It used to be that farming was an occupation that relied on gut instinct. Information about the land was passed from generation to generation like an heirloom. “When my grandpa started in the late ‘20s or ‘30s, you needed a good work ethic and a strong back,” says Ron Haase, a farmer who, with his brother, operates a 1,200 acre corn and soybean farm 90 miles south of Chicago.
Things have changed quite a bit since Haase took over the family farm in the mid 1990s. Like health care, transportation, and plenty of other industries before it, agriculture is currently undergoing a radical transformation. In recent years, farmers have begun embracing advanced technologies like sensors, satellite imagery, GPS, and big data analytics to build connected farms that are as efficient, productive, and as profitable as possible. Some people call the new, technologically-enabled era of farming Ag 3.0, a movement that centers around the idea that every operation on the farm should be tracked, from soil moisture to the number of seeds planted to precise read-outs on crop yields.
Since Haase began using sensors to track yield data in the early 2000s, nearly all of his operations have evolved to rely on some form of data gathering. “In some form or another the data’s being used to make the decisions,” he says. His planters track what types of seeds are planted where, his combines precisely measure yield data during harvest, and every aspect of his tractor—from fuel usage to location to how long it’s been running—is measured to ensure efficiency.
All this data is pushed automatically to cloud-based software, which means Haase no longer has to sit in front of a computer and enter the data himself after a long day of work. As a result, Haase says he’s cut his planting time down from nearly a week to three days and now has more time for his family.
Thanks to forward-thinking farmers like Haase, Ag tech has become big business. In 2015, investments in farming technology reached $4.6 billion. Companies across the farming industry are investing in the trend in the form of cloud-based software that analyzes different variables like soil moisture, sunlight, climate, nitrogen and pests. This software helps farmers determine where and what kind of seeds they should plant the next year to reap a maximum yield.
But while sensors might be the backbone of the connected farm, it’s the ability to parse the data itself that’s revolutionizing the way farmers work and make a living. Some companies are creating platforms that aggregate, analyze, and present farmers’ data in a digestible way. Others like FarmLink are analyzing big data sets—more than 1 billion plots of corn, soybeans, and wheat across 26 states—to build tools like MarketVision, which calculate predictive yields for farmers so they have more knowledge about what their crops are worth. “We take all this data and understand the relationships between weather and topography, soil, and precipitation, and really come up with an algorithm to forecast what the yield will be for any field in the United States,” explains Bob McClure, FarmLink’s chief data scientist.
An increase in data-heavy operations also means that farmers are engaging with new providers outside the agriculture realm. Traditional B To B companies like Comcast Business are able to step into a “B to farm” capacity, helping new customers manage the gathering, storage, and analysis of this new confluence of data.
It’s a lot to parse for the average farmer, but Dan Glickman, the former United States Secretary of Agriculture, says farmers will have to take advantage of big data if they want to survive in an increasingly complex world. “We’re always going to need food,” Glickman says, adding that as the population booms and arable land remains the same, we’re going to need to grow it more efficiently than ever. “But we have all these challenges. We have environmental challenges, climate and weather challenges, pest and disease challenges, and we have variability in the world market.”
Ultimately, Glickman reminds us, farming isn’t a lifestyle; it’s a business. “The more information you can give a farmer about what and how he or she is producing, the more they’re likely to be successful business people,” he says.
This article was produced on behalf of Comcast Business by Quartz creative services and not by the Quartz editorial staff.