Sowing the seeds for a high-tech farming future

Advanced technology expertise could help make Irish agribusiness more productive and sustainable

The point where technology and agriculture meet is not limited to farm machinery. There is far more going on in this sector, which last year accounted for about 11 per cent of Ireland’s exports.

Bringing Irish agribusiness together with advanced technology expertise “is exactly what needs to be happening with our food and drinks industry,” Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine Simon Coveney said at a meeting last week for industry specialists at IBM’s Dublin campus.

Technology can make the fast-growing sector more productive, efficient and sustainable, he noted, which will be increasingly important in a highly competitive industry. Ireland exports 85 per cent of its agricultural production, with much opportunity still ahead. Over the past year, exports to China alone have increased by 40 per cent, and Coveney said he expected China to become the second-most important market for Irish agri-food exports after the UK.

Ireland’s opportunity lies not just in the export of food products, but in information technology expertise in this area. “As exciting as [the growth in new markets] is the opportunity for Ireland to produce and sell the systems as well as the food,” Coveney said.

Ireland has already led in some front-running areas of technology. Beef farmers here were the first in the world to have in place a national DNA tracing scheme. But big data and analytics are expected to have a significant impact in many other ways on agribusiness worldwide, such as becoming tools that can be used to boost crop yields, according to Susan Davies of IBM Global Services.

Role of social media
Drones and satellite images are useful for remotely viewing fields. Even social media has a potential role, Davies said. For one IBM customer, analysing Twitter posts and blogs enabled them to do market research in 10 per cent of the time – three months rather than three years.

Mobile devices can be used in a variety of ways, for accessing information or recording and submitting it to a database. Consider that of the 7.1 billion people on the planet, six billion have access to mobiles, said Paul Davey of IBM's Irish software group. The explosion in apps will affect agriculture just as it has many other business sectors, he said.

It is not just consumer-oriented apps but the business-to-business area that is taking off. Davey said he believed agribusiness was perfectly poised to take advantage of apps.

The sector would not have had instantly obvious uses for apps compared to an industry such as banking, which began to provide consumer apps early on.

“You don’t always want to be a first-mover. If you’re a first-mover, you can waste a lot of resources,” Davey said.

Agribusiness can come to the area now with a more considered approach. He pointed to one Irish customer, a large agribusiness company, that was using IBM-developed apps in a number of ways.

One app enables a group of managers globally to make large financial transactions instantly. Another app is used for cheese grading. Grading with a “d”, and not a “t”, Davey laughed – a homophone confusion that initially threw him when he was told about the app.

“Cheese is a living thing and goes through different stages of development. The cheesemakers need to report back on the status of each cheese, and now they have an app that lets them send this data back,” he said.

A third app, being tested internally, would give consumers a range of recipes for a product when they hover their phones over the item in a supermarket.

At the opposite end of the computing scale from apps comes massive IBM initiatives such as the ongoing SmartBay project in Galway bay.

This big-data initiative brings together sensors, data, computer modelling and analytics for applications ranging from fishing and sea farming to energy generation, environmental protection and sustainability.

The Galway bay project collected 30 terabytes of data last year, said Sean McKenna, senior manager at IBM Research. But it is not all about the data. "Data alone is not the solution – you have to couple those with predictive models," he said.

Ocean circulation model
As an example, McKenna pointed to the Deep Current project, a real-time ocean circulation model that has been used in both Galway bay and Chesapeake Bay in the US.

Deep Current involves bringing together massive amounts of data, generated from sensors in the water, as well as other weather and oceanic sources. The data has produced a model tracking how water flows in and out and circulates around a geographic feature like a bay. This can help fish farmers choose locations where excess feed and fish waste can be easily flushed away to the open sea by currents.

The model could also be used to monitor and help control agricultural run-off from fertilisers into the sea, which can produce toxic dead zones if caught inside a bay.

One of the biggest challenges for the agribusiness sector is its innate volatility, said Tom Ward of US software company SignalDemand. Not only does agribusiness have to watch out for the normal ups and downs of business markets but also the many ways in which Mother Nature can affect production. "Volatility can be a very significant challenge but, managed in the right way, it is an opportunity," he said.

His company’s software aims to remove some of the guesswork in agribusinesses’ complex supply chains, which start with a food producer and end with a retailer. Software can help predict the right time to get products to market, and where to send them.

Making the wrong guesses with, say, a perishable item such as beef, can mean missing the optimal “sell window” – what US producers call the “sell or smell” risk.

However, Harold Ewell of US agribusiness software company N2N noted some things that were difficult to manage, such as unexpected crises like the horse meat scandal in Europe, or the deaths and illnesses associated with salmonella-contaminated cantaloupes in the US in 2012.

In Ireland, where production significantly outstrips domestic consumption, agribusiness always has to be considering: “What if the market blew up?”

According to Ewell, Ireland produces 617 per cent more beef than is eaten here, 344 per cent more sheep, 573 per cent more cheese and 915 per cent more butter, making careful risk management a priority.

He said best practice was to look at other industries to see where they encountered unexpected risk, and how they managed it.

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