An IT Platform For Agriculture

To avoid pest-related yield loss, growers and other stakeholders in crop production need timely and geographically relevant information.

By Moneen M. Jones
and Joseph M. Russo

Food security refers to the conditions under which individuals have access to sufficient amounts of nutritious, safe and culturally appropriate foods that are produced in environmentally sustainable and socially just ways.

On a national scale, food security can be threatened by war, economic collapse, social upheaval and extreme weather events, such as a widespread drought. On a regional scale, risks to food security tend to be more subtle, such as a shortage of a critical resource or a disruption of a distribution channel. In agriculture, food security is synonymous with sustained crop production.

While a crop failure gets headlines, food security is more likely to be negatively impacted by incremental, non-catastrophic situations. Important among these situations is yield loss due to invasive, endemic pests.

To avoid pest-related yield loss, growers and other stakeholders in crop production need timely and geographically relevant information. This information can be in the form of weather observations and forecasts, crop conditions, pest alerts and management guidelines. This article is the first of a twopart series that introduces a reader to today’s information technologies and how they can be harnessed to support the information demands of integrated pest management (IPM) and food security. Part two of this article will appear in Cotton Farming and be posted on www.soybeansouth.com in June.

Information technology (IT) is the use of computers and communication equipment to collect, store, analyze and distribute information in a desired form for the purpose of gaining knowledge, supporting a decision or taking some action. The most popular form of information is data. Figuratively, we can view the computers and communication equipment as pipes and data as the fluid moving through them. With each technological advance, the pipes get bigger and more efficient at moving data as the fluid.

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The result is a steady increase year-by-year in the flow of data. The flow has become so voluminous that a single person today has neither the time nor the skills to process and interpret data for decision making. When the flow of data is overwhelming, people cherry pick facts and ultimately begin to make poor decisions. The flow of data is only one of many challenges in information technology.

Organize Data to Discover Patterns
A second IT challenge is the space and time nature of data. We are able to recall that some phenomenon was observed (e.g. insect) at a place (e.g. on a plant in an agricultural field) and at a time (e.g. 3:00 pm EDT). By making repetitive observations over a period at one location, we can create a “time series” of data. By analyzing this time series, we can discover patterns, which allow us to predict future behavior of an observed phenomenon.

The space and time nature of data becomes a challenge when there are different data sets. It quickly becomes very difficult to analyze two data sets taken at different locations and at different times. This difficulty is easily understood with the example of weather data.

Let’s assume we have two weather stations at different locations far from an agricultural field. Which one would best represent the weather conditions at the field? One would guess the closer of the two stations to the field would be most representative of its weather conditions. But what if the closer station is on the side of a hill and the farther one is on flat land like the agricultural field? Would the weather conditions at the farther station be more representative of the agricultural field because of topography than the closer station?

To complicate things further, what if one station took observations four times a day and the other station made observations twice a day? Would we choose the station with the higher frequency of observations regardless of its location?

Let’s make things even more interesting by taking into account the landscape surrounding the stations. What if one station is more open (not close to structures or trees) versus the other station? Is the weather station with a more open landscape a better choice over the other station? Clearly, data sets from different locations and times present a challenge that must be considered when making a decision.

Unshared Data Lost Over Time
The third IT challenge has more to do with human nature. All through history, the collection and analysis of data was for the most part a personal adventure. Individuals would survey their physical surroundings and look for patterns in nature.

Making observations in the field and identifying repeatable patterns was the basis for the scientific method. One shortcoming is that observations were rarely shared with others. From the earliest days when naturalists made surveys, there has been a steady increase in depositories of unshared observations. Today, we call these depositories “data silos.” The real tragedy of data silos is that most of the unshared data is lost over time. Besides the added expense and time to replace lost data, there is the irretrievable value of its legacy.

The challenges in information technology are magnified in agriculture. A grower must deal with both the physical and biological properties in a field setting when raising a crop, keeping track of the weather, soil conditions, crop development and growth and the presence of pests. A grower must make decisions on when to perform tillage, plant seed, apply fertilizers and spray pesticides among the many production practices.

Each practice requires timely information that is specific to a field and in a form that can be easily understood by a grower. In summary, whatever information technology solution is presented to a grower, its data and other forms of information must be comprehensive, integrated, accessible, understandable and specific for a particular field, crop and set of management practices.

In the second part of this series of articles, we will introduce an IT solution that is in the form of a “platform.” An IT platform utilizes computers, communication equipment and mobile devices, along with software tools and applications so that a grower can access data and other forms of information in an easy and timely manner for field-level decision making. It allows all agricultural stakeholders to share data and contribute to the generation of products that promote integrated pest management (IPM) and ensure national food security.

In a nutshell, an IT platform is the solution for overcoming the three IT challenges discussed in this article. It is also a means by which information can make a grower productive, profitable and sustainable.

Dr. Moneen M. Jones is Research Assistant Professor, Entomology, Fisher Delta Research Center, Portageville, Mo. Dr. Joseph M. Russo, President, ZedX, Inc. has been dedicated to bringing IT solutions to the agricultural industry for over 25 years.