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Climate Corporation interview: Data is the new currency in digital agriculture

Talk about digital agriculture and the name The Climate Corporation often pops into the conversation. Agrow’s Sanjiv Rana met the company's executives and toured its facility in St Louis, Missouri, US to understand the technology wave that seems set to transform the way farming is done.

Let's begin with the basics. What exactly does digital farming entail? Climate describes it as follows: "Farmers make an average of 40 decisions each year that impact harvest potential and business returns. Digital farming brings increased precision to crop production by supporting key farm management decisions with science-driven insights."

How does Climate provide these insights? It has a mobile and web-based software platform called FieldView, using which, farmers can experience real-time data visualisation, analysis and insights powered by artificial intelligence, machine learning and data analytics techniques. FieldView works by integrating multiple levels of farming data — including geospatial imagery, sensor data, weather information, historical field performance, and in-ground soil and water dynamics — to deliver specific insights and recommendations at the field and field zone level.

Linked with the software is the FieldView Drive device, which can be plugged into the diagnostic port of a tractor, planter, sprayer or harvester in order to collect, connect and digitise farmer activity. With hardware, software, and data science models working together to provide a connected data ecosystem, farmers can visualise their farm data and gain agronomic insights to help make important operating decisions.

During busy times, such as planting and harvest, the customer service team at Climate's St Louis office receives up to 1,500 support calls per week and serves up to 6,000 dealers and 11,000 users.

Among the erstwhile Big Six of the crop protection industry, Bayer legacy company Monsanto was the early mover in digital agriculture when it acquired Climate Corporation in 2013.

Climate claims to be the leader in digital farming. "We launched FieldView in late 2015 and between 2015 and 2018, we saw that grow from about 5 million paid acres to 60 million paid acres and we plan on being on 90 million paid acres in 2019 globally," says the head of The Climate Corporation and Bayer's digital farming business, Mike Stern.

FieldView was launched in September 2018 in Europe and is currently available in 15 countries and 18 languages. The countries are Belgium, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Spain, Turkey, Ukraine and the UK. It was launched in Argentina in July.

John Jansen, Climate's vice-president for North America, explains what the company means by paid acres. "We are targeting to grow to 90 million paid acres in FieldView. That refers to farmers who are paying a subscription, and who bought this drive for $250. There is an annual $999 subscription fee to unlock the software in the US."

Mr Jansen says that the company is currently offering a special programme called "Try It, Buy It" for customers in North America. "You can use it for free for a year. When farmers start streaming their data and sign up for auto renew, well, over 90% of the time, they do renew it," he points out. There are similar programmes being offered in Europe and South America.

Seed Advisor

Climate has been field testing Seed Advisor since 2017. It is a data-driven tool that provides dealers with a ranked hybrid seed recommendation by field and optimal seeding rate recommendation to help farmers place the right seeds in the right fields. It provides recommendations on: the products a farmer should purchase; how much of each product he should purchase; in which fields he should optimally place each hybrid; and what density he should use for the hybrid in the field.

This technology empowers dealers with a predictive model that combines the industry’s largest, proprietary seed genetics library with regional seed performance data to predict the best performing hybrid for the unique agronomic conditions of each field, the company says.

Disease risk and identification

After having focused mainly on agronomic data and information, Climate is moving into the crop protection space through a data-driven solution to help farmers protect their crops before yield is impacted. Climate's disease identification research has added 15 maize and soybean diseases to its portfolio and is expanding into wheat, cotton and specialty crops.

"We are working on technologies that make it easy for growers to monitor and diagnose diseases in fields," says Brian Lutz, Climate's director of crop modelling. "Growers can take a photo and we can detect the type and extent of disease." Mr Lutz adds that the company also takes a lot of high-resolution soil and weather management data and predicts disease severity across fields. "We are even working on models that will help predict whether they will see a positive response from fungicide applications and help with the timing of these applications."

In trials, Climate's disease risk model was able to forecast the occurrence of disease more than 80% of the time in 2018, and could differentiate mild, moderate and severe outcomes. The model is also helping farmers identify fields that have the highest likelihood of positive return on investment for an application of fungicide.

"For corn, we have three key diseases in focus: northern corn leaf blight, grey leaf spot and southern rust," says Mr Lutz.

Outcome-Based Pricing

Climate has been rolling out a pilot programme for an outcome-based pricing model for fungicides. Research conducted for the company highlighted that three-quarters of farmers were more likely to purchase a product with outcome-based pricing. The research also revealed that half of farmers would be likely to switch brands with outcome-based pricing.

In its fungicide pilot proposal, Climate offered an outcome-based price at a defined bushel/acre threshold using FieldView as the tool to assess in-field performance. If yield gain is not achieved, a rebate is paid to the grower for fungicide and application cost.

Data - the new currency

Mr Stern points out that Climate has a lot of data not only on its own products, but also on other company's products. "In fact, the bottom line here is that we have more real-time data on the performance of our competitors' products than they do," he points out.

"The key here is that data is the new currency. Data will be the currency in digital agriculture and we have the largest, the most diverse and the most unique dataset in the industry and it's growing every year," Mr Stern points out.

But the company is clear on the view that farmers own their data. "We do not share the data they upload with any other third party without the farmer's permission," says Mr Jansen. He points out that the company has an opt-in approach. "If they want to cancel it, we make every effort to delete the data."

Interview

Sanjiv Rana (SR): Is there a scope within FieldView for collaboration with other companies?
John Jansen (JJ): FieldView works with products of other crop protection companies as well. We have a feature where farmers can create seeding prescriptions for maize. And we have loaded in all maize hybrids in the industry. Even companies such as Pioneer – we have researched their products. Farmers want one solution – they don't want to have to go to different software for different products. That's the reason that although Climate is a part of Bayer, we run it as a separate division because we do work across the industry.
Our view is that there will only be a couple of platforms that farmers would want to work with for their data. We want it to be easy for farmers to share their data as they would not want their data to be trapped. There are other competitors in this space, but no one is doing exactly what we are doing – collecting data, working with our dealers to enrol farmers, help making it easy for them to get their data in one place, and then turning that into insights. There are a lot of other software start-ups in agriculture – they are trying to get farmers connected. But none of them are yet connected to major science like Bayer has in seeding, crop protection and fertility.
SR: Has there been any move to collaborate with other providers?
JJ: We are opening up the FieldView platform to anyone who wants to build against that platform to connect with. Let's say you build a soil monitor. If you want to launch that product, you will have to find a distributor, and you would have to launch a website that creates a user ID, where farmers map their fields and where they put their sensors. We have opened up FieldView so you can become a platform partner. We have over 60 platform partners today that have farm software, satellite imagery, drone imagery, grain merchandising or crop insurance. A farmer can select the layers that he wishes to share with any of the partners.
SR: Could you elaborate on some of these partner companies?
JJ: Many of them are equipment companies, such as C&H, Case Agriculture and Agco. They all have equipment that needs to be compatible. John Deere has what is called MyJohnDeere – its own cloud for its customers. We have a relationship where we can exchange data. John Deere has its own apps, they have an app that works in the cab, we compete a bit there but mostly, farmers want insights from that. John Deere focuses a lot on machine data and we focus a lot on agronomic data.
Beyond equipment companies, we have irrigation companies, which can capture when water was applied on a field. There are also crop insurance companies, imagery – satellite and drone-based, and some weather companies. The only limitation is data privacy. We ask all partner companies to agree to the same level of data privacy.
SR: Does the equipment and software remain the same?
JJ: The equipment does change by region. In the US, we have a couple of major equipment companies – John Deere, Case IH and Agco. As you move to Brazil, Deere has a footprint in Brazil but other manufacturers such as Case IH and Stara are prevalent in that region. So, we have to engineer compatibility with each of those equipment companies. In Europe, there is Horsch and many companies that supply equipment. In Canada, where you get into wheat, canola – you get a lot of air seeder equipment from Bourgault, Seed Hawk (from Vaderstad). Compatibility with all of this diverse equipment is a top priority for us.
SR: How's the situation at the ground level in Brazil and Argentina?
JJ: In Brazil, for instance, in Mato Grosso, there are operations of thousands of hectares and machines streaming data. iPads are more difficult to come by in Brazil. So, we have developed an app for the android phone that can get data right off the machine. In Argentina, many of the people operating equipment, such as planters – they are contractors. So, they are not farming but are operating machinery. And the farmers want that data. So, we have to come up with ways to get that data collected. There are two main apps – the Cab app and the main FieldView app. The apps work on a web browser and also on a phone or iPad. Regardless of the device, farmers want their data everywhere. The Cab app is what farmers use when they are in a tractor or a sprayer or a combine.
SR: What about countries such as India where you typically have smallholder farmers and technology has not yet seeped into farming?
JJ: In India, their equipment is not digitised. Many are farming even without equipment. We are working on developing data by capturing images through aircraft and satellites. Ideally, we visualise a day when we can rely less on machine data and more on remote sensing information from satellites, aircraft, drones and sensors in the field.
Brain Lutz: We have the FarmRise programme in India, which has had a good uptake with a lot of time spent on the app. FarmRise is really tailored towards the smallholder farmer. A lot of it is just transferring basic agronomic information to them. It's not about collecting data from machines. It's really a platform for disseminating information.

The future

Climate points to an over 1 billion acre opportunity globally for maize, soybeans and wheat.

"This reminds me a lot of where we were 20-25 years ago with biotech," says Mr Stern. "But the changes that we are going to see with digital agriculture are going to happen faster and they are going to be more profound," he predicts.

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