Farmers harvesting the power of big data and the cloud

An app craze may save the American farm
An app craze may save the American farm   

It's a given that the farming community pays close attention to clouds. Weather is everything to them, literally dictating how their business operates.

But entrepreneur Corbett Kull has farmers paying attention to a different cloud these days, and it's paying off for both parties.

Kull is co-director of Chicago-based 640 Labs, a company he co-founded with Craig Rupp after leaving the mobile technology industry in 2013. They created a device called the 640Drive, which enables farmers to record all of their activities in the field, from what they plant to where they plant it, timing and then performance at the end of the season. The data moves to the cloud and is accessible via app.

"Most people don't understand there's actually GPS on tractors and they can record what they plant, when they plant and how they plant," Kull said. "Then at the end of the season—the harvest—you know how much grain comes from each part of the field. All of that is recorded and tagged by GPS information."

640 Labs was acquired by The Climate Corporation in December 2014 (Climate is owned by Monsanto).

Corbett Kull, co-founder of 640 Labs, holding old and new versions of FieldView Drive.
Brad Quick | CNBC
Corbett Kull, co-founder of 640 Labs, holding old and new versions of FieldView Drive.

The current product, FieldView Drive, is undergoing iterations. It is being tested in beta by more than 100 farmers across the country, with additional commercial deployments later in the year. The device plugs into a tractor and is paired up over Bluetooth to an iPad to collect records.

The app simulates tractor planting, showing how many seeds per inch are being planted. "You can zoom in and get a very precise understanding of how each section of the field is performing," Kull said.

The new version boasts more processing power and storage, as well as a sleeker look from the original version, which the start-up 3-D printed to save money, Kull said. The original product cost about $500 for farmers, but the new version does not yet have a set price.

Taking fourth-generation farming into the future

As it turns out, farmers are more tech savvy than meets the eye. "Farmers are already big users of smartphones today and are looking for information to help them make better decisions," Kull said.

So what were farmers, like Matthew Schweigert, who owns Schweigert Family Farms in Cuba City, Wisconsin, doing before using 640Drive? Memorizing everything, or at least trying to.

The family farm has been around since 1904, and Schweigert recently returned home to take over the operation. The fourth-generation farmer grows corn and wheat on his 10,000 acres and says tracking progress is extremely important to the farming community, and tech solutions are simplifying the job.

Matthew Schweigert, fourth-generation farmer, is using the beta version of the new product.
Brad Quick | CNBC
Matthew Schweigert, fourth-generation farmer, is using the beta version of the new product.

"What's hard about farming is that you have so few people and they're so spread out," Schweigert said. "You try to capture data either through writing it down or remembering things as you go across the field. What I like about data collection is that it's completely passive—I don't have to do anything different when I go out into the field than I did before. It automatically grabs that data and stores it in the cloud."

The app can get him down to a 10-meter square to get a look at yields and progress. The data is instantaneous and, more importantly, accurate.

"The big thing for me is trying to be as cost effective as we can," he said. "From an efficiency standpoint, it's getting more done per day at less cost per acre."

By Kate Rogers, CNBC

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