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Welcome to the future: big data and its applications

Feb 6, 2018

Every year at harvest, my dad and I look out at the field and discuss the progress our family farm has made over the past 50 years. With the recent tech advancements of self-propel combines, GPS guided machinery and the innovation of seed traits – among many more developments – we often say, 

“Imagine what Grandpa and Great-Grandpa would say if they could see this.”

Coming from a time of horses and plows, threshers and binders, I bet my ancestors couldn’t have imagined some of agriculture’s recent innovations. 

This discussion with my dad often leads me to imagine what the future of ag will look like. Whatever that might be, I think one of the topics brought up at a recent Canadian agri-food policy conference in Ottawa might just be the next giant step towards the future for agriculture: big data. 

Impacts and uses of big data

Big data refers to extremely large data sets that, when analyzed, reveal patterns and trends. When applied to agriculture, big data often refers to precision agriculture (like yield monitoring and crop scouting), but there are many other functions that are similarly beneficial. For instance, it can also reduce fertilizer application, identify the impacts of specific weather patterns and help prevent spoilage by moving products faster.

Right now, there are over 100 companies in ag tech looking to change the game and bring agriculture into the realm of high-tech industries. Some are involved in determining the best crops to grow based on profitability and sustainability, while others are using drones to apply inputs to targeted areas of a field. All of them focus on four dimensions to manage the data aspect of their business: the four Vs that allow for better tracking and use of the information:

  1. Volume: the sheer amount of data available. We are beginning to measure data by the zettabyte (1 zettabyte = 1 trillion gigabytes).

  2. Velocity: the speed at which we collect data after an event occurs.

  3. Variety: how many ways are there to collect the data? For example, in one field, we can collect data with sensors on the back of sprayer nozzles, via satellite images and through temperature readings between rows of plants.

  4. Veracity: how much can we trust the data?

Imagine looking at a map of a field. That map shows you the plants with the highest yields and the areas where you can conserve the use of inputs. Thanks to big data, this is turning into a very real possibility in the not-so-distant future. 

I have a feeling this will be the next big thing we will look back and say, “Imagine if Grandpa could see this.”

Amy Carduner

Agricultural Economist

Amy joined the FCC Economics team in 2017 to monitor agricultural trends and identify opportunities and challenges in the sector. Amy grew up on a mixed farm in Saskatchewan and continues to support the family operation. She holds a Master in Applied Economics and Management from Cornell University and a Bachelor in Agricultural Economics from the University of Saskatchewan.