Can Data-Driven Agriculture Help Feed a Hungry World?

Publication: Yale Environment 360   Date: March 3, 2016   View Article

From Bonneville County, Idaho, to Buenos Aires Province, Argentina, tablet-toting agronomists with Anheuser-Busch InBev — the world’s largest brewer by volume — are visiting farmers who grow the company’s malt barley, a key ingredient in beer. These meetings are a decades-old ritual: Growers review contracts as agronomists offer advice on ways to maximize productivity and profitability. Only these days the conversations are increasingly steered by a computer app called SmartBarley that farmers use to log details on more than 40 variables that affect barley production, such as variety planted, soil type, and tillage method, along with applications of water, fertilizer, and pesticides. Growers use the platform to compare their practices and yields with other farmers who operate in similar soil and climate conditions.

The program is one of many agribusiness-led initiatives to harness the bits and bytes of data that increasingly are being used in agriculture worldwide to boost efficiency and profits, while simultaneously lowering the environmental impact of agriculture. Other agribusinesses that market data-crunching farm-management tools include seed company Monsanto, chemical company DuPont, and precision-irrigation company Valley Irrigation. FarmLink, which leases combines, recently entered the data game with TrueHarvest, a yield comparison tool that leverages data collected by its fleet of farm machinery to help farmers fine-tune their operations to maximize yield and profit.

For now, using big data to improve agricultural productivity is largely centered in the developed world. But sustainable agriculture and development specialists are working to expand access to important agricultural data to the hundreds of millions of small farmers in the developing world. Already, in an effort to improve yields and profits, farmers in places such as sub-Saharan Africa and India are using mobile phones to exchange information about weather, disease, and market prices. And these trends are only expected to grow as information technology spreads. Meanwhile, big data advocates argue that smaller farmers stand to benefit from data-driven agricultural advances, such as improved crop varieties.

How the Beer Industry Sustains Pacific Northwest Farmlands

Publication: BigLife Magazine   Date: December 1, 2015   View Article

The yellow blinking light where Idaho state highways 20 and 75 intersect signals “almost there” to travelers bound for Sun Valley. It hangs in the southwest corner of a triangle-shaped swath of farmland that affords big-sky views of high-desert foothills that bleed into the Northern Rockies. A nearby mileage sign reads Bellevue 9, Hailey 12, Sun Valley 26. This August, I pulled off at a rest area next to the light. The air was still and warm. The sky was dulled by smoke from forest fires burning throughout the Pacific Northwest. I was road tripping to learn how the brewing industry sustains farmlands that surround our mountain playgrounds and wanted to soak in the view of them from here. My phone buzzed. Grumpy’s for a beer? Sure, I replied. I’m at the blinking light. Almost there.

At the northern tip of the triangle, near Bellevue, the Big Wood River courses over porous soils. Much of its water seeps underground and flows southeast until impermeable sediments and rock force it to emerge in a series of springs. Some of the springs refill the Big Wood; others feed Silver Creek, a world-renowned trout stream. Dayna Gross, the Idaho conservation manager for The Nature Conservancy, explains this hydrology while pointing out landmarks on a tattered GIS reference map on a wall in the cluttered office of the Silver Creek Preserve. The spring water is clean and nutrient-rich. Wetlands and wildlife abound. “That is why we have these epic hatches,” Gross says with a hint of in-the-know cool. “People come from all over the world to fish here.” Rough calculations by The Nature Conservancy suggest that visitors to the 851-acre preserve contribute more than $6 million to the local economy each summer and fall.

“Barley,” Bill Coors is famous for saying, “is to beer as grapes are to wine.” Barley supplied to brewers of beers such as Coors, Miller High Life, and Budweiser grows on farms that surround the Silver Creek Preserve and contribute around $20 million to the local economy. The relationship between the farmers and environmentalists is uneasy. Sediments wash and blow off the farms and cloud the creek’s waters. Wetlands are scarce. The valley’s aquifer is sinking from decades of over pumping and, as a result, the springs trickle with less vigor and creek waters are warming. MillerCoors contacted The Nature Conservancy in 2009 in search of ways to help growers of its barley be better neighbors. Gross suggested a fencing and wetland restoration project on a farm along Stalker Creek, one of the feeder springs. The brewer bit. “It was a real success,” John Stevenson, who has grown malting barley for 43 years at his Hillside Ranch, says while standing in a tractor shed to avoid the sun.

Many in U.S. Face Another Dry Year as World Water Day Arrives

Publication: NBC News   Date: March 22, 2015   View Article

It’s a thirsty nation.

From California to the Pacific Northwest to swaths of Texas and Oklahoma, farmers, ranchers and just about anybody with a lawn or a pool are bracing for what’s expected to be another dry year.

Historically low snowpack in the mountains along the West Coast has heightened concern about drought. Ski areas from California to Washington have cried uncle after months of trying to keep slopes open. And water resource managers are busy making plans to deal with low river flows. For many in the U.S., World Water Day on March 22 is that in name only.

Drink Beer? Take Showers? Better Worry About West’s Snowpack

Publication: NBC News   Date: December 20, 2014   View Article

The wet and windy storms that have slammed California with floods, mudslides and traffic snarls are bringing at least a momentary sigh of relief from water users across the western U.S. That’s because the storms also dumped several feet of snow in the Sierra Nevada — and mountain snowpack is a chief supplier of water for agricultural, industrial, and domestic uses throughout the region.

But according to a state measurement, that snowpack as of Thursday was only 50 percent of normal — and Washington and Oregon are even worse off.

The lack of snow fits with what some scientists see as a long-term slide in the amount that piles up each year, though the trend’s size and significance are debated. For some, the decline hints at a future with less water to irrigate crops, brew beer and take showers as well as keep wildfires and insect pests at bay.

Hungry Planet: Can Big Data Help Feed 9 Billion Humans?

Publication: NBC News   Date: November 17, 2014   View Article

With a population set to hit 9 billion human beings by 2050, the world needs to grow more food —without cutting down forests and jungles, which are the climate’s huge lungs.

The solution, according to one soil management scientist, is Big Data.

Kenneth Cassman, an agronomist at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, recently unveiled a new interactive mapping tool that shows in fine-grain detail where higher crop yields are possible on current arable land.

“By some estimates, 20 to 30 percent of greenhouse gas emissions are associated with agriculture and of that a large portion is due to conversion of natural systems like rainforests or grassland savannahs to crop production, agriculture,” Cassman told NBC News at a conference in suburban Seattle.

Toxic Algae Blooms to Persist on Lake Erie, Experts Say

Publication: NBC News   Date: August 4, 2014   View Article

Toledo’s drinking water is once again safe, Mayor Michael Collins announced as he took a sip from a glass at a Monday morning news conference — but scientists say the harmful algal blooms at the heart of the water crisis are likely to persist well into the future given a confluence of shifting agricultural practices, invasive mussels, and global climate change.

“Here’s to you, Toledo,” Collins said at the conference, smiling for cameras before taking a sip of water drawn, presumably, from a nearby tap.

As Californians Pump Groundwater, Land Sinks and Aquifers Shrink

Publication: NBC News   Date: July 15, 2014   View Article

So much water is being pumped from the ground in parched California that the land is sinking, according to scientists.

The more Californians rely on groundwater, the worse these problems will get, experts across industry, government, and academia say. But, they said, the pumping is likely to continue given a confluence of factors that range from urban population growth to an expanding agricultural industry.

© 2008-2010 Collected Writings By John Roach