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On America's Farms, Data Is the New Cash Crop

Today's farmers are using all of the technology at their disposal to increase yields, which is critical if we hope to feed a rapidly growing population. But digitally driven farming is not without its potential downsides.
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Technically, Hunter Fincher is driving a 10-ton tractor as it rumbles over a bare patch of western-Tennessee farmland. You wouldn’t know that from looking at him though. Fincher is sitting in a well-padded chair inside a glass-enclosed, air-conditioned, XM-radio-equipped cabin atop the machine, enjoying the view of the lush green hill country around us. No hands on the wheel, no foot on the gas. Occasionally he glances at an iPad-size touch-screen that’s charting our progress. “I want to duct-tape a lawn chair to the top of the tractor and just ride!” cracks Fincher, 24, a fourth-generation farmer wearing a stubbly goatee, plaid shirt, and sneakers.

Fincher’s tractor is equipped with the latest technology from John Deere, the world’s biggest farm-equipment manufacturer. Guided by satellite and emitting the occasional R2-D2 beep, the 10-foot-high behemoth automatically grinds its way up one furrow and down the next. The tractor is towing an array of seed dispensers mounted on boom arms, each poised over furrows precisely 30 inches apart. The machine’s on-board computer system adjusts the rate at which the dispensers drop corn seeds to match the productivity of the specific patch of dirt we’re passing over. If one of the dispensers strays over an already-planted furrow, the system toggles it off.

“My generation is really grabbing hold of this technology,” says Fincher, his twang stretching his vowels like taffy. “We grew up with video games. This is not much different.”

Millions of acres of farmland are being mapped, analyzed, and harvested by computer-controlled machines.

Increasingly, America’s millions of acres of farmland are being mapped, analyzed, planted, and harvested by computer-controlled machines that are directed much more by vast quantities of information than a plowman’s steady hand. Today, one of the most valuable crops farmers are harvesting is data.

ROBERT MARBURY, 29, WEARS the unofficial uniform of the ag-industry folks who frequent the John Deere dealership where he works in Alamo, Tennessee—collared shirt and clean jeans, baseball cap corralling his floppy brown hair. The store has always had three departments: parts, sales, and service. Two years ago it launched a fourth, devoted to data.

Marbury runs that department, overseeing all the high-tech gear that makes possible what’s known as “precision agriculture.” That phrase has been bandied around for the last decade or two, but things have come a long way in the meantime. Today, combines equipped with sensors and accurate-to-the-inch GPS systems track the quantity and moisture content of crops as they’re harvested. Sophisticated soil analysis and aerial photography give detailed insights into field conditions. Computer-equipped tractors and spraying machines use “yield maps” based on all this data to micromanage fields, varying the application rate of seeds, fertilizer, and pesticides yard by yard. Growers—especially of the row crops like corn, soybeans, and wheat that make up the bulk of America’s agricultural output—are adopting these technologies fast. Two-thirds of the farmers surveyed last year by the American Soybean Association reported using auto-steering tractors or yield maps, or both. John Deere corporate has expanded its precision ag group from about 40 to 800 employees in the last dozen years.

At a folding table by the coffee machine in the back of the dealership, Marbury pulls up a map of Tennessee on his iPad. The screen is speckled with icons showing the location of every new GPS-equipped tractor, cotton picker, and combine sold by his company. Tapping on any of them pulls up the machine’s serial number and owner’s name. With the owner’s permission, Marbury can access a machine’s computer system and troubleshoot problems remotely.

“Robert logged in just the other day and fixed a computer glitch I had while I was fertilizing wheat,” marvels Johnny Verell, 30, a local farmer I spoke with later. “I didn’t even know he could do that!”

“Everybody’s pushing the data piece of the business,” says Marbury. Many companies besides Deere are now making sensor- and GPS-equipped agricultural machinery. Venture capitalists are sinking millions of dollars into start-ups like Solum, a company developing software that combines advanced soil testing with data analytics to maximize crop production. Monsanto is launching a new service in which an algorithm crunches data about a field’s soil, topography, and other features, and determines which of the biotech giant’s seeds will grow best in that particular dirt.

The goal of all this is efficiency. Seeds matched to specific soils should yield bigger harvests. Tracking precisely where seeds are dropped or fertilizer is sprayed cuts down on wasteful overlapping of areas that have already been treated. The gear required for all this isn’t cheap. An autosteering system alone costs several thousand dollars, and a full suite of precision tech can run $50,000 or more. But that investment can pay for itself within a few years. Taken together, precision techniques can boost a farmer’s bottom line by as much as 15 percent.

All of which is important not just for farmers, but for the world’s expanding population. A report released last December by the federal National Intelligence Council estimates the planet’s population will hit 8.3 billion by 2030, which will boost food demand by 35 percent. “The world is already farming its most productive land,” warns the report. “Improving crop efficiency will become especially important to meeting global food needs.”

DIGITALLY DRIVEN FARMING HAS downsides, however. It increases the pressure on farmers to get big or get out. And there’s another issue: While fields have always been vulnerable to pests and blight, they are now subject to the vulnerabilities of the digital world. “We haven’t had any problems with data leaking out yet,” says Marbury. “But when it does, it’s gonna be a mess.” Farmers I spoke with are concerned about competitors getting hold of their data. More importantly, if Marbury can remotely access his client’s equipment to solve computer glitches, a hacker could too. A malicious rival, a thrill-hungry cyber-vandal, or an imaginative eco-terrorist could conceivably slip into the computers controlling a tractor—or even a networked fleet of them—and wreak havoc on acres of crops.

For better or worse, the spread of digitized agriculture is changing the very nature of what it means to be a farmer. Henry Fincher, Hunter’s dad, is 58 and has been farming since he was a kid. “I picked a lot of cotton by hand, dragging it in a sack,” he says, standing in his spotless cowboy boots and blue jeans in a bare dirt field adjoining the one I watched his son plant. Back then, in between planting and harvesting seasons, “we’d hunt all winter, and fish and swim all summer,” he says. “Now, when you’re not in the field, you’re on the computer.” The Finchers have 134 fields split into multiple planting zones, and the data for each needs constant updating. The family also has to track everything from the weather to stockpiled grain inventories in the overseas markets they sell into. All of which is just fine with Johnny Verell. “I don’t wanna be out in the sun rebuilding a tractor engine,” he says. “I’d rather be on the computer side.”

Over the past century, mechanization has shrunk the proportion of Americans working in agriculture from 41 percent to less than two percent. In coming years, families like the Finchers may continue to make their living from the land, but their jobs won’t involve much interaction with the actual dirt. John Deere and other companies are prototyping machines that won’t need any driver at all. It won’t be long before you can control a tractor via a laptop in your living room, just as today’s air-force pilots fly drones over Afghanistan from an air-conditioned control station in Nevada. American agriculture may soon be just one more business run from a cubicle farm.