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  • How data and technology will help farmers feed the world

    By Kelly Hall, 3M Storyteller and Eliot Popko, 3M Videographer

    Dale Stensrud

    • Dale Stensrud’s love of farming has always been a part of him.

      “When I was younger, I would always drive tractors and dump trucks. I would throw bags of seed corn around in the spring,” he says. Today, that passion is fueled by technology and data. He is the owner of North Shore Farms in Mankato, Minnesota – a 1,500-acre corn and soybean farm that’s belonged to his family since 1997. “This is my life. This is what I do. I love being on the farm,” says Dale.

    • A farmer makes measurements

      Much has changed since the days when Dale first began farming. Now Dale and other farmers are faced with the reality that food production must double by 2050 – partially because of the world’s growing population (PDF, 2.66 MB).

      How are farmers going to meet this need when land and resources are scarce?

      “We are going to do it by farming smarter. We are going to use our resources more effectively,” says Jerry Johnson, CEO at Aglytix, a software company that analyzes software available in agriculture.

      Analytics and data are going to be the key to making that happen. “There is more data available in agriculture than in almost any other industry,” says Jerry. “Every time a tractor goes across the field, it is capturing data. All this data is what we use to perform analytics.”

      This data can provide significant value to farmers.

      “It goes in everything we do, from our planting all the way through to our harvest,” says Dale. “We are recording more and more things that we do every day. It is almost like your smartphone. We are able to put that type of technology into our farm equipment, and it records everything that happens.”

    • Machinery in a farm field

      Farming with data: sensors, drones and autonomous tractors

      Sensors are just one aspect of this technology. Take a tractor going across a farm field, for instance. “The tractor’s got sensors all over it. They tell the tractor where it is, what elevation it is and where the tractor is within an inch. I can spray chemicals only where the weeds are,” says Jerry.

      Some farmers even put remote sensors into the fields to record things like plant conditions, soil moisture and the amount of sunlight plants are receiving. “It is all recorded by the second now,” says Dale. “So, it is no longer a matter of how much heat we have at any given day. It is now a matter of how much heat we have at any given minute throughout the day.”

      Farmers are also using drones. “The data that we work with is very big data,” says Jerry. “Imagine taking a single photo with your phone. Now imagine a drone going over a farm field. Each time the drone flies over the field, it may take 1,000 pictures, depending on the size of that particular field and the elevation.” Farmers stitch together all those images into one mosaic picture.

      “You can fly over a corn field when the corn is maybe five to six inches tall and use the imagery to actually count the plants,” says Jerry.

      This imagery gives the farmer an indication of how well their planting is doing, what changes they should make and what yield they can expect.

      And while autonomous vehicles are making headway, autonomous tractors are not new to farming. “You hear about all the autonomous cars in Silicon Valley, but tractors have been steering themselves for a long time,” says Jerry. “There is somebody in the tractor seat, but the tractor steers itself.”

      In an industry that relies on weather, these technologies are vital. “We are managing a live product that changes every day with the weather, the ground conditions, sunlight conditions and air pollution conditions,” explains Dale. Being ahead of changing weather conditions and how they will impact crop conditions can make all the difference.

      Data can also play a role in helping to manage the wide area of changing geographies that farmers work with daily. “It is getting to the point that not any one acre is the same as another acre,” says Dale. “Having the data to keep track of this makes a big difference in how we operate. It makes us more efficient and more productive.”

    • Closeup image of a screen displaying data

      Data + analytics

      Jerry says this data means nothing without analytics. His solution? Put the data to work.

      “Let’s do something with the data. Let’s add value. Let’s not just capture it. Let’s not just move it around. Not archive it. Let’s put it to work,” he says. For instance, farmers can use images to create weed maps that show them where every weed is located in the field.

      “If we give that data to an agronomist or a sprayer, the sprayer can go up and down the field, and it can spray only where the weeds are. Think of the savings for both the farmer and the environment,” says Jerry.

      Planting for the future

      For Dale, utilizing this data means not only planning for today, but also for the future. “One of the biggest things is the decisions we have to make as far as deciding what to plant next year and how much of what to plant. So, we are using this data as it comes in to decide what we are going to do for next year,” he says.

      Planning for the future can also have a global impact.

      “Technology has made the decision process better. We have more accurate information. We can make a decision and have a better outcome, predictably,” says Dale. “That is what excites me about the future. We feed the world. We are going to keep feeding the world, and technology is going to lead us that way.”

    Learn more

    There are many ways data is helping to improve our world today, from increasing food production to keeping food safer during processing and delivery and helping to improve population health and personal fitness. Dale Stensrud and Jerry Johnson shared their story in 3M’s new film, “Data Driven. Advancing a Sustainable Future.” See how they are part of the data driven world today and what is needed to sustain and scale data into the future.