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May 2013 Archive for Growing Technology

RSS By: Ben Potter,

Technology editor Ben Potter brings you the latest in technology news, and how you can apply it to farming.


Who Grew My Blue Jeans?

May 21, 2013

The Country of Origin Labeling law, enacted in 2009, requires supermarkets and other food retailers to notify their customers about where some types of foods are sourced, including certain meats, fish, fruits, vegetables and nuts. But some enterprising companies are taking labeling a step further – dialing the consumer back to the individual farm where the food or fiber was grown.

One such company, American Denimatrix, includes a label with a QR code on its premium, private-label blue jeans. Scanning this bar code takes consumers on a journey back to the Texas High Plains to learn more about the farmers who grew the cotton that made the denim that was fashioned into the very pair of blue jeans they’re wearing.

The traceability program was enacted through Guatemala-based Denimatrix and its owner, Lubbock-based Plains Cotton Cooperative Association. Marketing and sales director Wilson Avelos says PCGA’s 2009 acquisition of Denimatrix allowed a partnership that led to the only completely vertical farm-to-factory apparel business in the Western Hemisphere.

"People are growing more interested in sustainability and tracing their products to the source so that they understand who’s involved in producing what they consume, the conditions they labor under and the way things are produced," Avalos tells Apparel Magazine. "We’ve seen this with products like orange juice for a while – a picture of the orange grove farmer is on the carton. Now we can enable this traceability with apparel."

Apparel Magazine awarded American Denimatrix as one of its 2013 Top Innovators in its May 2013 edition.

The No-Win Cotton-Pickin’ App

May 08, 2013

 At AgWeb, we spend a fair amount of time searching for and reviewing useful mobile apps for on-farm use. Some are great, some are merely OK. I stumbled across an app today that defies rating, unless there’s a category for "incredibly frustrating but makes a single point incredibly well."

The app is called "My Cotton Picking Day" and comes from a project called Game The News. Designers were inspired by an article they read in The Guardian that detailed the plight of child laborers in Uzbekistan, some of whom are subjected to intense cotton picking quotas of up to 50kg (more than 100 lbs) per day.

"This is about forced labor – the kids are taken out of school and forced to work," says app designer Tomas Rawlings.

So Rawlings and his colleagues set out to replicate the experience of picking cotton by hand.

"What we wanted to do with this game was to give a glimpse into the monotony of that job," he says.

cottonpickThe Atlantic reports the gaming experience as thus:

"There are two buttons. Both say pick cotton. And as you do, a bit of cotton -- between one and two grams -- goes into your pack. You can press the buttons quickly, but there is a short pause as your hand reaches into the pack. The fastest strategy is to switch from left to right button as fast as possible.

But once you've figured out the optimal strategy for speed, you realize: You will have to hit these buttons 30,000 times or something in order to fulfill your quota! It would take, the designers estimate, eight straight hours of hitting the buttons to "win" the game."

It’s not a game that’s meant to be won – or even played, really – but it does drive home an important point about a social justice issue. Israel, Australia and the United States are the only countries that harvest their entire cotton crop mechanically, according to the International Cotton Advisory Committee. Everywhere else, adults and oftentimes children pick at least some of the crop by hand.

So the next time you step into your tractor or combine, stop for a moment and be thankful for all the modern amenities at your fingertips, and also be thankful for the groups pushing for awareness and change to improve farmers’ lives elsewhere in the world.

Data, Data Everywhere...

May 06, 2013

 Our Farm Journal editorial offices sit on a nice piece of Marion silt loam in Mexico, Mo. If we ever decide to raze the building and farm the ground, I know it’s considered prime farmland, although it drains somewhat poorly, so we’d probably get started straightaway on a tiling project.

How do I know all of this? I simply pulled in a public "layer" called Soil Web into Google Earth, creating an instant (and free) soil map right on my laptop.


Here’s another interesting way I used Google Earth to learn a little more about the world. There’s another publicly available layer called "USGS streamgages," which shows the amount of water flowing in our nation’s streams and rivers – red is dry, blue is wet and green is normal.

stream conditions

Thousands of layers files have been created by the government, public universities, private businesses and even individuals. They are accessed via keyhole markup language (KML) and KML-zipped (KMZ) files, and are often free for the taking for anyone who can find them and put them to good use.

You can even import your own data or create your own custom layers, says Noel Anderson, a consultant with Madison Information Systems and Analysis, who specializes in webinars that help farmers put Google Earth to use in their operations.

"There is no such thing as information in isolation," he says. "It’s always connected to other things, and you become a better manager as you understand that. You can bring in as much information as you care to assimilate."

Anderson hopes to help train a new generation of what he calls "Da Vinci farmers" using tools such as Google Earth.

"Someone like Da Vinci could look at a grain of sand and see a river," he says. "They could see connections. Connecting the dots is much more important than any single dot."

For Anderson, the obvious solution of getting information out of silos is a more standard adoption across the ag industry to use KML and KMZ files. AgGateway, a nonprofit group supporting the expansion of "eBusiness in agriculture," want sstandardization as well.

One current AgGateway project, titled Standardized Precision Ag Data Exchange (SPADE), is trying to directly address the way ag data is often put in silos, says Matt Weeks, AGIIS Product Manager at AgGateway.

"The SPADE project is aimed at solving the problem of every equipment, precision ag, crop insurance and crop protection company not have a standard language to communicate through, and as a result, they all have separate formats and languages that often don't connect or talk to each other," he says.

That doesn’t necessarily mean a push specifically to adopt KML and KMZ file formats, but rather to standardize how farmers and other stakeholders communicate information among one another, Weeks adds. AgGateway hopes this project and others will lower the barrier for adoption of precision ag products for farmers, as well as lower developmental costs for agribusiness.

The federal government has been another proponent of making Big Data transparent and accessible. The USDA recently announced the launch of new "virtual communities" at that shepherds in a new wave of open and more easily accessed data, including genetic sequencing info, ag statistics data, and geological survey information.

Farmers might not have much use for the direct data, but they will benefit greatly from expected public and private ventures that will develop applications for on-farm use, says USDA chief scientist Catherine Woteki.

"We’re looking, [by] making these data available, to entrepreneurs developing new applications that are meaningful to farmers," Woteki says. "The beauty of open data is getting it out there to people who have an idea and people who have the talent to develop those applications.
Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack calls data is one of the world’s most important commodities.

"By making our data accessible and encouraging others to do the same, we’ll enable collaboration of data users that will spur innovation and drive economic growth," he says. "The digital revolution fueled by open data is starting to do for the modern world of agriculture what the industrial revolution did for agricultural productivity over the past century."

And so technology continues to allow us greater, easier access to more information, one "layer" at a time.


Farming the Future Means Dreaming Big Today

May 02, 2013

Two months ago, when I was interviewing people for my Top Producer article "Farming the Future" (about farm life in 2043), I was prepared to hear any idea. Driverless tractors? Sure. Weed-zapping robots? Bring them on.

But then futurist Jim Carroll proposed something I couldn’t get my brain wrapped around: microchips on corn plants that would transmit real-time field conditions and nutrient needs back to the farm office. Knowing that information would certainly be valuable, but I couldn’t get past the potential cost and impracticality of such a set-up.

I put the thought aside as pure science fiction. Maybe our distant relatives will use this technology on the moon in a thousand years, but corn that wirelessly transmits its own water and nutrient needs will certainly never happen in my lifetime.

Today, I watched a 94-second film and immediately changed my mind. Here it is so you can watch it, too. 


The film, titled "A Boy And His Atom," was developed by IBM Research scientists "to engage with students, to prompt them to ask questions," as Andreas Heinrich, IBM's principal scientist, told the Associated Press. It also happens to be the world’s smallest film – a stop-motion movie built with individual atoms with a frame measuring about one-millionth of an inch tall. Heinrich says IBM is using similar techniques in its efforts to make smaller-scale data storage possible.

I immediately turned my thoughts back to Carroll, who had told me something so absurd, I dismissed it out of hand. IBM is researching how to manipulate individual atoms to improve data storage right now. Row crops that transmit per-plant data wirelessly suddenly doesn’t seem like such a far-fetched concept anymore.

I try to be open-minded and optimistic about the future. "A Boy And His Atom" was a nice reminder of that.

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