Can organic farming feed the world? Possibly, but it depends on who you ask. Even if it can and ultimately does, the future of farming won’t look much like the industry did a decade years ago. Data science and all the technologies that go along with it–sensors, computers, and so on–are making it possible for farmers to grow crops more efficiently, and Silicon Valley is intrigued with the monetary possibilities.
In November, Flextronics’ Lab IX and Innovation Endeavors, a VC fund backed by former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, announced the creation of Farm2050, an initiative that will offer funding and support to startups that want to cash in on the new farming revolution. But can Silicon Valley really transform farms from afar?
“We’re looking for startups that apply tech to make impact in new market–how can robotics and automation make farming much efficient, how can we use data sciences to make the farm more efficient?” says Dror Berman, managing partner at Innovation Endeavors. “We’ve been already seeing a lot of new companies in the space.” Even Monsanto–not a partner in Farm2050–is getting in on the trend, acquiring weather data startup The Climate Corporation in 2013.
A recent New York Times article on data science in farming offers some insight into the kinds of technologies that Farm2050 might invest in. One example:
At a large family farm in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, Brian Braswell uses satellite-connected tractors to plow fields with accuracy of one inch between furrows. His soil was tested with electrical charges, then mapped so that fertilizer is applied in exact doses from computer-controlled machines. He uses drones, the newest new thing, to survey flood irrigation.
Farm2050’s big challenge is that, chances are, most of the startups applying for help from the initiative are divorced from the day-to-day realities of farming. Berman is hopeful that Farm2050’s partners, including DuPont and Flextronics (which can provide manufacturing assistance) will help them figure out the innovations that farmers want.
So far, data technologies have been available mainly to large farms that can afford their high prices. Hopefully, Farm2050 will look at startups that can make sensor and robotics systems more accessible to small-time operations–though Berman says that it is, of course, looking for “highly scalable” technologies.
Farm2050 will look at applications from startups over the next few months.