The oldest industry in the world is merging with the modern world as technology is helping farmers and making farms more sustainable.
Farming has always been a part of Ranveer Chandra's life. When he was a kid, memories were made on his family's farm in India.
“Back then, every summer and winter vacation, I would spend my time there. I didn’t like agriculture back then, the farms didn’t have electricity or toilets. That exposed me to a lot of poverty, a lot of primitive forms of agriculture that was practiced in different parts of the world,” Chandra said.
Now with a Ph.D. in computer science, he's directed that interest and curiosity toward a program within Microsoft that he leads called FarmBeats.
"Through this project, we want to build digital tools that can empower farmers worldwide, make their lives better, make the food they produce better,” Chandra said.
Like its name, FarmBeats is centered around farms. Chandra and his team are working to bring computers and their data to farms. What if you could bring all the benefits of things like artificial intelligence, cutting edge computing and the latest digital tech to agriculture? Imagine just how it could improve a farmer's life and work.
“Humans and machines need to work together. All the latest technologies we’re building when combined with human knowledge, you can take them to a completely different level,” Chandra said.
That next level is evident in a new partnership between Land O'Lakes and Microsoft.
“Imagine a computer sitting in the barn, getting a lot of data from cameras and sensors so it can detect how the different cows are doing, whether it’s sick and in heat, what’s happening with each cow,” Chandra said.
But none of that can happen unless there's broadband. Enter in the "digital divide," which has become even more apparent during the pandemic. Land O'Lakes wants to not only bring that new tech to farmers, but bring everyone online at the same time.
“A lot of our solutions were not working as well as they should have because of the connectivity issue. It hit us right in the face. We’re talking about some really neat capabilities and technologies, but we couldn’t use them because we didn’t have that connectivity in rural America,” said Teddy Bekele, chief technology officer at Land O'Lakes.
Land O'Lakes, which brings you butter, milk and cheese, is also a farmer-owned cooperative with 2,000 dairy producers, 1,000 retailers and 300,000 farmers.
“Having one farmer connected is not enough,” Bekele said. “You’ve got to have the whole community connected, and if you think about bringing technology, it’s not just the household. We want the whole field.”
He says drone footage bringing you data about your fields does not work if you don't have internet.
“We’ve been working on a lot of novel solutions to bring to farmers, things from remote sensing, satellite and drone images to using crop models that use machine-learning capabilities to help farmers make better decisions as well as a platform that helps with sustainability,” Bekele said.
Farmers know so much about land. Technology will take the guesswork out of the farming industry. Things like how much you should water, when and where mapped out by data.
“One of the things we’re building is a digital dairy platform, bringing different dairy management tools into one umbrella. You can have one place where you can get all the data and then start using it to create insights” says Chandra.
And while data-driven solutions for a modern world won't happen overnight, the two companies are aiming at a worldwide agriculture transformation in a few years, in hopes of forever changing our food supply, our food system and our sustainability.