All the information required to make your life better (in Ag) is essentially unavailable to you.

Technology is wonderful. It enables solutions to problems and makes life so easy. Push one button on my remote and I get access to every football game ever played. Push another button and the AC keeps my room exactly as cool as I like it. Push another few buttons and I can talk with a person 3000 miles away and even send them my picture. So why can’t managing my Ag business be that easy?

It is because in each of those “easy” areas (TV, Air Conditioning, and cell-phones) someone, or rather an entire industry, spent millions of hours to make it easy. In each of these “Easy” applications technology does a key thing … it accesses and analyzes complex data and presents the user with a simple set of choices with which to gain satisfaction.

For the remote … click on the 2010 Pittsburg Steelers playoff game and you are re-living the glory days. It is 68 degrees. For the AC, adjust the auto thermostat up as few degrees and sleep better. For the phone …select “mother-in-law” from you contacts list and hit “block calls” and have a quiet weekend.

To get to this ease of use takes the work of many people over many years, but the rewards in timesaving, cost saving, and satisfaction are worth it. Proof? You own these products and you use them daily. Let me repeat for effect …. you use them and are satisfied daily. The conclusion is making complex processes simple and affordable is good and makes your life easier.

For agriculture, we would like to be able to make the management of our businesses easier, but we are not there yet. Why? While we know the key questions that need answering in order for us to more easily manage our production (when and how much to irrigate, how much fertilizer to apply, are my fields pest and disease free, etc.). The truth is that all the information required to create “easy” tools for ag are essentially unavailable to anyone who is interested in using it. I repeat for clarity and controversy,

All the information required to make your life better (in Ag) is essentially unavailable to you.

Bold statement.

But you say, “Mike … I can get soil information from the SoilWeb maps, and I can get soil metrics, and I can get Landsat imagery, and I can get aerial images, I can get vigor maps, and I can get weather data and calculate evapo-transpiration, and I can get field info, and I can get the amount of chemical applied, and I can get how low the water table is, and I can get how much water I am allocated this year, and I can get (fill in the blank) etc., etc. I can get it all! And the cool thing is that the data is FREE, mostly from the Government!”

Yes you can get it. But in reality you don’t get this data, because getting it is a very complex and time consuming manual process that adds up to another part time job for you. And that is key. You don’t want or need another job. You just want satisfaction with no strings attached.

It is pretty much another full or part-time job for you (or an employee on your payroll) to access a single one of these online data resources (soil, weather, imagery, etc.) in their current form. That is because you need expert domain knowledge and software knowledge in every step of the process to understand and deal with the complexities of each data source. So if you use soil, weather, and imagery you personally have 3 new jobs or 3 new part time or full time employees. So now the FREE data is costing 3 new staff at maybe $40K+ per year each for domain experts. So FREE is now a recurring $120K cost per year. Pretty expensive for any operation. Getting and using the data also requires buying multiple special software programs (Data management software, Image manipulation software (photoshop), image processing software (ENVI, PCI Geomatics, etc.), geographic information systems (ArcGIS, GlobalMapper, ). These cost between $50 and $5000 per year, recurring. So now the FREE data costs $125K per year. Be advised that NONE of these software packages have adequate users manuals so to come up to speed will take months and more money for training. To top it off, in order to run these software programs you will need new computers and bigger disks (add an additional $10000).

The bad news is that after all this expense, having all this data and SW does not mean that you can readily use and analyze the data because these SW systems are designed for general research and not for rapid real time Ag production support. Just dealing with the different new and historical file formats requires a Phd as in “pain in the neck”. There are so many key clicks required in the processing chain that processing a single file may require 50 – 100 key clicks on multiple programs, and the repeated manual re-typing of hundreds … nay… thousands of file names from one program to another.

Multiply this by a couple hundred files a month and you get buried with “clicking and entering” very quickly. You also get buried with the sheer number of big files which overwhelm your ability to store and retrieve data. So you or your team of expensive experts are painfully stringing together a set of incompatible commercial products to access and use data from non-integrated county, state, or federal websites into a Rube Goldberg contraption to squeeze out information by the ounce at $125K per year, which was initially advertized to you as FREE. Not a good user adoption scenario and very unsatisfactory.

The reason I can describe this process is because I lived it. Been there, done that, got the T-shirt. You don’t want this T-shirt.

The reality is that the true cost of Ag data usage is currently way too high, using it takes too much time, and spending time and money on this data diverts resources from actual proven production practices. So it is not used. The data is all there, but you can’t get to it in an easy practical manner, and that is why all the information required to make your life better (in Ag) is essentially unavailable to you. No one stops you from getting it … you make the business and quality of life decision not to get it.

Keep in mind that the county, state, and federal groups creating the information and making it available online are making herculean efforts and doing “God’s work”. It takes them millions of hours to assemble the data and make it available online. Think of the work required to create SoilWeb. It is amazing that the data exists. Think of the work to create Landsat data. That is true rocket science. Think of the USGS topograpic data, the California CIMIS weather station network, The Integrated Pest Management sites, the USDA crop phenology sites, etc. The fact that all this data even exists is amazing. And the people producing it are champions. They have to deal with the government bureaucracy from the inside to make anything available to the public. We have to salute them. But they are limited in resources themselves and do not have the resources to take it the next step. They get it to the door … someone else has to pick it up and assemble it into actionable information. Someone in the commercial space needs to step in and knit these un-integrated resources together into an easy solution. It is a gigantic job. That is what we at Agralogics are doing.

Our company mission is to attack, capture and subdue every hard data problem in agriculture so that the end user can avoid all the pain, and we can provide easy, effective, and affordable information solutions to the ag community at all levels of the ecosystem. We are investing in domain experts and automated software to aggregate all the data available and required to support ag production management, and provide it to you in one location. Where the county, growers association, water district, university, state agency, and federal agencies leave off we will pick up and will turn that data into information to drive management actions in the field and the office. Our goal is to create a resource and platform for all ag data and provide the capability to perform analytics on these data to solve problems and inform decision making. To do this we will combine plant agronomy, meteorology, hydrology, geology, production science, soil science, irrigation science, remote sensing, geographic information systems, advanced “Big Data” databases, cultural practices, ag business practices, and data analytics to provide the user with all the information required to understand the issues, weigh the choices and offer a simple set of options with which to gain satisfaction. We will integrate these data sets into proven predictive models for monitoring/managing agricultural practices (irrigation, fertilization, etc.) to provide real time support to day to day farm management.

The Information of Food

As a young boy growing up in India in the 70s and 80s, I was always struck by our dinner conversations when they (often) revolved around agriculture and food. My dad would discuss the harvest, the labor issues, the changes in government policy, etc. and my mom would focus on the food, the nutrients, the taste and the market prices.

In all these discussions, three things always struck me: One, that the practice of agriculture was difficult – physically and economically – but emotionally satisfying. Two, that it was complex – there were a lot of variables involved in any decision my father took for our farm – weather, government policies, labor availability, food prices, land prices, interest rates, equipment costs, (just to name a few) – all were considered all the time at both ends of the entire food ecosystem. And three that my family wanted me to get out of farming and become a professional (doctor or engineer) – the hardship and complexity was just not worth it; other professions were more efficient at making money.

foodgraphQuite a message to digest for a 10-year-old. But even more importantly, quite a paradox – if the world indeed needed is challenged by population growth, don’t we need more, smarter professionals as growers, not fewer? And, shouldn’t we have more emphasis on making the food ecosystem profitable and efficient, so young people don’t leave this important vocation as a career choice? And shouldn’t the best technologies be constantly focused on making food tastier, more nutritious, more affordable, more efficient and safer while also allowing farmers to earn higher profits? How can we achieve this? Clearly my parents couldn’t imagine that future. They saw the food ecosystem as a zero-sum game. But then again, neither could they imagine Google, Facebook, Amazon, NetFlix, or Verizon. And the common denominator to all these recent breakthroughs has been – Information and the ability/technology to disrupt the status-quo in real-time. Instant gratification.

Today, we face the perfect storm for our food supply –  climate change, regulations, population growth and a global supply-chain have aligned to necessitate the use of information. E.g., we will improve water use inefficiencies in the system if we are informed on how to produce the same yield with less water. We will no longer over- or under-fertilize if we are informed on the optimum use of nutrients that help us sustainably grow tastier and more nutritious food.

The key is to this “informed” food ecosystem, I believe, is to share in its creation and use. All stakeholders –consumers, growers, processors, retailers, natural resource managers, regulators, ag-chem vendors – must participate proactively – despite their sometimes conflicting perspectives –  in authoring-using-evolving this information, just as they do in growing our food today. And the stakes are big and fundamental to the existence of all living things on our planet – our collective success in ensuring a food ecosystem of “tomorrow” depends directly on our collective success in nurturing, contributing to, and using the information about our food – today.

Food Ecosystem: Time to disruptively innovate

datafoodTwo decades ago, nobody thought that Amazon would change the way consumer products are sold.  Starting with books, they reinvented the entire supply chain and fulfillment infrastructure of everything to be sold online. But more importantly they empowered their customers with a lot of relevant information by making it easily accessible and trustworthy. For the first time the consumer believed that they were making well informed purchasing decisions without requesting cryptic brochures from manufacturers. And this was a disruption to the prevailing wisdom of keeping the customer in the dark and instead inundate them with carefully crafted and sugar laced marketing messages.

Food and agriculture goes to the heart of our civilizations. Religions, cultures and even modern civilization have food and agriculture at their core, and sadly, we are still in Middle Ages in implementing the science, art and best practices for such an important human need.  While most of Africa and Asia is malnourished, 40% of food produced in US is wasted from field to plate. The time is right to rethink how to effectively and sustainably feed our hungry planet, as the perfect storm of depleting natural resources, increasing population and global warming is forcing the global challenge of planning, production, distribution and right pricing of food on all of us. The food ecosystem needs an Amazon, or a Google of Food and Agriculture.

Before the futurists and technologists jump into making 21st Century food production data and technology driven, there is a more basic question to ask. Why has this not happened yet? After all, Agribusiness and its ecosystem represents 17% of US economy and the government and private businesses have been investing in precision agriculture and farming practices for a long time. Why is the ecosystem not driven by useful and accurate data? When we looked at this question closely and talked to the folks on the ground, we realized that technology and the data that it generates, is more of a cost than a solution to the growers of our food, and they are the prime producers of the basic data for the industry. They are proud and self-reliant folks who love what they do. They are sincerely concerned about the perfect storm. But they are also, not so thrilled about paying for the entire cost to capture, manage and report the data that brings efficiencies to others, but to them brings regulatory, reporting and governance requirements.

We propose a disruption where data generated from the fields combined with other private and public data from the entire industry and markets becomes an asset to the grower instead of a liability. What if it can make their field operations more efficient and less expensive? How about bringing their crop to market just at the right time? What if they could easily fulfill their reporting requirements without touching a spreadsheet?  And apply right inputs to their fields based on up to date knowledge of their efficacy. We propose a disruption where right information at the right time in the right context is as easily available to our growers as it will to the processors, retailers, planners or the financial markets, and they all value and invest in this information together. We believe in the disruption of data democratization, where knowledge derived from this data is a trusted friend to our food providers, and not a tool to control them.