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Interview: Climate Corporation sees opportunities for digital agriculture in Europe

Adoption of digital technology in the EU agriculture sector has been regarded by some as sluggish and European Commission officials, MEPs and the industry itself have all called for the regulatory framework to be more supportive as well as making access to funding more readily available.

As Agra Europe reported earlier this year, take-up of new technology solutions for ‘precision agriculture’ is not what it should be and the bloc lags behind countries such as the USA, Canada and Brazil in terms of integrating these practices into their farming activities.

Agriculture Commissioner Phil Hogan is a champion of agri-tech for improving farm productivity but also believes that better use of technology can be utilised in the administration of the CAP, with fewer on-farm checks and reduced costs meaning less public money is spent. The Commission announced recently in its ‘Space Strategy’ that it will work to integrate more space data, such as satellite photos, into the future governance of EU agriculture.

Meanwhile, the private sector continues to make great strides in developing new digital tools for farming and expanding their availability to a wider range of farmers.

Last week, Monsanto-owned The Climate Corporation made its first step into the European market for digital farm services when it announced the acquisition of Estonia-based VitalFields – a farm management software company based in Tallin.

VitalFields' software offers farmers the opportunity to analyse their activities in the field, including tracking and reporting all crop inputs to ensure they are compliant with EU environmental standards.

Market expansion

VitalFields currently sells its software in seven European countries but Climate Corporation’s chief executive officer Mike Stern (pictured) believes there is untapped potential in the EU market for the company’s technology.

“VitalFields has a unique offering in Europe and has experienced rapid growth with its current market approach,” Stern told Agra Europe.

“We will invest to expand their user base and look forward to working together with the VitalFields team on commercial strategies that can help more farmers experience digital tools across Europe and beyond.”

By combining the VitalFields software tools with Climate Corporation’s 'Climate FieldView' data platform the company says it can deliver a centralised digital agriculture platform that will help farmers make data-driven decisions with confidence to maximize yield potential, improve efficiency, and manage risk.

ClimateField View was only officially launched in 2015 but is now on more than 95 million acres of farmland in the US and Brazil, with more than 100,000 US farmers engaging with its tools.

It allows farmers to instantly visualize and analyze crop performance through satellite imagery and field data maps through various features from the 'Prime' level (with field weather data notifications) through to 'Pro', which has add-ons such as nitrogen monitoring, satellite imagery and yield analysis. The platform was recently expanded to include Canada and the company sees opportunities in Europe. 

“Digital agriculture is still a very new space, and farmers continue to rely heavily on their intuition, experience and own knowledge of their fields,” Stern explained, but added that farmers are starting to see where the use of these tools can help them to boost productivity.

“Until recently, there has been no easy way for farmers to collect all of their field data, organise it in one place and extract value from it to make the best decisions for their operations,” he said. “In talking with farmers, we hear again and again that this is a major pain point.”

Stern says feedback from growers on the ClimateView platform so far has been overwhelmingly positive “specifically around the ease-of-use of the platform and ability to access it from anywhere on their mobile or tablet devices”.

One farmer using the platform said the side-by-side analysis on data gained from field trials of soyabeans and maize had offered him much greater insight into how the crop responds to certain conditions, as well as praising the ease of looking at the results from several pieces of equipment on one iPad.  

Data privacy

With strong and growing concerns from consumers over how their online data is not only utilized but also who has access to it, The Climate Corporation insists it is a strong advocate for data privacy.

It claims to have “one of the most transparent, farmer-facing privacy policies in the industry”, respecting the fact that farmers own their own data, seeking consent for anything they do with it and allowing farmers to delete their data on request.

“In addition to our own privacy policy, we have also worked with several industry organizations and other companies in the industry to develop a set of guiding principles for data use and privacy,” Stern said.

“These industry-wide, farmer-focused principles are closely aligned with ours and mark a significant step toward industry alignment that will give farmers confidence in how their data will and won’t be used.”

Developing technologies

When asked whether the EU institutions could do more to foster the adoption of digital solutions in farming, Stern preferred to focus on the role of the farmer and of the companies that offer digital farm services to find ways to optimise production in a sustainable way.

“The world’s population is expected to increase to more than 9 billion people in 2050. Therefore, farmers need new solutions to meet the food demands of this growing population, while also protecting the planet’s biodiversity and natural resources,” he said.

“Advances in digital technologies… are changing agriculture and helping farmers to meet those needs by providing a deeper understanding of their fields so that they can make more informed decisions.”

 

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