Feeding the World, One "Byte" at a Time

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As Ward Van Dyke walks down the rutted dirt paths that pierce his sea of breeze-blown grain, he carries in his heart traditions handed down by generations of Van Dyke farmers.

In his hand, however, is something entirely new—a tablet computer.

The traditions that undergird the hard-working way of life for this stoic Iowan farmer have not changed for over a century, but the tools of the trade look nothing like they did even a decade ago. Sure, there's still a pitchfork in the barn, but it’s there for decoration. The real action is on the rugged logic boards running his farm equipment and the slightly more delicate ones that Van Dyke uses to keep it all running smoothly.

"Farming practices have changed a lot," he says. "It's very precise now, and it's very technical. One mistake can cost you a lot of money."

Advances in mobile technology, cloud computing and even drones are changing farming dramatically, ushering in the largest change the profession has seen since mechanization and fertilization chased out the mule. Data collection now informs day-to-day farming operations. Where once farmers kept track of seed type and rotations with a pencil and a ledger book, today it's bits and bytes doing the work for them.

Tractors are equipped with sensors that record everything from fertilizer levels to soil type. Rather than treating fields uniformly with blanket seed coverage, GPS equipment identifies the most advantageous positions for planting and helps map pest and weed infestations. Yield monitors provide a birds-eye view of productivity, giving farmers a valuable look at what areas grew more than others. Information gathered from these technologies is used to make key decisions in the short-term and plan for the long-term.

But that's just one side of the coin. Technology is enabling farmers—once the most local of local businesses—to form global networks that also include agronomists, scientists, and companies. Together they crowd-source knowledge to prevent crop loss, increase efficiency, and boost yields. PlantVillage, a Q&A based app, joins people from all around the world into a superbrain of farming knowledge that provides answers to farming questions in real-time. Using low-cost video cameras, the app Digital Green compiles and shares an ever-growing database of instructional videos from across South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa.

Back in the United States, experts from the USDA's Cooperative Extension System head to the fields of small farmers to provide practical, research-based information to agricultural producers, small business owners and others in rural communities.

As the world population soars, but the number of individual farmers dwindles, optimizing that science through data is a key step in helping farmers like Ward Van Dyke go far beyond sowing seeds to feed our planet. Using a web-based subscription service from DuPont Pioneer, he gathers crucial agronomic and weather information that his grandfather wouldn't be able to fathom.

Although a pitchfork still has a place in his barn, modern farming tools are transforming yields and global agriculture as we know it.