge, coupled with technology, will prove to be the future for sustainable agriculture.