Microsoft Looking at Broadband and Agriculture

This past summer Microsoft announced a strategic alliance with the giant farm cooperative Land O’Lakes. The company is one of the country’s largest farmer-owned cooperatives and is a huge dairy producer and controls over 150 million acres of cropland.

The partnership intends to explore ways that Microsoft can leverage technology to improve farm production. Land O’Lakes has created a portfolio of software tools for members and Microsoft will work to unify the software in its Azure cloud platform. The hope is that a large and standardized agricultural software platform will be the best way to bring technology improvements to individual farmers in the cooperative.

One example of this initiative is a tool for dealing with early mitigation of plant stress. Crops are most susceptible to problems at the beginning of the growing cycle, and the software platform will help farmers to survey their fields with sensors and to take actions to optimize growth conditions. The software will suggest optimum fertilizer applications that will lower the amount of fertilizer used by applying the right kind of fertilizer only where needed. Over time the goal is to identify the right seed varieties for each farm to maximize output.

The biggest challenge in the Microsoft initiative is something that readers of this blog are well aware of – many farms have inadequate broadband. Rather than be stopped by lack of broadband, the partnership will be exploring solutions that work for well-connected farms as well as for those with poor broadband.

An example of a solution for areas with poor broadband is the Digital Dairy solution. This will use edge computing located at the farm that will be powerful enough to process data without having to send the data to the cloud. This initiative starts with tracking herd health with innovative practices that will tailor the feed to each cow to maximize health and milk production. Microsoft also will be concentrating on the supply chain to find strategies to make sure that milk doesn’t go bad during storage and transit. The ultimate goal is to provide traceability so that stores in the supply chain, and ultimately consumers will be able to know the source, quality, and freshness of dairy products.

One of the most exciting parts of the partnership is to use software tools to help with sustainability. This means studying the local soil to develop strategies to improve soil conditions since healthier soil ultimately means better crops and healthier food. One important component of sustainability is developing strategies for carbon sequestration, which is the process of permanently storing excess carbon in the soil. That’s good for the planet but also good for the soil.

Microsoft will also be working to bring better broadband to some of the Land O’Lakes farms. For several years, the company has been engaged with rural ISPs in its Airband program to use white space spectrum to bring better broadband to rural areas. That program got a huge shot in the arm a few months ago when the FCC finally agreed to free up more rural white space spectrum – something for which Microsoft has been lobbying for almost a decade.

This initiative is emblematic of the new approach that Microsoft is taking in the market. Rather than only developing generic software products, the company wants to work with individual industries to develop new and improved software tools specific for each industry. There is probably no better place for Microsoft to start than our farms.

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