Israeli big data teaches farmers a cup of joe means better crops

Number crunchers give growers inside tips on how to be more productive – and make more money

Illustrative photo of cows. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)
Illustrative photo of cows. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)

Big data isn’t just for cybersecurity or mobile app developers. Farmers, too, can use it to increase their productivity, believes Ron Shani, CEO of ag-tech big data firm AKOL (Agricultural Knowledge Online).

“Our platform lets users see exactly what to do to take care of crops, when to do it, and how much of it to do, in order to get the best results from their fields” – even if the thing they need to do is to drink a piping hot cup of coffee in the morning, said Shani.

“For example,” said Shani, “we discovered that for farmers in Serbia, there was a definite connection between drinking coffee and farm productivity – that farmers who did not drink coffee first thing in the morning were not as productive as those who did.”

Chinese agricultural authorities signed a deal last month with AKOL to use its “agricultural cloud” technology for fish farms. The AKOL system allows fish farmer operators to access in-depth information, gathered via sensors and analyzed on the system’s servers, that instructs them when to clean pools, how much and when to feed fish, etc.

The fish data gathering and analysis system is just one of several that AKOL supplies to farmers involved in many agricultural pursuits, such as growing grapes and grains and raising fish, chickens, cows and bees. Chinese fish ponds are just the latest in a long line of customers for AKOL. The company has done extensive work in China as well as in Europe, the US, and Israel, where customers include dairies, wineries, cattle breeders and chicken growers, and numerous kibbutz and moshav crop growers.

To use AKOL, sensors are placed on trees, vines, and fields, or attached to cows, milking systems, feed bins, and any other appropriate host, where data is recorded about the environment, temperature and humidity, how much animals are eating, activity among animals, soil conditions for plants, the level of pests in an area, and much more.

That data is then analyzed and compared to guidelines for ideal production under the circumstances, with specific instructions sent back to farmers. For example, the system might instruct dairy farmers to increase the amount of liquids they give their cows on a very hot day in order to ensure that cows produce as much milk as possible, or to provide them with a specific mix of feed in order to make them less attractive to pests or bacteria that may be in the environment. The SAAS (software as a service) system is cloud-based, using Microsoft Azure technology.

Besides the raw data about growing and environmental conditions, AKOL’s systems take into account cultural issues as well, and analyze the way people in specific areas work. That’s where the coffee recommendation came from. “Now, of course,” said Shani, “our Serbian customers ensure that their farmhands have a good, strong cup of coffee before going out into the fields to work the wheat and maize fields. There is no way that a connection like this could have been made before the age of big data, and AKOL is the only system in the world that has algorithms for this kind of cultural analysis.”

AKOL’s isn’t the only big data system for agriculture, dairy, or livestock farming, but it is one of the few aimed not at big corporations but at small farmers, said Shani. “We price our services very reasonably. We also make the system as simple as possible, with the interface on smartphones, making it easy for farmers in the field to access information. It’s like a control room for farmers, with the system keeping track of all the details farmers need to succeed.”

Access to precision data is very useful for farmers who export their products, especially to the European Union. As agribusiness has gone global, questions have arisen about the provenance of commodities shipped from the far corners of the globe. Differing standards on the amount of pesticides used on crops, the kind of feed or fertilizer given to animals and plants, the way cows are milked or egg-laying hens are warehoused, as well as whether child or slave labor was used to pick crops or produce milk or eggs, has led to a great deal of confusion in the commodities market.

Many countries, especially in the EU, have adopted strict laws about how animals can be treated. For example, eggs sold in EU countries cannot come from chickens that have been raised in small cages; in some countries, like Sweden, it’s illegal to sell eggs that don’t come from free-range chickens.

With everything pertaining to their chickens recorded in AKOL’s database, however, egg farms can show that they comply with the international standards (called GAP, for Good Agricultural Practices) that have been adopted by many EU supermarkets.

“In order to comply with GAP’s stringent requirements, an ‘ID card’ of sorts must be constructed for each crop, that includes its entire history to date,” said Shani. “The best way to achieve this is to use computerized information systems that enable not only control of all the processes, but also enable full and accurate documentation of all the growing, packaging and delivery stages. Customers who use AKOL’s systems benefit from the generation of reports that enable them to meet the GAP Standards.”

How do farmers – usually a very independent breed – take to being micromanaged in this way, down to their cup of coffee?

“That’s actually been a bit of an issue,” said Shani. “It takes some effort to convince farmers that this is a good idea for them, and we usually don’t go full-force into a market; rather, we set up a test project on a farm as a demonstration and invite farmers to observe. When they see how much more productive those farms are, and realize how much more money they can make using our system, they are more than happy to join our ‘data collective.’”

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