FarmLink sows the seeds for technological advances in agriculture

FarmLink is the winner of the 2015 New Economy Award for Best Agriculture Solutions. We look at how it is bringing leading data science and new economy tools to the agriculture industry

FarmLink has been making great strides in agriculture, using data science and technology to solve global food challenges

Farmers have driven incredible progress in agriculture around the world. And yet, the productivity gains made in recent decades are not enough to feed a growing world population while conserving natural resources. The next wave of innovation necessary to meet this challenge will not come from improved genetics or agronomics alone. Farmers and agribusinesses across the planet will rely on advances in data science and associated technology to unlock new productivity potential.

“It’s an exciting time in agriculture because, while the challenges are great, the opportunities to create the necessary solutions are even greater”, says Ron LeMay, Chairman and CEO of FarmLink, a data science and technology company at the heart of US ‘ag’ technology. “We have a new vision that uses an unprecedented and irreplaceable data set to create innovative tools and services. Using data science, technology and our passion for innovation, we see a myriad of possibilities for solving global challenges across the food system.”

Making big data actionable
In recent years, farmers have begun using precision farming technologies to improve productivity (including GPS and variable rate planters), but these devices are only as good as the data available to them. And while farmers are drowning in data on weather, soil, yields, commodity prices, etc, they are thirsting for ways to make information actionable. In other words, they are looking for ways to convert data into better decisions and better farm management practices, and measuring subsequent results for continuous improvement.

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Additional yield potential for farm operations in Kansas

The industry now stands at a tipping point, where advancements in data science, connectivity and computing power can revolutionise crop production, farm profitability and food chain sustainability. Companies such as FarmLink are determined to help transform agriculture by using data science and new economy business models in the same way telecommunications and energy have.

“FarmLink brought together seasoned professionals from leading industries and young ag experts to literally change the culture of agriculture”, says LeMay. “As a start-up, we want to respond to the need for urgency with the energy and passion of entrepreneurs. New technologies, empowered by our advanced analytics platform (which combines machine learning models and human insight), can speed the pace of progress, and benefit farmers, agribusinesses and others across the food chain in multiple ways.”

The origins of FarmLink go back 15 years, when MachineryLink began leasing quality equipment to farmers at a fraction of the cost of ownership. Five years ago, the company began equipping its fleet of 200 combines with proprietary data recorders to collect yield data on millions of acres of corn, soybeans and wheat. The company then correlated that yield data with 62 different soil and weather variables from public data sources. The result is one of the world’s largest agricultural data sets, which underpins its sophisticated data analytics platforms. This platform is the engine behind FarmLink’s growth and, the company believes, a key to transformation in agriculture.

In 2014, FarmLink introduced TrueHarvest, the industry’s first and most sophisticated yield benchmarking tool. In the same year, it launched FarmLink Analytical Solutions, an entire division dedicated to working with public and private organisations to solve the most complex problems related to agriculture and natural resource management. These include how to maximise yields, how to optimise inputs and how to minimise environmental degradation. By combining the power of agronomic knowledge, an irreplicable data set and next-gen technology, FarmLink is able to uncover key insights needed to make a meaningful impact.

Changing the culture of agriculture
FarmLink brought together a team with extensive backgrounds in and outside agriculture that share a passion for making a difference in the world. FarmLink’s team boasts decades of experience from innovative and transformational industries, including telecommunication, energy, manufacturing and technology. Other leaders bring deep roots in agriculture. In fact, several managers are frontrunners in ag tech, bringing experience from large agribusiness and successful ag startups. Together and with partners across the industry, FarmLink’s team is uncovering new ways to think about the problems and solutions they are faced with.

“Agriculture has unique challenges, but the lessons and opportunities other industries have capitalised on through data science are still very applicable”, says Dave Gebhardt, FarmLink’s Chief Strategy Officer of Data Products and Agronomy. “The key to truly transforming global agriculture will be ensuring our new data tools and insights are based on precise, accurate data driving measurable results. With analytical platforms grounded in complex yet accurate data, the opportunities for those with vision, experience and innovation are limitless.”

Improved precision
While benchmarking has been widely utilised in other industries for decades, it has only recently become available in agriculture. The TrueHarvest benchmark provides precise, objective data that allows farmers and their crop advisers to pinpoint opportunities for profitable and sustainable farm management. In essence, the benchmark allows farmers to compare the yield performance of any given field or zone with the yield performance of thousands of others with comparable soil and weather conditions. With that information, farmers can determine how their land is performing relative to the benchmark. If a field is producing at the 25th percentile, for example, a farmer and his crop advisor can identify improvement opportunities and develop a specific plan to improve yield on that field.

And, because TrueHarvest is based on data snapshots taken every 150 square feet during harvest, farmers can identify improvement opportunities down to the ‘micro field’ level. This is what proponents of precision farming have always envisioned but, until now, haven’t been able to realise.

“When it comes to actionable yield data, we have only seen the tip of the iceberg”, says Matt Darr, Associate Professor and expert on precision agriculture at Iowa State University. “We’re not limited to yield data, but rather by our ability to synthesise that information to help drive more effective on-farm decision making.”

As global economic pressures challenge farms of all sizes, experts believe precision technology must come with actionable precision data to realise the full benefits. FarmLink’s 2014 benchmark of American corn and soybean production showed US land was capable of producing even more if investment in inputs and resources were targeted to underperforming acres. For example, if land at the 50th percentile had performed at the level of peers producing at the 75th percentile, American farmers could have harvested and sold nearly $10bn more in corn and soybeans in 2014.

Kansas farm cooperative MKC recently partnered with FarmLink to offer a benchmarking service to their farmer-customers. TrueHarvest benchmark data from 2014 shows an additional $372m in yield potential for farm operations in Kansas.

“Benchmarking is a strategic tool for our customers”, says Dave Spears, Senior Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer for MKC. “TrueHarvest allows our field marketers and precision ag specialists to help producers optimise the yield and return on investment on every acre. And because FarmLink takes extra care to ensure the veracity of the data set, we trust that the information is actionable.”

“Precision farming is evolving to ‘decision farming’, and that is largely being driven by the need of farmers to have data-driven input management decisions that address key issues of performance and profitability”, says Gebhardt, who led a similar effort at Land O’Lakes. “What’s particularly exciting about FarmLink is that our benchmarking and advanced analytics enable the industry to measure and increase not only the true value and sustainability of new technologies in farmers’ fields, but also those under development in R&D labs of the largest agribusinesses.”

Advanced analytics
While data science brings a new level of transparency and decision-making abilities never before seen in agriculture, the industry is far behind others in applying modern tools to solve problems. Today, data science and benchmarking provide a common language for agribusinesses and farmers around the world to use in taking production to the next level.

FarmLink’s data analytics platform could be invaluable in further improving the quality of soybeans in Brazil, enhancing the consistency of canola production in Canada or increasing rice yields in Asia. It can even be deployed to assess the value of range or pasture restoration, or to make decisions about whether specific pieces of land would be more valuable for agricultural or non-agricultural uses.

“This is a transformational time when the combination of human knowhow and insight, coupled with the robust data science and analytics, will change the productivity, profitability and sustainability of agriculture”, says LeMay. “At FarmLink, we call it Ag 3.0. The innovation pipeline we’ve created will fuel this transformation.”

Equipment transformed agriculture once before, and now machine learning, created using sophisticated computer models, is poised to accelerate the pace of change. FarmLink’s data science team has uncovered a wealth of opportunities to extract even greater return from data already collected. Correlations between key variables can be found in days instead of the years needed for human computation. As the need for new solutions increases, machine learning coupled with human insight can help refocus R&D investments on tools that farmers need today. FarmLink is partnering with leading agribusinesses to bring its unique data set together with proprietary data to uncover insights.

FarmLink’s benchmarking tool helps farmers, agribusinesses and public sector leaders identify the potential yields of their land
FarmLink’s benchmarking tool helps farmers, agribusinesses and public sector leaders identify the potential yields of their land

The Uber of ag
Another transformation on the farm is a change in traditional thinking around equipment ownership and management. In a dynamic ag economy, retailers and growers are rethinking one of their biggest capital expenditures: farm equipment. A combine costs about $350,000, but the average farmer needs it less than 30 days a year.

FarmLink launched the industry’s first equipment sharing programme this year, giving equipment owners the chance to keep returns flowing even during the off-season, and farmers’ access to equipment at a fraction of the cost of ownership. Leasing and sharing offers farmers more options and frees up capital for other on-farm investments, while potentially generating additional revenue.

“Combines typically represent one of the most costly, yet least utilised, pieces of equipment on the farm”, says Jeff Dema, President of Grower Services at FarmLink. “MachineryLink Sharing by FarmLink offers a unique way for owners to generate cash from a combine or other equipment that otherwise would be sitting in the barn. This creative business model is another way we are helping farmers generate cash flow and improve the business of farming.”

A transformational time
Agriculture must continue to create new systems for greater productivity and sustainability around the world. FarmLink is at the forefront of transforming ag by introducing new economy models – connecting combines to sharing economy machinery solutions six years ago, and now advanced data analytics. Entrepreneurs such as those at FarmLink will drive the next wave of innovation that is vital to meeting the world’s food challenges ahead.

By solving key challenges around data science and agriculture, the learning happening right now will have applications for production around the world. With access to technology through connections and innovations on the rise, there is an unprecedented opportunity to empower future farmers. Global food security can only be achieved if the pace of innovation increases, and the tools and innovation that are created get into the hands of farmers around the world who need them.

“We know that modern ag knowhow isn’t enough”, says LeMay. “To feed the world, we have to rethink our approach to agriculture and speed the pace of change. 10 years ago, we couldn’t imagine what’s possible today. I’m pleased to be part of finding solutions for tomorrow.”