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Improving Agriculture Tech

The typical farmer must make critical decisions each year on the crops to plant, when to plant them, how to best fertilize, how and when to water and weed, when to harvest, and how to best sell finished crops. Failing at even one of these decision points can ruin a crop year. Farmers also increasingly want to use farming practices that strengthen the soil rather than deplete it. Modern farming is a complex business, and a farmer has to annually interface with seed companies, equipment makers, chemical companies, crop distributors, temporary laborers, banks, insurance companies, and the government.

There has been a lot of effort made over the last decade to develop technology solutions to help farmers with some of the major decisions. For example, there are now ways to use aerial photography to diagnose the conditions of each section of a field. We’re in the early stages of developing sensors that will report on everything from moisture content to nutrient levels. Farmers can now buy a dizzying array of smart tractors and other smart farming equipment.

Unfortunately, the new hardware and software solutions have brought a new dilemma to the typical farmer – how to use these new tools for the specific local conditions at a given farm. Farmers suddenly find themselves juggling a dozen different pieces of software that don’t work together. There is no easy way to transfer data between different software systems. Software that might help a corn farmer likely won’t work as well for a farmer growing sweet potatoes or tomatoes. Farmers are complaining that they need to hire a systems analyst just to make sense of all of the new tools.

The Linux Foundation has begun a new open source software project to try to integrate the many software challenges suddenly confronting farmers. Labeled as the AgStack Foundation, the new effort will solicit input from across the industry, from farmers, equipment manufacturers, academics and researchers, and the government. The stated goal of the foundation is “to improve global agriculture efficiency through the creation, maintenance, and enhancement of free, re-usable, open and specialized digital infrastructure for data applications”.

The Linux Foundation is a non-profit consortium that has tackled other complex challenges like software for self-driving cars, wireless networks, and security systems. The Linux approach to software development is to create an open core platform of middleware that is made available to everybody. The Linux goal is to create a platform that can take inputs from multiple ag software packages and integrate the data exchange between products in a way to feel seamless to farmers. For example, data gathered from a smart tractor would be made easily available to software used for other purposes.

This integrated software approach makes it even more vital that farms get good broadband. The AgStack software is going to have to operate in the cloud, and a farm needs a robust broadband connection to load data to and from the cloud. Even when farms have adequate download broadband speeds, many have terrible upload connections.

The early members and contributors to the effort include the Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE), Purdue University/OATS & Agricultural Informatics Lab, the University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources (UC-ANR), and FarmOS. As the initiative gets legs and starts producing results, it seems likely that almost every maker of Ag software will want to integrate into this new platform. Joining this effort will enhance the value of every software package.

Agriculture is our largest industry, but because farms come in many sizes and produce a huge variety of crops or livestock, it’s an amazing challenge to develop standard software in the industry that can be useful to more than a small percentage of the market. This effort can hopefully bring the entire software ecosystem together while operating behind the scenes and not being evident to the farmers who will benefit the most.

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