Whether your head is in the clouds or not, sooner or later your data will be. Coined as a marketing term, the "cloud" refers to a remote server you can reach via the Internet to store data and then later access using a user ID and password. Basically the cloud allows farmers to keep their data on
remote servers, automatically propagate and sync data across computers and electronic devices and access custom software, called software as a service (SaaS), from anywhere that has Internet or cellphone service.
Joel Mathiowetz, who farms near Morgan, Minn., has been tracking his own and relatives’ data for more than two years.
Mathiowetz, his father, two uncles, two cousins and his brother own a total of 2,500 acres of corn, soybeans and peas split among seven ownership structures. The farms are managed separately, but they share equipment, management techniques and data.
"The cloud concept of having real-time data that can communicate live with the other stakeholders is very beneficial," Mathiowetz says. Data from the seven farms is now stored on the cloud.
"It allows us to be more diligent in purchasing inputs and monitoring inventories," he says. "It helps us be more efficient in sharing labor and equipment."
The SaaS package Mathiowetz and his family now use is a subscription service from Conservis, a SaaS provider headquartered in Minneapolis. Among other functions, it allows them to track yields from individual fields to determine whether a yield issue was due to management, soil, inputs or weather—all information the various family members can then cross reference.
More value, less work. Eric Jackson, vice president of agricultural services and one of the founders of Conservis, says the entire ag industry is moving to the cloud because the advantages are numerous.
"Traditionally software was installed locally, and it was hard to get revisions and upgrades," Jackson says. "When upgrading, sometimes it was difficult to keep data integrity intact." With the cloud, upgrades are all done automatically via the Internet, and SaaS providers offer 24/7 tech support.
"One key benefit is cost," Jackson adds. "It costs less for us to provide the service, so we can create more value for the producer."
Data is provided in real-time and instantly backed up on multiple servers. With traditional software, if your hard drive wasn’t backed up and your system crashed, you were out of luck and out of data.
Using the cloud, data is accessible from just about anywhere. Producers can also collect information with their mobile devices, and the data automatically propagates into their office suite or agronomy package. When they return to their office, the data is on their desktop; they no longer have to upload the data.
Still evolving. Despite the rapid migration, cloud technology is not perfect.
"The interoperability issue is keeping adoption from exploding," says Mike Santostefano, marketing director for AgIntegrated, a provider of precision, logistical and information management software services to agriculture. Competitive issues have prevented some providers from offering open systems in which their apps or services can interface with other companies’ products.
"It’s tough for software vendors that have been in the industry so long to convert to the app world in which they need to communicate with other apps," he adds.
Privacy and security can also be an issue. Producers need to be sure they control usernames and passwords, and it’s important to read user and license agreements to be sure service providers cannot aggregate and sell the data without permission.