Harvesting data to help feed a growing world

Big data empowers small farms with Yara’s digital farming platform

By | 3 minute read | November 6, 2019

Liliana Caballero runs a Colombia coffee farm

The agriculture industry is not necessarily known for data analytics capabilities. But that’s changing as access to exponential technology grows.

A new state-of-the-art data and analytics platform is helping farmers better predict weather patterns and calculate crop nutrition. The ultimate goal: fresh, sustainable food on tables around the world.

Hendrik Meine, a third-generation farmer, owns and operates Meine-Claus in rural Germany.

Hendrik Meine holds wheat, his most cherished crop

“My father used to rely on word of mouth from ground staff to figure out how much fertilizer was needed in each field,” Meine said. “Now we have sensors everywhere telling us exactly what is needed for each plant.”

With these technology advances, Meine is able to save on overhead costs, thus ensuring the business is profitable when his son takes over.

“There’s nothing that connects us more than food,” Pål Øystein Stormorken, Vice President of Digital Farming at Yara International Inc., said. “Food is a common denominator for people, no matter your background.”

Peter Rylander, Executive Partner at IBM, agrees. Together, Stormorken and Rylander are on a mission to responsibly feed the planet and empower independent farmers.

Their vision: a sustainable world without hunger.

Coffee beans being cleaned and dried

That’s an increasingly important task as climate change continues to effect crop fields.

The world’s population is expected to reach 9.7 billion by 2050, according to the UN. As climate change—extreme weather, soil loss, migration pressures—continues to put pressure on the Earth’s ability to produce food, the agriculture industry is turning to technology for help.

Yara and IBM have been working on the platform solution since May. They built a first-of-its-kind digital farming platform by leveraging IBM Digital Insights.

The two companies are focusing on creating and realizing a cloud agnostic strategy that enables consistent data governance while ensuring data security. The solution also focuses on DataOps—automating data functions that allow data scientists to focus on data models and innovation.

A Yara tractor plows wheat and corn fields

The platform provides holistic digital services and instant agronomic advice to farmers across the globe, ultimately to increase food production on existing farmland.

Together, the digital platform aims to cover 7 percent of all arable land worldwide.

“Agriculture is one of the last industries that has focused on systematic process optimization,” Stormorken said. “That means farms are largely fragmented and disconnected from one another. Reaching 620 million farm families one-by-one around the world is a challenge.”

The farmers adopting the platform are seeing immediate benefit.

“What you can expect as a farmer is more accurate predictions,” Stormorken said. “The recommendations a big field in Australia gets, for example, are based on data from the entire region. For farmers, accurate weather forecasting is crucial.”

Pouring the perfect cup of coffee from Hacienda Casablanca farms in Santander, Colombia

Better predictions mean healthier crops and fewer low-yield years.

The platform is only the beginning.

Transparency in trade through blockchain technologies will also empower farmers. That’s important for Liliana Caballero, a second-generation farmer who runs a coffee farm in Colombia.

“Our customers need to know who the farmer is, who the coffee grower behind that cup of coffee is,” Casablanca said. “That’s something that strongly attaches the consumer to the product.”

She also wants her consumers to see the science behind the scenes, including the differentiated processes and stages of the fermentation processes.

“It would be wonderful if our customers could learn all of that,” she said.

A farmer carries a handheld digital tool that measures chlorophyll content in crops

Yara is well on its journey to being a cognitive enterprise, IBM’s vision for the next-generation business model. By leveraging its data, the company is reinventing itself around the world.

“This partnership will transform agriculture and have a massive impact for the globe,” Rylander said. “Protect the planet and feed people. That’s what we aim to do.”