Big data and new tech helping Illinois farmers

Illinois farmers have traditionally used observations about their fields to make decisions, but experts say big data and new technology are offering them more information than ever and driving farming into a digital agriculture age.

Big data isn’t exclusive to agriculture; it’s a term describing the capability to capture a large volume of information, analyze it and use it in a timely manner. But big data is taking root in agriculture and evolving into what Steve Sonka, professor emeritus of agricultural strategy at the University of Illinois, calls digital agriculture.

“We’re really in early days of digital ag and big data,” Sonka said. “And so for the first time really ever in production agriculture, we’re just now beginning to be able to capture data on our own actual operations. That is a really big deal.”

Farmers have much to gain by harnessing digital agriculture. According to Sonka, the greatest advantages awaiting farmers are increasing profitability and efficiency of crop production. Big data can provide real-time information on the status of crops, rainfall and soil, as well as use information to determine actions like what, when and how much to plant.

“Farmers have always wanted to be able to capture data about their farming operations, but it’s been too expensive,” Sonka said.

Taking advantage of new technology goes hand-in-hand with the evolution of digital agriculture. Data that previously would have been too costly to capture or simply impossible to gather is now available.

“With the advent of sensors and drones and all kinds of miniaturized data capture devices, today it’s becoming economic to capture that data on the farm field,” Sonka said.

As with nearly all tech advancements, digital agriculture and big data have been greeted with some skepticism.

“There are concerns in the ag production community about data ownership,” Sonka said. “And we’re going to have to learn what kind of standards and what kinds of arrangements people are comfortable with.”

While data privacy is a sensitivity issue, Sonka is confident the positive opportunities for farmers outweigh the concerns.

–Illinois News Network

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