Growing Returns

How John Deere and Cornell can ensure big data benefits farmers and the environment

John Deere combine harvesting soybeans.

5 gigabytes of data is the equivalent of up to 1.6 million emails. (Photo credit: Flickr user Judd McCullum)

Modern farm equipment comes more outfitted than a fully loaded car. These precision farming machines are furnished with multiple sensors that collect data during planting, nutrient application and harvest. A typical farmer now has 5 gigabytes of data, five seasons’ worth, in storage.

This trove of data promises to revolutionize farming, giving farmers unparalleled insights for business and stewardship decisions. Unfortunately, the data collected tends to stay on equipment hard drives, greatly reducing its usefulness to farmers.

A new partnership between John Deere and Cornell University promises to change that. Ag-Analytics, a Cornell data platform, syncs with John Deere’s Operation Center and makes it easier than ever for farmers to access and analyze farm data. Cornell is the first university to integrate with John Deere, and the analytical tools now available to farmers include a crop insurance estimator and yield and risk management forecasts. Read More »

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These farmers sparked agricultural carbon markets across the U.S.

Rice held by Jim Whitaker of Whitaker Farms

Rice held by Jim Whitaker of Whitaker Farms. Credit: Adam Jahiel.

I want to tell you a story about a handful of growers whose commitment to sustainability and desire to innovate inspired an ag carbon credit movement.

Today, the first ever carbon credits generated from rice farmers were sold to Microsoft, all because of a handful of pioneers who tested out a radical idea – that by implementing conservation methods on their crops, farmers could reduce methane emissions and thereby generate a carbon credit that could be later be sold on the carbon market. Not to mention the fact that these farmers also reduced water use by as much as 30 percent. Read More »

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Measuring methane emissions from cows is elusive, but we’re getting closer

Cows cause high methane gas emissions

Photo credit: aleks.k

Americans’ fondness for milk, yogurt, cheese and juicy burgers requires a huge livestock industry, with nearly 90 million head of cattle in the U.S. in any one year. All those cows mean significant methane emissions.

With estimates from the United Nations that methane accounts for 44 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions from livestock production, and new determination – including legislation in California – to reduce methane emissions from farms, we need to figure out how to quantify and then reduce those emissions.

Yet measuring methane emissions has been an elusive science. Methane is a colorless, odorless gas that packs a powerful punch: Methane has 84 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide in the short term. Read More »

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How agriculture can help drive a low-carbon economy

Reducing methane emissions from cows is a step in the right directionThe White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) recently released an intriguing report on how the United States can transition to a low-carbon economy by 2050 while continuing economic growth. The report gives a starring role in this job to agricultural lands.

Mid-Century Strategy for Deep Decarbonization” outlines a 3-pronged strategy for reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent while accelerating job-creating innovation. Calling each strategy “critical,” CEQ first lists the familiar call to transition to renewable and low carbon forms of energy.

The second key strategy, however, is less often discussed: the potential of cropland and grassland soils, as well as forests, to store and sequester hundreds of millions of tons of CO2 annually. The report – informed by decades of scientific research – describes the opportunities to explore in this area. Read More »

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Why collaboration between ag equipment and tech companies is a good thing for the environment

Binary codeIn order for the agriculture sector to deliver on the growing demand for sustainable grain and participate in emerging carbon markets, growers need a way to demonstrate that their management practices are benefiting the environment.

Scientists have identified multiple practices that farmers can implement to maximize yield while minimizing impacts to air and water. Meanwhile, companies such as Trimble Ag, John Deere, SST Software, and countless others have developed a wide array of sensing tools and data collection methodologies to calculate and monitor the environmental benefits of these practices.

Yet as one might expect in any emerging market, the tools aren’t fully communicating with each other, thereby limiting their true potential.

The good news is that the makers of these technologies have started collaborating with agricultural practitioners to make their systems more compatible. Even in this fragmented industry, companies are starting to work together to streamline data collection – and this has enormous implications for sustainability.

Here’s why. Read More »

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A reality check on the drones boom

A drone flies over a farm field. Photo credit: Flickr user ackab1

A drone flies over a farm field with an on-board camera. Photo credit: Flickr user ackab1

Last week, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) released much anticipated rules on commercial small drone use. In a nutshell:

  • The rules loosen restrictions on commercial drone use, and later this summer the FAA will start legally allowing permits for drones weighing less than 55 pounds.
  • The rules are a boon to producers and ranchers interested in precision farming practices, thanks to drones’ advanced imaging technologies.

Industry groups estimate that precision agriculture has the potential to account for almost 80 percent of civilian drone use by 2020. Already, 16 percent of agricultural retailers are selling drones – a figure set to skyrocket in the coming years.

So this is big news for the ag industry – but will it help the environment, too?

Not necessarily. Drones provide lots of data, and nothing more. They don’t actually change anything on the ground or benefit the environment directly. It’s up to growers and their advisors to use the information collected by drones to make informed decisions that can benefit profitability and the planet. Here’s why drones are just one (important) piece of the puzzle. Read More »

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The science behind agricultural carbon markets

Dry seeding rice reduces early season methane emissions.

Dry seeding rice reduces early season methane emissions.

There’s been a lot of recent attention on the California Air Resources Board’s (ARB) rice protocol, the first ever carbon offset protocol for crop agriculture in a compliance market.

The protocol, approved in June 2015, allows rice farmers who reduce methane emissions to become eligible for carbon credits through California’s cap-and-trade program, though growers from any rice-growing state can participate. The momentum is building. In less than one year, rice growers on more than 22,000 acres have expressed interest in the protocol – representing nearly 1 percent of all rice grown in the U.S.

When the first credits become available for purchase this summer, policymakers and regulated companies can have confidence in the rice protocol’s ability to improve climate stability, and growers can earn extra revenue, thanks to the sound science that measures emissions reductions. Here’s a primer. Read More »

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Carbon markets in agriculture are the next big thing

Scuba diving in the Great Barrier Reef.

I knew I wanted to focus my career on protecting the world’s great places, says Robert Parkhurst, pictured snorkeling in the Great Barrier Reef.

In 2006 California passed AB 32, legislation requiring the state’s Air Resources Board to develop market mechanisms to reduce the state’s greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. It was a watershed moment, and I was lucky enough to be at the event where Governor Schwarzenegger signed the bill.

Even back then I saw the potential for environmental markets to improve climate stability by engaging, rather than penalizing, business. That’s why I’ve spent the past 10 years – seven with electric and information technology companies and the most recent three at Environmental Defense Fund – working to make agricultural GHG reduction programs a reality.

But my passion for conservation started long before passage of AB 32. Growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, I spent nearly all my free time outdoors, largely through Boy Scouts where I became an Eagle Scout. The moment I earned merit badges for water and soil conservation, I knew I wanted to focus my career on solving environmental challenges and protecting the world’s great places. I’ve been extremely fortunate to spend Thanksgiving atop Mount Kilimanjaro, Christmas on the Great Barrier Reef, and New Year’s Eve soaking in the natural beauty of New Zealand.

I believe carbon markets are the best tool we have for limiting emissions from agriculture, maintaining yields, and ensuring a food secure future.

These days my camping excursions involve my son and daughter, who are lobbying me to buy a plug-in electric car. Seeing my kids share that same excitement for solving environmental challenges brings a smile to my face like nothing else can.

That’s why I’m working to build a $2 billion market for agricultural greenhouse gas reductions by the end of 2020. I believe carbon markets are the best tool we have for limiting emissions from agriculture, maintaining yields, and ensuring a food secure future. Read More »

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Who will protect farmers’ privacy in the big data boom?

shutterstock_171929321When it comes to technology and agriculture, policymakers are wrestling with the role government should play in protecting the intellectual property rights and privacy of farmers.

This discussion came to a head recently when the House Agricultural Committee held a hearing to examine the impacts of “big data” on the entire agricultural life cycle. With farmers and companies collecting and storing data on everything from fertilizer rate to yield to soil conditions, there are important concerns to consider: Is the data secure? Who owns analyzed data? Will companies sell the data to others or make new products based on sensitive information?

Ahead of this hearing I wrote a blog post detailing the hurdles farmers must overcome to fully integrate data as a way to increase the abundance and sustainability of modern food production. The main challenges I highlighted were:

  • Privacy: Farmers need to know they won’t be willingly revealing trade secrets when deciding to share data about their farming techniques.
  • Format: Not all data collection platforms use the same language, so a uniform way to understand what is being collected must be created.
  • Complexity: Many growers are intimidated by the vast quantity of data they collect, so we have to help them understand what matters and what doesn’t.

Read More »

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Remembering an agricultural pioneer

Credit: University of New Hampshire

Dr. Changsheng Li. Credit: University of New Hampshire

You may not know the name Dr. Changsheng Li, who passed away last week after a courageous battle with cancer, but his legacy will live on for generations.

A professor at the University of New Hampshire (UNH), Dr. Changsheng developed and refined a model that has been used in more than 20 countries to calculate methane and nitrous oxide emissions from crop production.

A UNH faculty award from 2009 noted that “it is rare to meet a person who fairly radiates humility and compassion. Changsheng Li of the Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans, and Space is just such an individual.” He will be sorely missed by his friends at Environmental Defense Fund – and across the entire agricultural world.

His work took on new meaning and unprecedented momentum over the past few months with several big developments in the field of agricultural carbon markets – successes that would not have been possible without his pioneering work.  Read More »

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