According to a 2005 land-use report, about 40 percent of all land on earth is dedicated to agriculture. The total land used for crop production is about the size of South America. The remaining 8.9 billion acres are used for raising livestock.
Organic and sustainable food is a rising trend, as consumers trends move toward more local consumption and generalized interest in how food is sourced deepens.
Add to those trends the reality of production and consumption needs. With the world’s population growing, pressure mounts for farmers to create new ways to produce food with lower land consumption. A report from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization states that to keep up with the growing population rate, the world will need to produce 70 percent more food in 2050 than it did in 2006 (Business Insider).
The Internet of Things has helped the agriculture industry evolve from the planting, harvesting, and storing technology that has existed for hundreds of years to high tech farming methods that apply sophisticated technology like advanced moisture scanners, aerial imagery, and GPS. With the need to push farming to the next level, a slew of apps, products, and software from ag-tech startups have come to market that offer ways for farmers to easily and quickly assess land and crops, as well as diagnose any threats.
Investors have developed an interest in food e-commerce, biomaterials, biochemicals, soil and crop tech, and precision agriculture, with wavering enthusiasm in drones and robotics. In the first half of this year, AgFunder reported that venture capitalists had funded 307 ventures in these subsets, deploying a total of $1.75 billion.
North Carolina isn’t left out of that trend.
Josh Miller, a 22-year-old electrical engineering graduate from Duke, developed his software, FarmShots, from a need he discovered while interning for a farm in 2012. Miller says that while looking for places to work during the summer of his sophomore year, he decided to turn down dream IT offers to work alongside a friend to build farm software.
FarmShots has received support from angel funds in several states, netting around $1.1 million in equity financing. The funding that spurred from two angel rounds has backed product improvements and the salaries of his executive team members.
Mixing Tradition with Technology
Farmers measure the health of their crops by sending someone out into the field to walk the rows and measure each plant, Miller says. This is not only time consuming, but it also creates the possibility for human error.
“After watching how these farmers and consultants did things, I thought, ‘there has to be a better way,’” Miller says. “Back in the 60s and 70s, there was a ton of agricultural research done using satellites. But at the time, there weren’t enough satellites.”
Miller discovered that over the past three or four years, there are now enough satellites orbiting the earth to produce images that provide valuable data on a daily basis. At the conclusion of his internship, Miller built the first version of FarmShots.
After a cycle of improving the software and working to make a name for himself within the ag-tech industry, FarmShots was open for business in January of 2015.
FarmShots utilizes data from the Planet and NASA’s Landsat 8 to measure the Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI), a metric which models chlorophyll levels across a specified land area. The image results return with the amount of red and green light plants are absorbing. Miller’s team then reports back to their clients with the data to help them figure out where current or future risks lie.
FarmShots also incorporates drones into their mapping service. Miller says that drone technology accounts for 5 percent of their data collection.
A secondary goal for FarmShots is to reduce the amount of fertilizer waste in the agriculture industry. Mapping where unhealthy plants are on a farmer’s land is the first step to targeting fertilization efforts. This precision also helps reduce the environmental impact of overfertilization and costs for the farmer.
Looking to the Future of Farming
To date, FarmShots operates in 20 different countries. They are integrated with John Deere and other farm consultants who match them with interested farmers that own at least two thousand acres. This customer base is a large jump from Miller’s first year of business, where he says that FarmShots only had one client.
“It was really a blessing for us,” Miller says, thinking back to the early years. “We were able to customize our [early software] for them and extend it into the general market afterwards.”
Moving forward, Miller says he would like to expand his services beyond the prescriptive mapping of fields to also include recommendations of products from accredited partner companies. Products or services provided would be able to effectively treat any problems that are discovered through the mapping progress.
Miller believes that the need to secure food supplies a top priority in the agriculture industry. He wants FarmShots to be a tool that will push the industry forward and help farmers keep their fields healthy for generations.