For centuries, farmers have used various coverings to physically protect crops from weather inconsistencies. The technology used to cover crops has evolved, but the motivation remains the same: weather changes are risky for high-value vegetable crops. Freezes, droughts, floods, and other weather events all cause yield dips and production inconsistencies. So just as I insure my apartment against fire, farmers invest in technologies that minimize crop loss.
Climate control is an insurance policy.
The industry has moved beyond just structural innovation to protect crops. In recent years, we’ve seen a rise in investment in hardware technologies to control indoor climates and create ideal growing conditions.
Until recently, climate control technology has largely been unaffected by software innovation. Those worlds are now beginning to collide. This collision of hardware and software innovation means farmers can begin to look beyond just de-risking revenue and toward guaranteeing it. This is Digital Horticulture.
Here are some of the things I’m most excited about when it comes to Digital Horticulture:
Information moving online
Farms continuing to rely on paper record-keeping will fail. Food safety is becoming one of the primary drivers in consumer purchasing. People want to know what they’re eating and they don’t want to get sick from eating it.
Most farms, however, are not tracking farm processes online yet. They rely on paper checklists, dusty binders, and outside consultants to help meet compliance requirements. This manual process is prone to errors and incompletion.
Online data means better transparency, easier compliance for farms, and consistently enforced security protocols.
Digital crop tracking also opens the doors to higher farm operational efficiencies. By storing farm information online, farmers begin to have access to tools that have transformed other industries: business intelligence, analytics and reporting, and even blockchain. It’s not inconceivable to think farmers could be asking Alexa to report on their daily yields soon.
Most commercial indoor farms have a control system. Control systems up until now have largely served a single purpose: receive a set point from a grower and turn devices on/off to maintain that set point. The system usually contains a limited number of sensors (largely monitoring: light, temperature, humidity, and CO2) and a computer where the data is housed and the controls are managed.
This is an antiquated approach to control. Accepting data from limited sensors gives farmers only a small picture of what’s happening on the farm. Storing that data in one place is useless beyond its one function. Basing decisions off of human knowledge as opposed to situational is sub-optimal, at best.
In order for farms to move beyond control as a simple risk management strategy and use control as a profit driver, control devices have to become connected so all farm inputs can interact. Control companies will be successful if they open up their APIs and work with both data as well as other sensing technologies.
The definition of control is expanding. Instead only using lights to light a greenhouse, companies can attach cameras and sensors to the devices, giving a broader range of sensing capabilities. Instead of a control system just flicking on or off a light, imagine being able to fine tune wavelengths to adjust based on a plant’s specific need. Or adjusting lights to not just hit a specific amount of light, but also to give a plant an optimal amount light based on the cost of delivering that light. This is all on the horizon.
As information moves online and devices become connected, the definition of control for farms is expanding. Control becomes not just about protecting revenue, but also a tool for driving higher profit margins. Legacy technology companies in the space who evolve into Digital Horticulture will be successful, as will the farms who adopt these new technologies.