The modern-farming-practices race is getting another dose of steroids as DuPont (NYSE:DD) and Deere (NYSE:DE) collaborate on bringing advanced field-management technology to the farmer. By linking the agronomy software of the chemical giant's Pioneer seed division with the farm-equipment maker's wireless-data-transfer architecture, the two want to transform how farmers access data on grain moisture, historical yields, and nutrient deficiencies in their soil so they can know where, when, and how best to plant their seed.
Farming is not the same today as it was only a few years ago on my late grandmother's 188-acre dairy farm in upstate New York that she started in the midst of the Great Depression. The simple tractor that pulled around the "honey wagon" depositing manure on fields has been transformed into a machine of advanced technological wizardry, equipped with chips, computers, monitors, sensors, GPS tracking devices, and Internet connections to the cloud.
Precision agriculture is still a work in progress, an experiment undergoing on-the-fly testing, but the number of farmers using technology and remote-sensing data for crop management continues to grow, and Monsanto (NYSE:MON) says it's a $20 billion market opportunity that analysts believe will expand at a better than 13% compounded annual rate through 2018.
Trimble Navigation (NASDAQ:TRMB) is carving out a growing niche for itself through acquisitions that extend its expertise in monitoring and reporting crop data to help farmers better manage their production. Although it's quickly becoming the leader in optimizing water usage, not all technologies will be adopted at the same pace.
GPS tracking devices from providers like Topcon Positioning Systems may be nearly universal, and auto-steering technology from AGCO and Raven Industries only somewhat less so, but there's still resistance to the variable-seed-planting technology that Monsanto's Precision Planting and others offer because there's not enough data yet to confirm there is a profitable benefit to be derived. Most independent studies seem to indicate that only under certain circumstances can a farmer profit from its use.
So, despite the promises of better crop yields and the marshaling of scarce resources, there remains a yawning chasm that must be bridged regarding the removal of a farmer's sensitive crop-and-yield data from his hands in order to place it in the cloud. There's a level of distrust over what will happen with farmers' data once they surrender it -- and their independence -- to these these agri-corporations.
Still, as more farmers adopt these advanced farming technologies, it lowers the bar of resistance. Net farm income is predicted to hit its highest levels in 40 years, making technologically advanced farming equipment like the sort Deere manufactures a lucrative space for growth. Analysts say industrywide sales will grow 3% annually through 2017, with revenues widening at a 5% to 10% pace. The Asia-Pacific region alone is expected to adopt advanced crop-management practices at a compounded annual growth rate of 25% over the next few years. Deere's partnership with DuPont could increase its acceptability.
DuPont has already mapped 20 million acres of farmland in the past year from which it provided 1.5 million acres of variable-rate-seeding prescriptions. While it charges $500 per farm, DuPont plans to boost the price next year after implementing system upgrades, and Monsanto says it will start charging $10 per acre for its precision-planting product.
Yet it would seem the real future-profit center for the industry is in the provision of a more holistic solution, combining the crop data it gets from farmers with a crop-insurance product it can sell back to them based on that data.
Monsanto's done just that, making headlines with the acquisition of The Climate Corporation, which nominally gives it a bunch of weather data, but more importantly provides it with a crop-insurance program. Following its prior purchase of Precision Planting, a technology that helps farmers enhance a crop's yield through variable plant spacing, Monsanto has given itself a complete package and put itself on the same path others have traveled before.
DuPont's Pioneer division offers crop insurance through PHI, as does Deere through its financial-services arm. Archer-Daniels Midland acquired ADM Crop Risk Services in 2010, which allows it to sell and service policies to farmers, and now that Monsanto has joined the fray, a big data critical mass has formed that can be twisted into a precision financial product.
It's no longer only the seeds these companies are concerned about controlling, but rather the lifecycle of agriculture. The agri-corporations will now have complete information on the seeds, the fields they're planted in, the weather that determines their growth, and the yields that result. And, because there are no guarantees when it comes to farming, insurance to mitigate the risks.
That's a bulked, full-service business that represents the future of farming.