Better farming: data-driven agriculture is replacing farmers’ hunches

Data-driven agriculture is replacing farmers’ hunches

 
Cam Couey smooths out a full truckload of barley from the Couey farm where it will be transported to Western Feedlots west of High River March 29, 2010 (Photo: Mike Sturk/Canadian Press)
Cam Couey smooths out a full truckload of barley from the Couey farm where it will be transported to Western Feedlots west of High River March 29, 2010 (Photo: Mike Sturk/Canadian Press)

Want to know how much pesticide went into those McDonald’s French fries your kids are having for lunch? McDonald’s does, and it’s using the software and database developed by Red Deer firm Agri-Trend to track pesticide inputs on all the North American potato fields that end up in its restaurants. The database has information on more than 50 million acres of North American farmland—including a third of all of the continent’s potato acres.

Agri-Trend’s target clientele isn’t industrial food giants, though. It’s farms. Robert Saik founded the company in 1987 with a $35,000 line of credit and a fax machine, frustrated by how farmers were making decisions about what to plant, how to fertilize or treat it, and when or where to sell it. “I was running a fertilizer company at the time, and most of my customers would ask me to load them up with what they used last year, or they’d ask me what the last guy had bought,” Saik says. “It drove me crazy. There had to be a better way for them to make their decisions.”

Saik worked with farmers to gather and analyze data from their soil-sample tests, historical growing patterns, cost of seed, cost and effect of fertilizer and pesticide applications, and the subsequent price and profit of the crops. By 2000, he realized he had a massive, if messy, database. He partnered with programmer Kevin Pattison to turn it into the Agri-Data Solution, an Internet-based software product that now does just about everything business-minded farmers might want it to. For example, it can generate what Pattison calls “a profit map,” which analyzes the expenses and profits tied to each part of the field, and tells farmers not just which fields are most productive, but which areas of each field make the most money.

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“It makes us farm smarter,” says Stacy Shurman, who uses Agri-Trend software to track every action and consequence on her Alberta farm. She knows the unit cost of production and profit margin on every individual field, and how it’s affected by fertilizers, pesticides or other interventions. “We can see where every penny goes,” Shurman says. And with every year the farm amasses more data, she’s better able to refine the decision-making process.

Tim Kelly, who runs a family farm in Saskatchewan, agrees. “It makes me more money,” he says simply. “All the information I need to make the best decision at any given time is right there, at my fingertips.”

Agri-Trend has expanded its sales into Australia, Kazahkstan and Ukraine, and Saik recently returned from a reconnaissance in Russia. Its hottest offering right now may be its ability to pull up 30 years of satellite images of fields to analyze historical crop productivity. The resulting maps allow farmers to identify which areas of their fields produce the best—and the worst—yields. The effect of this information on crop management and even crop pricing is significant. “If 30% of a field consistently has poor production, why would you continue to invest into that piece of field the same way you do into the better-producing part?” Saik asks. “Or if you are trying to decide on a new parcel purchase, why would you buy that chunk of land?”

44.8% Percentage of Canadian farms with high-speed Internet (2011)

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