Steve Cubbage: Weather Tech Is Poised To Prove ROI

Think of the consequences of the lack of localized weather...That’s the epitome of knowing enough to be dangerous. ( MGN )

The go-to, not-to-miss Christmas gift and standard-issue stocking stuffer for a farmer is still a fresh copy of the Old Farmer’s Almanac.

The almanac has been published since 1792, and it sells 3 million copies per year. It is nothing short of amazing in this day and age of high-tech weather satellites and Doppler radar that farmers still tend to put so much stock in a publication that has been making weather predictions much the same way since the late 1700s.

But let’s face it. Mother Nature is a fickle lady, and she can still make the most seasoned modern-day weather forecasters look like fools.

There is vast room for improvement in weather data and weather modeling. Until recently, the task of understanding and forecasting the weather in this country defaulted to government agencies such as the National Weather Service (NWS) and NASA. On the private side, you’ve got established players such as Weather Underground and The Weather Channel, which are now part of IBM. Meanwhile, companies such as DTN had pioneered weather forecasting services specifically for farmers and the agriculture industry.

But as site-specific precision agriculture technologies continue to evolve, it is clear if hyped-up tech such as big data, artificial intelligence and smart farms are truly going to work, then weather at the most basic and granular level has to get much better. It needs to be delivered in the right format, at the right place and at the right time.

Think of the consequences of the lack of localized weather. An example is choosing the next year’s hot hybrids from yield data without knowing that the seed company’s racehorse hybrid only won because a spotty shower in July just happened to hit the two fields where it was planted. That’s the epitome of knowing enough to be dangerous.

The use cases for better real-time weather at the farm gate are becoming more real every day. Early-warning systems that predict the likelihood of dicamba herbicide drift before it actually happens are examples. What if future forecasts could be tied into grain bin monitoring systems that would calculate optimal drying times and simultaneously optimize energy usage? Another example is real-time monitoring of the potential spread of specific pests and disease based on minute-by-minute changes in the weather pattern. How much better would tomorrow’s nitrogen models and fungicide applications work when mixed with better weather information?

The business of weather is changing, and a ton of investment money is fostering some very innovative companies for us in ag to keep eyes on in 2019 and beyond. One of the most unique young companies is Boston-based ClimaCell, which was formed by three Israeli military veterans who somehow reunited while pursuing graduate degrees at MIT and Harvard. As veterans, they knew how much weather can impact military ops, so this trio felt that together they could do better than the NWS. Their solution extracts weather data from cellular networks and combines those data with historical and traditional weather data along with feeds from a host of other sensors. It is no secret that weather can greatly affect cellular performance. This company just harnessed that knowledge into a software to create hyperlocal, minute-by-minute forecasts called “nowcasting.”

Then, you have a startup such as Understory, a company out of Madison, Wis., that pins its enhanced forecasting prowess more on hardware than just software alone. The company manufactures modernized weather stations called RTis—short for real time instruments—which monitor hail, wind, rain, temperature, pressure and humidity at ground-level every second of every day. The field-level proof of concept was enough to convince Monsanto to sign on as a key investor in 2016.  

Another company that is a little more established but still relatively new to the weather scene is a Denver-based company called aWhere. This diverse environmental intelligence company processes more than 7 billion data points every day to create a complete global ag weather offering that is hyperlocal and claims to be highly accurate. The business offers field-specific, scientifically vetted agronomic models to drive decision-making by automatically identifying plant growth stages, maturity tracking and harvest readiness, pest and disease likelihood and crop stress.

Whether it is these companies or others such as Weather Analytics, Riskpulse, TempoQuest, Earth Networks or startups yet to come, agriculture is emerging as one of the main targets. So the Old Farmer’s Almanac better watch out because come Christmas 2019, the preferred weather-related gift could be replaced with a high-tech option!