Cubbage: Tomorrow’s “Smart Farm” Held Back By Today’s Reality

Even today, nearly 40% of all crop production worldwide is lost to insects and disease. That’s a lot of bushels, pounds and pecks no matter how you want to measure it.

That’s why it’s exciting to see start-up companies like Spensa Technologies using emerging tech to tackle this ever-present and persistent threat to growing crops.

Old Problem, New Solution. One of the things the company is doing is putting a tech twist on a seasoned scouting tool used by growers, agronomists and Extension agents—the insect trap. Spensa Technologies calls its the Z-Trap, and at first glance, it resembles any other previous insect trap. But look inside, and you can see it has gotten a high-tech makeover. The traps are equipped with sensors to electronically identify insects, on-board cameras to visually track day-to-day infestation levels and a built-in cellular modem to send this information to the cloud and deliver it to your connected mobile device via the Z-Trap app.

While one, two or even three individual Z-Traps are not going to move the needle much when it comes to reducing crop losses to insects, hundreds and especially thousands of them would when connected via the cloud. Think of it as an early warning system for growers. In real time, it shows where, what, when and how big a threat they are facing when it comes to pest threats across a large geographic area. This is just a glimpse of the power that this type of tech—dubbed the “Internet of Things,” or IoT—can bring to today’s farm. However, leveraging the true power of IoT will be one of the real challenges in precision agriculture during the next decade.

Limitations Illustrated. Unfortunately, as excited as many people are about the IoT empowering tomorrow’s “smart farm,” that enthusiasm may need to be tempered by today’s reality. Look no further than inside today’s so-called “smart home,” and the challenges on the farm start to come into view.

The underlying problem of today’s “smart” home is the same as the problem for a smart farm: it doesn’t exist. Not yet, anyway. Nearly every company currently offering smart home technology resides in a disparate and distinct silo.

If you’re a techie by heart, then you may already have some of these products that can be controlled or automated via phone or web app. Invariably, you’ve seen the problem. There’s an app for your Philips LED lights, an app for your Sonos speakers, an app for your Nest thermostat, an app for your Ring doorbell, your security system, even your ceiling fans. The list is multiplying like rabbits, but everyone goes down his or her own rabbit hole.

For those who’ve watched the history of precision agriculture unfold, this all sounds eerily familiar. Until recently, it was data siloed on individual PCs at farmers’ offices or down at the local co-op or seed dealer. That was a physical technological barrier that was holding us back. Cloud technology has broken through that barrier, but something I call the “proprietary” barrier remains. Each “connected” device whether it’s for the smart home or the smart farm has its own app that controls it. Opening those means of control is the first step toward realizing that the IoT is more than a pipe dream.

Smart Equals Connected. We would like to dream about a world where real-time pest information from a Z-Trap was connected seamlessly to weather apps that forecast how future weather might spread or deter pest infestations. It also would be connected to Farmobile, which wirelessly would stream planting date and variety information and, thus, integrate growing degree days and plant growth stage. It would also connect to apps such as Planet.com to give real-time satellite imagery of infested fields, and those images could be overlaid with advanced scouting apps like Mavrx, which focuses boots-on-the-ground scouting toward preselected targets within fields. Even a few connections of different devices can have exponential value when shared on a common platform.

For now, the best we can produce is an Internet of Disconnected things. Such disconnection has been the Achilles’ heel of the precision agriculture of the past. That’s unacceptable. It’s not enough if we truly want a “connected” farm. Unless things change, a lot of tech will end up parked in the “digital” fence row. 

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