Traditionally, farmers relied on weather forecasts and their own intuition when making decisions about when to plant and harvest. These days, the most advanced farms have in-field sensing equipment and data-analysis capabilities, so farmers can track their crops at all times.
Such innovation has allowed U.S. and European farmers to reach maximum potential yields, while minimizing their inputs of seeds, fertilizer and water. But there's still a lot of potential in the developing world, where weather stations can be scarce and farmers still use the finger-in-the-air method.
The latest piece of kit comes from Arable, a startup based in New Jersey and California. It has developed the Pulsepod: a palm-sized round disk that mounts on a stick and contains a wealth of sensors for temperature, humidity, pressure, and rainfall. It can even give a sense of relative crop biomass—how much stuff is growing—using its own spectrometer.
Adam Wolf, inventor of the Pulsepod, sees the $500 device as improving agricultural efficiency and productivity in places that haven't been able to afford precision farming up to now. By giving farmers better data, they can plant, fertilize, and harvest at the right times, he says, and perhaps gain access to better seeds and crop insurance.
"We're at maximum yield potential [in developed countries], but out there in the rest of the world we're only at one third of yield potential," says Wolf, who's also a research agronomist at Princeton University. "That's where the increases are going to happen, but only through improved seeds, which means better access to credit, advice, and insurance."
Wolf says many farmers have difficulty predicting yields because they don't understand the conditions that went into growing their crops. That, in turn, limits their ability to persuade people to invest in them, whether it's in credit to buy seeds, or insurance to cover crop failures. The Pulsepod fills a knowledge gap whereby insurers and lenders begin to feel more confident in overlooked farms' potential.
"There's no data so agronomists can make the best recommendations to farmers. But if insurers and seed companies put these [devices] in the field, that allows them to put in the better seed and make better decisions, and it alleviates that market risk that prevents greater market activity," Wolf says.
Arable has gathered an impressive list of partners on the project, including micro-insurers (which are developing products for world's non-insured), growers like Driscoll's Berries (who is testing the device in California), and the U.S. Agency for International Development. The device is available only to these channel partners this year. It will go on public sale next spring.
In the long-term, Wolf's goal isn't so much hardware as big data. Using the Pulsepods, he wants to build an interactive intelligence bank covering agricultural conditions around the world. Farmers will be able to interact with the system using phone text—say, by asking questions like: "Is it going to rain this week?" The big innovation, ultimately, isn't the sensors. It's the information the sensors provide, and how that can be combined to build up a bigger picture.
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Photos: via Arable