What do mathematics, statistical probability, computer modeling, and physics have to do with farming? More than you may think, say officials from The Climate Corporation. The company has spent the past several years in the heart of the Silicon Valley collecting and analyzing terabyte after terabyte of weather data from an alphabet soup’s worth of public and private entities, including the NOAA, NASS, USDA, NRCS and NWS. Even so, they hesitate to call what they do Big Data.
"I just call it science," says Erik Andrejko, agronomy lead. Colleague Sivan Aldor-Noiman, climatology lead, agrees.
"It’s not just about the volume of data," she says. "It’s about making the data useful. The term Big Data is really overused. Harnessing the data is the point, not collecting it."
Data must go through a four-step journey to become useful, insists Jim Ethington, vice president of product. Data leads to analysis, which leads to insights, which leads to recommendations, he says. The Climate Corporation announced Nov. 5 it has reached the third and fourth steps as it unveiled two new products: Climate Basic and Climate Pro.
Climate Basic is a free mobile service that provides farmers with newfound insights. They can track up-to-the-minute, field-level information such as current and future weather, soil and crop growth stage information. They can also add notes and set alerts for each field. For example, the rainfall tracker tool blends data for rainfall accumulation, soil type, temperature, humidity, wind speed and more to show which fields are workable and which ones are still too wet.
"It’s hyper-local data done on a mass scale," Ethington says.
Ethington says it’s easy to get started – simply search for individual fields by several methods (example: ZIP code), point and click on a field, name it, and start to track various layers of data almost immediately.
The Climate Corporation also announced a premium suite of digital tools collectively called Climate Pro that takes the data all the way to the recommendation phase. It helps customers determine optimal planting date, nitrogen rate and timing, crop pest recommendations, harvest timing and more.
Using the Harvest Advisor tool as an example, Ethington says: "Instead of guessing which fields are ready for harvest, we can give an indication of when each field will be at the target grain moisture. By the 2014 harvest, we will also be able to look at the cost of leaving a crop in the field versus grain-drying costs. So at that point, we can project which range of dates you can harvest for the best profit."
This process should enhance a farmer’s decision-making abilities rather than take him or her out of the equation, says David Friedberg, CEO.
"Instead of a gut check, let’s give you data and recommendations to make better decisions," he says. "Ultimately, farming has a lot to do with mathematics, statistics and probability."
Friedberg says Climate Pro will cost $15 per acre in corn and $7.50 per acre in soybean for 2014. Information on www.climate.com suggests the average return on investment farmers can capture is $100 in corn and $50 in soybeans, he adds.
The launch of Climate Basic and Climate Pro comes on the heels of a change in ownership – Monsanto bought the company for $930 million in October. Monsanto officials say the purchase will give them additional expertise to optimize its FieldScripts product, which uses its own wealth of data to deliver customers hybrid matches and a variable rate planting prescription.
Ted Crosbie, Monsanto’s Integrated Farming Systems lead, says FieldScripts was developed assuming normal weather. However, climate trends indicate more volatile weather is the new norm.
"Clearly, that’s not the way to optimize FieldScripts, but that’s the best we could do," Crosbie says. "That’s one of the reasons we’re so excited to partner with Climate Corp."
According to the agreement, The Climate Corporation will operate its business to retain its distinct brand identity, office location and employees. Friedberg says most of the software developers take an annual trip to the Midwest to see farmers use their products in the combine. And he says agriculture has a certain appeal to many recruits, too.
"This is more exciting than building a chat app or photo-sharing app," he says. "A lot of businesses in Silicon Valley aren’t trying to solve problems in the real world."