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Why the future of smart farming depends on soil

Tomer Tzach, chief executive of analytics start-up CropX, says a new wave of cost-efficient sensors could help farmers run a much tighter ship by giving them greater understanding of what happens underground.

 

Even after decades of study, there is still much to learn about the dynamics of the soil below our growing crops. Despite technological advances, critical information is still missing for many farmers: soil is tested regularly, yet data is typically isolated to individual farms; farmers are beginning to utilize sensors on their fields, but not at the volume needed to reliably track the variability of the delicate plant soil ecosystem; making matters more complicated, the data stream currently flowing from land to the cloud is often severely lacking.

Unlocking the soil’s secrets 

For too long, soil was simply viewed as a reservoir for water and nutrients and a substrate to support the crops above ground. Many historic cultural practices, such as fumigation to prevent diseases and fertilizer applications to boost growth and keep pests away, inadvertently caused more harm than good by stripping the soil of organic matter and altering the balance of living organisms in the soil. Only recently has the concept of the soil as a living ecosystem been explored. And we’re just beginning to dig below the surface.

The major reason progress has been so slow is the sheer complexity of the soil environment itself. In fact, according to the Environmental Literacy Council, “The diversity and abundance of life that exists within the soil is greater than in any other ecosystem.” The complex interactions between billions of organisms play a critical role in soil quality, plant health and crop yield.

While the study of the soil ecosystem is still in its infancy, new sensing technologies are providing a glimpse of what is possible in the connectivity era. Let’s explore how farmers can benefit from rich, holistic data and powerful analytics that can be used to effectively map the processes affecting soil health and crop growth.

Connecting fields and farms 

Irrigation is the archetypal example of the challenges and opportunities farmers face today. Farmers employing irrigation tools have used moisture sensors for more than 20 years, yet today only 10 percent of farms use these sensors to make irrigation decisions. This is largely due to their prohibitive costs and complexity. Many farmers can only deploy moisture sensors on one or two fields, which results in incomplete data that does not provide a clear picture of the farm’s health and productivity below and above the surface.

A new wave of smaller, more cost-efficient sensors that can easily be deployed out of the box is changing the game for farmers. Armed with this next generation of tools, they can deploy connected sensors across the entire farm that flow to the cloud, automatically crunch and analyze moisture data, and view a complete picture of the water status across the farm via intuitive interfaces. Farmers can now precisely adjust water application in specific areas to maximize production and minimize waste.

Sensor networks tapped into the powerful computing power of the cloud have the potential to revolutionize how crops, and the fields in which they they grow, are managed at a soil-specific level. Beyond moisture levels, connected soil electrical conductivity sensors can also identify issues – such as crop-damaging salts in the soil or an over- or under-abundance of fertilizer, helping the farmer maintain soil health while driving increased yield at lower water, labor and fertilizer costs.

Additionally, inexpensive sensors tracking temperature, humidity and solar radiation can be added to the data stream to provide insight into plant stress responses, while helping to better predict future soil conditions. The same principles can be applied to plant nutrition. Plant nutrient content can be detected using spectrometry, which has recently become much more cost effective and accessible. Comparing this with fertilization practices and soil nutrient content allows for prediction of nutrient stress before it adversely affects plant growth.

The next farming frontier

As soil sensor advancements continue, farmers can expect to see new, complementary tools that can measure things such as biological activity and soil organic matter in the near future. Creating a real-time understanding of the components and needed elements of healthy soil is essential for predicting and preventing issues, improving crop yields and feeding the world’s rapidly growing population. As we dig deeper into the data, the industry is finally starting to recognize the inferiority of data from above the ground – the next farming frontier is below it.