From Farm to Cloud: How Broadband Makes Smart Ag Brilliant

Source: Brendan Carr via Medium

At 36 years old, Jason has worked on farms and ranches for 20 years. He was born only a few miles from the crop supply company where he now works in Moline, Michigan — an unincorporated community in the middle of West Michigan’s farm country. There’s no paved road to his job. To get there, he crisscrosses railroad tracks that run through town and, this time of year, drives past mounds of dry fertilizer and potash, ready to be spread in the adjacent fields.

Jason’s job is to collect silos worth of data — drone-based images detailed enough to track even small changes to a single leaf, real-time information about soil moisture and chemistry, LiDAR-based maps that identify the micro-climates within each plot of land, and bales of information gathered by sensors on his connected combines and sprayers.

When I visited with him a few weeks ago, it was clear that Jason has the tech expertise that would be in high demand 2,000 miles away in Silicon Valley. But he’s chosen to raise his family in Moline. He told me he’s never been more optimistic about the future of farming.

The challenge, Jason explained, is getting all of this data up into the cloud where it can be analyzed and put to productive use. This is where a quirk of history gives Moline an advantage. You see, the community got its start in the 1870s when the Grand Rapids and Indiana Railway passed through. Why does that matter? Today, broadband providers have run fiber along the tracks. So Jason was able to tie in to the broadband running along his operation.

Now, Jason can upload the gigabytes of data he collects and leverage the horse-power of cloud-based artificial intelligence to put this information to work.

The results are remarkable. Jason now sends real-time data to his connected combines that can make precise and dynamic adjustments, often on an inch-by-inch basis, to everything from the pace, depth, and type of seeding to the nature and amount of fertilizer. He can track and spot issues with individual plants before they become a problem for the entire crop. He even talked about an IoT device that can capture pests, upload their images, and then use AI to identify them and recommend a solution.

With these broadband-enabled, smart ag applications, Jason estimates that farmers are seeing at least a 30% increase in productivity and crop yields, not to mention a significant reduction in the use of fertilizer, pesticides, and water.

Jason’s operation in Moline is certainly advanced, but it isn’t unique.

Down the road in Three Rivers, Michigan, I stopped at family-run Walther Farms. Leonard Walther, Sr. started farming to supplement his work at a Buick engine plant near Flint in the 1940s. Now in its third generation as a family business, Walther Farms is one of the largest potato growers in the country. (In fact, if you’ve eaten a bag of potato chips East of the Mississippi, chances are that you’ve tasted a Walther Farms potato)


Leonard’s grandson now runs the operations, and technology is key. Since chip potatoes need to stay within a narrow temperature range from farm to factory, Walther Farms uses remote sensors to monitor and adjust the refrigeration in their cargo trucks. The Walther team talked about the problem of getting reliable broadband connectivity across their rural footprint — how they stitch together networks from fixed wireless, cellular, satellite, and fiber deployments — and the need to get the massive amount of data they collect from the farm to the cloud. 

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