The farmers of the Corn Belt must feel like the victims of a biblical prophecy.
In the last six years, they have fallen foul of a series of freak events that have caused many to leave and seek kinder pastures elsewhere.
First came the droughts…
In 2012, while farmers across the US planted the most corn in the country since 1937, farmers in the Corn Belt watched as harvests withered to gray stalks that barely reached waist height.
Then came rainfall…
As the rest of the world has warmed, the region’s summer temperatures dropped as much as a full degree Celsius, and rainfall increased up to 35%, the largest spike anywhere in the world.
And now the pests…
This week a report in the journal Science by scientists at the University of Washington has warned that rising global temperatures and extreme weather events will accelerate rates of crop loss due to a frenzy 0f ravenous insects.
“This will happen for two reasons,” according to professor Curtis Deutsch, who led the study.
“First, warmer temperatures will increase insect metabolic rates exponentially. Second, warmer temperatures will increase the reproductive rates of insects. You have more insects, and they’re eating more.
This activity will boost losses of rice, corn and wheat by 10-25 percent for each degree Celsius that global mean surface temperatures rise.”
The 3 Great Pressures On Farming
This week, many in the US are bracing themselves for Hurricane Florence, which as I write, is barrelling it ways towards South Carolina.
At least 1 million people have already ordered to evacuate.
But farmers have been fighting these extreme weather events for years.
And even the most sophisticated farmers are struggling to cope with the vagaries of the climate.
In the Corn Belt, many farmers have already migrated north in the hope of a more temperate life.
Corn acreage in Manitoba, a Canadian province about 700 miles north of Kansas, has nearly doubled over the past decade due to weather changes and higher prices.
And these migrations are happening in China, India, Russia…
The pressures on agriculture right now are enormous…
- Pressure #1: Shifting climates. There is a growing scarcity of land with a climate stable enough to sustain profitable farming. Over the next ten years, we will see the whole Corn Belt move north as farmers seek more temperate climates. The new pastures: Alaska, Saskatchewan, Russia.
- Pressure #2: Water scarcity. The water table is falling across much of India and China, with people having to drill a mile down to reach aquifers that are quickly depleting.
- Pressure #3: Meat eaters. The population of the planet is forecast to swell to 9 billion by 2050, and with a growing middle class seeking meat for protein, there will be vast tracts of land given over to gas-erupting cattle. More than 60 billion land animals are currently required to supply the demands of six billion people for meat and leather. Farming those animals requires 38% of all ice-free land, 8% of global water and emits 14% of all greenhouse gases.
This is part of the reason why crop yields have flat lined over the last decade…
It’s also why farmers have been investing heavily in technology that helps them deal with all this turmoil.
Take the example of Climate Corporation…
The Astrophysicist Who Mapped 50 Million Acres of US Farmland
No other company has done more to relieve stress for US farmers in the last few years.
The company was started by David Friedberg, a former astrophysicist who was working at Google when he had a revelation about agriculture.
It was Friedberg’s job to study weather patterns.
He would create complex simulations of weather events and then feed that information to companies looking to insure themselves against the vagaries of climate change.
It was the farmers that fascinated him.
Ten years before, less than 10% of farmers had mobile phones or used the internet.
Now they were rapidly adapting to tech.
And Friedberg had access to vast troves of information — rainfall, temperatures, soil types, weather, hydration — that could be useful to them.
He read about a farmer in Georgia who got a 503-bushel-per-acre corn crop by using the right amount of nitrogen, with the right type of soil at the right time.
That was an insane crop.
The average in the US in 2014 was 174 bushels per acre.
He recognised that by collecting data on what’s happening in the atmosphere – from satellites and drones – and combing it with data from the ground – from phones, tractors, machinery – you could circulate invaluable information to farmers.
Climate Corp started by profiling weather conditions across the Corn Belt and offering farmers targeted insurance against climate change.
Then he started doing aeriel and terestrial surveys, collecting data on every other variable: eight years’ worth of soil, moisture, precipitation records for 50 million acres of US farmland.
The data was fed to the company’s algorithms, which then generated ten thousand daily weather scenarios for each plot.
Farmers recieved individualised maps for corn, soybean, and wheat farmers covering major perils like drought, heat stress, and the risk of an early freeze.
Climate Corp was bought by Monsanto in 2013 for $930m, which was in turn bought out by agri-giant Bayer in a $63 billion deal.
And the “precision agriculture” story has gathered pace since then.
Blue River is another example.
The company’s LettuceBot rolls through fields, photographing thousands of plants per minute, using artificial intelligence to identify each sprouting plant as either a lettuce or a weed.
With a resolution of one quarter of an inch, it then sprays any nascent weed with a highly targeted dose of herbicide.
If the machine identifies two lettuce plants that are too close to one another, it is capable of understanding that and spraying one of them to kill it off.
The market for “precision agriculture” is set to grow 11% a year between 2015-2020 according to Markets and Markets, taking it quite possibly to an $8 billion annual affair by 2022.
Trimble UX5: 180 acres of infrared spectrum
So you may want to look at Trimble Navigation (Nasdaq: TRMB), which has been supplying farmers with GPS receivers, laser range finders, drones and real-time software processing tools to great success.
Take the UX5, a 5.5 pound, 40 inch wingspan drone, which runs on a lithium-ion battery, an electric motor and a pre-programmed flight plan.
It is launched via a hand torqued launcher and lands in a confined space on the basis of reverse thrust, once the user has triggered the landing sequence.
It can accomplish 180 acres of near infrared spectrum imaging at one-inch resolution in a single flight to detect pests, weeds, mineral deficiencies.
These drones are an invaluable new piece of machinery for stressed farmers.
They cover huge tracks of land, creating sensitive maps that allow the famers to see their lands and crops in hyper detail.
They connect atmosphere, to land, to machinery to farming inputs in a way that is reinvent farming.
There is a huge market here.
About 45% of the world’s labour is in farming.
And with vast tracts of land being exposed to water and climate stresses, farm drones could play a key role in helping farmers adapt to enormously difficult conditions.
Trimble has also had plenty of success with its TDC 100 – a rugged hand-held GPS data collector-cum-smartphone for field workers.
Trimble seems to be a stand out in this field, not least in the quality of its alliances, which includes John Deere,
Trimble is a big company – with about 30-40% of it’s business coming from precision agriculture.
But it looks a potential take over target in a field where there are relatively small number of trusted specialists.