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Innovation Rundown: Agriculture Meets IT In A Big Data Way

Friday is the deadline for U.S.-China trade talks. If they fail and China's 25-percent tariff on soybeans goes into effect, Missouri farmers will feel the impact.
jasonippolito | Flickr
A field of soybean plants in Illinois. Herbicide-resistant soybeans are the subject of one of nine projects Monsanto discussed on a conference call with reporters today. (via Flickr/jasonippolito)

Is there any aspect of life that technology hasn’t touched?

While I’m sure people can cite examples in the non-digital sphere, agriculture is not one of them. It hasn’t been for some time – farmers are adept at using all kinds of technology to monitor weather, pricing, soil content. But a new development is taking the idea to a new level. And St. Louis's own Monsanto seems to be leading the way.

It’s called “Data Farming,” and it involves empowering  livestock, fruit and vegetables with the power of communication. That may be oversimplifying things.  But it’s fun to entertain the idea the way writer Lina Khan does in her article about Data Farming in Salon:

“Imagine cows fed and milked entirely by robots. Or tomatoes that send an e-mail when they need more water. Or a farm where all the decisions about where to plant seeds, spray fertilizer and steer tractors are made by software on servers on the other side of the sea.”

The reality is not quite so sci-fi.

Both Monsanto and John Deere have been scooping up technology companies that allow farmers to share data in near real-time from their farms as they plant and harvest crops. The agriculture companies would theoretically use this data to help farmers manage their land better, thereby producing yields and more nutrient-rich food. But, as the Salon article goes on to say:

“The big question is who exactly will end up owning all this data, and who gets to determine how it is used. On one side stand some of the largest corporations in agriculture, who are racing to gather and put their stamp on as much of this information as they can. Opposing them are farmers’ groups and small open-source technology start-ups, which want to ensure a farm’s data stays in the farmer’s control and serves the farmer’s interests.”

NPR’s Dan Charles has also been looking at the issue of data farming and explored the question: What do farmers get from sharing this information with the big ag corporations? His answer is found in this post on NPR's blog, "The Salt."

Charles describes how from Monsanto's perspective, there's nothing nefarious about data sharing at all:

"Monsanto thinks it can help farmers come up with the perfect prescription of seeds for their soil and weather because the company will have more data than any one farmer can collect or analyze. It will have more detailed soil maps and information from many other fields with similar soil conditions."

For us denizens of the bi-state area, the success of agriculture’s latest intersection with high tech isn’t only interesting because of Monsanto’s investments. It also points the way for opportunities for St. Louis’ much touted burgeoning technology industry. Last week, the technophiles were all aflutter because Dice named St. Louis as one of the toughest places to recruit talent for IT jobs.  This could be taken one of two ways.  The pessimists could say that it's tough to recruit people because you're asking them to move to the Midwest. The optimists, including the St. Louis Business Journal, say it's tough because the industry is growing so fast that demand for IT workers is outpacing supply.

The optimists might be onto something.

And last month, the Los Angeles Times profiled one IT entrepreneur who is trading in over-priced San Francisco for imminently affordable St. Louis.  But it wasn’t just the cost of living that drew the entrepreneur…although that may have been a big part of it:

“He says St. Louis is a vibrant city with an up-and-coming startup scene at a much more reasonable cost of living,” the story reads.

St. Louis has long been working to build its reputation as the bio-tech center of America. (Does anyone still call it the “Bio Belt”?) And with the development of a robust high-tech sector, it does make one wonder what the physical convergence of these two will spawn.

Maria Altman contributed information to this story. You can follow Maria on Twitter @radioaltman.

Shula is the executive editor at St. Louis Public Radio.

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