Exclusive Q&A with The Climate Corp.’s Sam Eathington
AgriBusiness Global recently sat down with Dr. Sam Eathington to understand his views on how data science is transforming agriculture now and into the future. Eathington leads the Science organization at The Climate Corporation, where he drives the company’s research and development efforts in data science, measurement and field research.
As Chief Scientist at The Climate Corporation, how much do you think data science will change agriculture as we know it today? How will it look five to 10 years from now?
When I reflect on all the progress and revolutions that agriculture has seen over the last 10 to 20 years, it’s tremendous: biotechnology, molecular breeding, and now what we call the digital agriculture revolution. Data science will absolutely change agriculture, and it will have a tremendous impact. In fact, it already is. It’s changing the way we breed crops, it’s improving the way we screen for beneficial microbes and in the case of The Climate Corporation, it’s bringing unprecedented data-driven insights to farmers through our integrated Climate FieldView digital ag platform.
Truly, the future of agriculture holds endless possibilities: from geospatial insights and advanced satellite imagery to help farmers get ahead of potential issues in their fields before their yield is impacted, to variable rate seeding prescriptions to ensure farmers are planting the right seed, in the right location at the optimal population for the best yield outcome. Even advancements in sensor technologies to connect the field and enhance farmer’s fertility decisions, such as the new in-field sensor network we’re currently testing at Climate, will have an impact on how the farm will look years down the road. Who knows, maybe a robot will be taking soil samples for farmers in the future!
What about for the Climate Corp. specifically – what can we expect from you guys in the coming year?
Last month at the Farm Progress Show in Boone, Iowa, we announced new product features for the 2017 season, and we have several new features that allow farmers to analyze their yields by soil type, seed variety, field or field region. We also launched new side-by-side visualization so farmers can better understand the unique variability across all of their fields in real-time, from their mobile or tablet devices. Our science organization has also put in a lot of work to improve our nitrogen modeling tool, including the introduction of zone-based nitrogen management for the 2017 season, allowing farmers to monitor nitrogen by customizable zones in each field to help them better understand their unique field variability and take action to prevent loss. We’ve also added advanced and assisted seed scripting capabilities, so farmers can easily build variable rate seeding prescriptions tailored to their unique yield goals.
We have a great deal of of innovation coming through our pipeline. We recently announced our research in the area of sensors and our efforts to “connect the field” through a variety of sensors, in-field and on-equipment. In the future, these sensors would sync up with a digital hub which sends data to the cloud and automatically transfers to a farmer’s Climate FieldView account. And, sensors are just part of our research. I’m also really excited about how we’ve leveraged machine learning in our geospatial efforts, the changes we are making to enhance our weather insights, along with the opportunities we are exploring to improve farmer’s yields with more precise placement of seeds.
What do you want people on the agchem side to know about data-driven ag that perhaps they might not be thinking about now?
What we’ve heard from farmers is that they want all their date in one, centralized place. They want an integrated approach to make their farming operations more productive, efficient and sustainable. The beauty of digital ag is it can reach every aspect of the farm – it’s very exciting, and agchem can be next.
Our Climate FieldView Drive device, for example, is currently being beta tested to connect into spraying equipment to help farmers monitor their pesticide applications. And, in the future digital agriculture will be able to help ensure farmers are applying in the right areas and at the optimal times.
Do you feel consolidation will be good for data science or your company specifically? How do you expect The Climate Corp. to benefit?
At Climate, we are always exploring new collaboration opportunities that help bring the latest in ag tech innovation to farmers. We are eager and always open to working with other industry experts that can bring new ideas and innovations to farmers. It’s for this reason that we recently extended our platform infrastructure to other third-party ag innovators, enabling them to contribute to and build upon our platform. Ultimately, we’re helping simplify the complex digital ag landscape for farmers and making it easier for other ag innovators to bring valuable new technologies to farmers faster.
What have been the biggest surprises to you in your experience in this field?
I’ve been fortunate enough to be in agriculture my whole life, and I’ve seen tremendous progress throughout the years. I was raised on a farm in West-Central Illinois, where I worked on our family farm. I’ve always been closely tied to our family’s farming operation and still am today. Then, I moved on to Monsanto where I led the Global Plant Breeding Program. I may be biased, but it’s arguably the best plant breeding program in the world. During my tenure, we moved from breeding plant by plant out in the field, to molecular breeding where we were breeding crops gene by gene. This was only made possible through very sophisticated data analytics.
Fast forward to today, where I’m now Chief Scientist at The Climate Corporation, I’m most surprised and excited by how data has changed how we conduct research across agriculture. We are applying data science, sophisticated algorithms and modeling to the farm and bringing farmers detailed farm insights that are customized to their farming operation through Climate FieldView.
Even in all the surprises and past successes, the future is really what excites me because we are on the cusp of tying together biology and the digital world to unlock new knowledge, insights and greater precision and productivity for farmers. And, farmers are already seeing the value digital tools can bring their operations. Officially launched in 2015, Climate FieldView is now on more than 92 million acres across the U.S., with more than 100,000 farmers engaging in Climate’s digital tools on a regular basis. We recently expanded Climate FieldView into Brazil and Eastern Canada, and we’ll be continuing to expand new, unique features and geographic availability. We still have a ways to go, but ultimately we see data-driven digital tools being key to every farming operation.
How would you weigh the digital farming piece of the equation in this latest wave of agchem consolidation?
Digital agriculture has the potential to transform agriculture in the same way biotech has, by increasing productivity and sustainability. Digital ag really holds the integrated system of solutions together. It’s with data-driven insights that farmers can manage their operations with precision, optimizing yield and maximizing profit. At The Climate Corporation, we are excited to bring science-based insights to farmers and to be at the front of the digital agriculture revolution!