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November 19, 2019

Digital Agriculture Program Yields Promising Prospects

Elizabeth Leake

(Photo courtesy Darrell Hoemann)

The Center for Digital Agriculture (CDA) was initiated one year ago with a $2 million investment from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC). Its official kick-off was held back-to-back with the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) Industry Conference, October 7-10, 2019.

The Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) of the United Nations’ 2018 report was titled, “The state of food insecurity and nutrition in the world; building climate resilience for food security and nutrition.” In this report, FAO states that climate shocks were one of the leading reasons for food insecurity in 2017; one out of every nine people around the world—or 821 million—were undernourished. Despite improvements in overall global health and wealth, due to population growth and climatic events in certain regions, the number who suffer from malnutrition has increased to levels of a decade ago. Such events triggered crop failure, social instability, mass migrations and conflict.

According to CDA Co-Director Matthew Hudson (College of Agriculture, Consumer and Environmental Sciences (ACES); Crop Science), Illinois formed CDA to foster innovation and discovery that will “help agricultural producers, researchers, and industries keep pace with the ways technology is transforming how we feed and support a growing population.”

ACES Dean Kim Kidwell delivered opening remarks. “As a land grant university with a rich history of agricultural excellence, UIUC is well positioned to be a leader in the field of digital agriculture,” she said.

Matthew Hudson (CS) Co-Directs CDA (Photo courtesy Darrell Hoemann)

“Today’s students are extremely interested in using high-tech to solve global, grand challenges, and it’s our job to empower them,” said Kidwell. Working closely with the UIUC Grainger College of Engineering (GCOE)—which makes UIUC the most cited university for engineering excellence—UIUC Computer Science (CS), Crop and Animal Sciences departments are sponsoring two new Bachelor of Science degrees in CS, with crop and animal science emphases which are the first of their kind in the nation. Online continuing education courses on focused topics, such as blockchain, cloud, genomics and breeding will serve nontraditional students. CDA is helping to develop a new graduate program in Digital Agriculture will offer asynchronous, online courses so that it’s easier for working professionals to pursue an advanced degree, no matter where they live.

Since March, $500,000 has been awarded in the form of 13 seed grants helping 40 faculty members support multidisciplinary research spanning agricultural, biological, food, consumer, economic, and environmental science along with computer science, electrical, civil, mechanical and other engineering disciplines. “Research supported by these grants has reached Africa, and beyond, giving CDA a global footprint,” she added. A second round of seed grant funding is on the horizon; proposals are due January 26, 2020.

Vikram Adve (GCOE, CS) Co-Directs CDA (Photo courtesy Darrell Hoemann)

Co-cultivating this endeavor with NCSA Industry will foster more applied research, internship opportunities and startups. “Students who have entrepreneurial interest and aptitude will be encouraged and motivated by industry mentors,” she said, and presented CDA’s development goals, which include a digital farm infrastructure and Data Collaboratory at NCSA where CDA stakeholders will have access to compute resources, storage and expertise. Industry partners will also have greater access to the student talent pool.

The center’s mission and vision were shared by Vikram Adve (GCOE, CS) and Hudson who co-direct the CDA. They hope campus and industry will work together to identify and resolve “moonshot challenges.” Four broad themes underly CDA, including automation, data, crops/animals, and people in agriculture, which includes a robust outreach effort that will work with agricultural extension offices to reach those who work in production.

“The people who produce the food, feed, fuel and fiber we need to survive are communities that computational scientists don’t always think about,” said Adve. “UIUC is better than most; we’ve mastered all things interdisciplinary, and have extensive experience in digital ag, but silos still exist; CDA will foster greater translational science and community building,” he added.

Adve and Hudson assigned homework to conference attendees who were presented with seven questions relating to their workforce training needs. During breaks, they were encouraged to talk to CDA personnel about their goals, and to convey a technical challenge of importance that, when solved, would help their company succeed.

Agriculture’s Paradox: Produce Vs. Preserve

Conference Keynote Sam Eathington (Chief Science Officer, The Climate Corporation) is originally from Avon, Illinois in Fulton County, and earned his bachelors, masters and PhD at UIUC in Agronomy, Soybean Breeding/Genetics and Quantitative Genetics/Maize Breeding, respectively.

Eathington worked for Monsanto for 20 of his 25-year career before joining The Climate Corporation in 2015 (acquired by Monsanto in 2013); a digital agriculture company that, according to its website, “examines weather, soil and field data to help farmers determine potential yield-limiting factors in their fields.”

“As an undergrad, I once wanted to change my major from plant to computer science, but my farmer-father discouraged me,” he said. In the 1980’s, farmers weren’t sure whether or not computer scientists would be able to find jobs, but an agronomy degree from UIUC has always been the gold standard among Illinois farmers.

Eathington’s brothers still operate the family farm. “For decades, we used to run equipment over every acre of every field nine or ten times to plant and manage our crop. Today, my brothers make about four passes across the field,” he said.

His work at The Climate Corporation involves turning data into actionable insights and making it easier for farmers to embrace the technology that’s available to them. Farming best practices seldom fully account for variability within fields; they’re wetter near a water source, and drier on a ridge. There might be zones with different soil types that respond differently to moisture and inputs. Historically, production was managed formulaically and often at a constant rate; farmers applied the same inputs to each acre. Despite having hundreds of hybrids to choose from, farmers would stick with a few year after year.

Sam Eathington (Chief Science Officer; The Climate Corporation) (Photo courtesy Darrell Hoemann)

But digital agriculture allows farmers to make targeted decisions by location. This practice requires data that are accessible and served in the most meaningful ways. Eathington provided an overview of several data-driven applications The Climate Corporation features that help farmers make better decisions.

Climate FieldView is the leading digital farming software platform. The FieldView Drive device mounts directly on farm implements so data are collected as the fields are worked. Historical data can be added, and everything is accessible via the FieldView app.

With FieldView Seed Advisor, a new tool in pre-commercial development, advanced algorithms recommend which hybrid is appropriate for each location.  “A farmer south of Springfield, Illinois was our first pilot for Seed Advisor,” said Eathington. “It was their fields, and their management practices; we basically said, you pick what hybrids you want to plant on your field, and we’ll run our algorithms. Anywhere there’s a difference, we’ll run a head-to-head trial and test it,” he said.

They were extremely cautious in year one, only allocating a small percentage of their farm for the pilot. But when the first year saw a six bushel per acre advantage, they allocated 85% for year two. Now they use Seed Advisor on 100% of their farm.

In addition to algorithms for seed selection, digital farming insights can also help better manage new crop phenotypes, like Bayer CropScience’s new short-stature corn that’s currently in development. It is short enough to allow in-season access to feeding and managing the crop. One big farming challenge is knowing how much nitrogen to use when planting since it’s impossible to know what the year will bring. “Now you’re giving farmers a tool that lets them feed the crop more efficiently,” Eathington said. “Every farmer out there would say, ‘Yeah, I’d gladly take back that 25 bucks an acre spent on nitrogen if I had the tools and confidence to do so.’”

“But it’s not all about producing more – it’s how you produce and preserve,” Eathington said. “Where are the parts of the field that you don’t make a return on your investment – we all have them.” Most farms have marginal acreage that shouldn’t be cultivated; whether it has an increased risk for erosion, or it’s more expensive to farm than it’s worth.

For such areas, The Climate Corporation has a partnership with Pheasants Forever; they work with farmers to increase the natural habitat for ground-nesting birds and pollinators. A farmer can opt to have their data analyzed to determine where there’s low productivity areas year after year and if the habitat and surrounding structure is suitable for wildlife.

The Climate Corporation is exploring how to get digital tools into the hands of small-holder farmers who represent around 90% of farmers around the world. The company’s Farmrise application currently supports more than four million farmers in India and focuses on real-time mobile access to information like agronomic insights and commodity prices. Eathington noted the 2018 African average yield for maize was 29 bushels per acre, where the 2018 yield award in the U.S., according to the National Corn Growers Association, recognized 478 bushels per acre. The Climate Corporation currently has a service, research and development footprint in 25 countries.

Following Eathington’s keynote, NCSA Industry Director Brendan McGinty introduced the balance of the program. Lightening talks, case studies, and break-out sessions offered attendees ample time for face-to-face interaction with industry representatives, UIUC researchers and NCSA technical personnel.

Seven agricultural industry representatives presented 7-10 minute lightening talks, including: David Potere, Head of GeoInnovation, Indigo Ag; Steven Valencsin, CEO and Founder, Growers; Justin Welch, Digital Product Manager, Syngenta; Mark Moran, Director, John Deere Technology Innovation Center; Landon Frye, Director, Acre Value; Brian Williams, Vice President Business Development and Marketing, Buhler Inc.; Blake Giles, University Innovation Center Lead, Bayer Crop Science; and Robert Smith, Regional Sales Manager, CNH Inc.

Four agricultural industry case-studies were presented by Hendrik Hamman, Senior Manager, IBM Watson Research Center; Matthew Wong, Director, Fuse Product Strategy, AGCO Corporation; Claudia Roessler, Director, Agriculture Strategic Projects, Azure Global Engineering, Microsoft Corporation; and Tyler Deutsch, Global Data Science Lead, Cargill.

Nine UIUC faculty papers were selected and the authors were invited to deliver 7-10 minute lightening talks, including: Kaiyu Guan, Natural Resources and Environmental Science; Praveen Kumar, Civil and Environmental Engineering; Angela Green-Miller, Agricultural and Biological Engineering; Kevin Xie, Plant Biology; Adam Davis, Crop Sciences; Kathrine Driggs-Campbell, Electrical and Computer Engineering; Girish Chowdhary, Agricultural and Biological Engineering; Amy Marshall-Colon, Plant Biology; and Rodney Johnson, Animal Sciences.

(Photo courtesy Darrell Hoemann)

Several noted that when it comes to farmers adopting digital agriculture applications, cultural barriers are far steeper than technical ones. While the availability of technology has increased, long-standing best practices are difficult to influence, and trust is hard to gain. With dozens of apps on the market, farmers are faced with a time-consuming task trying to decide which ones to explore. One presenter noted that a farmer he knows uses 14 different applications, “but most just want the process to be simplified; a set of bullet points to advise what is needed on their farm,” he said.

But not all farmers are alike. What works for small-holder farms isn’t necessarily useful for those who farm 50,000 acres, for example. Being precise takes more time than they can spend since they have so much ground to cover. They prefer over-arching recommendations.

Most farmers don’t want or need ‘pretty pictures’ or complex interfaces that take time to load. This is especially true where bandwidth is weak, which describes the majority of rural regions. Farmers are in competition with their neighbors, in a sense, so they don’t want their data contributed to a regional comparative map. They want help making decisions, but they don’t want to be told they’re wrong and the product manufacturer is right.

This was the inaugural Industry Conference for the UIUC-CDA. Watch their website for future updates, and plan to join us next year!

About the Author:  HPCwire Contributing Editor Elizabeth Leake is a consultant, correspondent and advocate who serves the global high performance computing (HPC) and data science industries. In 2012, she founded STEM-Trek, a global, grassroots nonprofit organization that supports workforce development opportunities for science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) scholars from underserved regions and underrepresented groups.

As a program director, Leake has mentored hundreds of early-career professionals who are breaking cultural barriers in an effort to accelerate scientific and engineering discoveries. Her multinational programs have specific themes that resonate with global stakeholders, such as food security data science, blockchain for social good, cybersecurity/risk mitigation, and more. As a conference blogger and communicator, her work drew recognition when STEM-Trek received the 2016 and 2017 HPCwire Editors’ Choice Awards for Workforce Diversity Leadership.

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