51. What the "dibble?"

Hi, if you are new here, I am Rhishi Pethe and you have elected to become a member of the “Software is feeding the world” community. You will receive this free weekly newsletter at the intersection of technology and agriculture/food systems. I work as a product manager on Project Mineral at Alphabet X, focused on sustainable agriculture. The views expressed in this newsletter are my personal opinions.

This week’s newsletter is the “Canopy” version, which covers a few stories of interest from the world of agtech, research, sustainability, food & agriculture value chains etc.

Programming note: Next week will feature my conversation with Mark Young, ex-CTO and VP of Product for Climate Corporation. We talk about innovation, future trends, and most importantly what drove him to AgTech.

Intensifying droughts

😅 tl;dr (too long, didn’t read): Droughts in Europe in the 21st century have far exceeded droughts in the last 2,100 year. A concerted effort is required to understand the causes, links, and mitigation actions.

Monday March 22nd was World Water Day for 2021. World Water Day celebrates water and raises awareness of the 2.2 billion people living without access to safe water. The theme for World Water Day 2021 is "valuing water" and highlights the importance of conserving water and its value.

Access to good quality water in requisite quantities will be one of the defining issues for the 21st century. Countries like India and states like California are already facing multiple water crises. The scary part of the water issues is that the events of water problems like droughts are intensifying.

A multi-country research team looked at droughts in Europe, covering a period of 2,110 years. The research, published in the latest issue of “Nature Geoscience” (March 2021) is fascinating and concerning at the same time.

“To study the timing and severity of historical droughts, researchers analysed 147 oak trees -- including logs pulled from old buildings and archaeological sites and living trees from what is now the Czech Republic and parts of Bavaria -- covering a period of 2,110 years.”

They then measured the oxygen and carbon isotope composition of 27,080 growth rings, as opposed to the usual tree-ring measurements of width and density, to plot changes as trees respond to water and heat stress.”

The data, published in the journal Nature Geoscience, revealed a trend of Europe gradually getting drier, punctuated by very wet summers in the years 200, 720 and 1,100 and very dry summers in the years 40, 590, 950 and 1,510.

As you can see Europe has been getting drier over the last 2100 years, but samples from the summers of 2003, 2015 and 2018 showed drought conditions that far exceeded anything in the 2,110-year period. The study concludes that there is a high likelihood that these anomalies have been caused by warming related to human activities and associated changes in the position of the summer jet stream.

The severity of droughts is often defined by the strength of the anomaly in meteorological conditions like sea surface temperature, geopotential height, precipitation or temperature. But drought impacts are largely connected to soil water drought (crop yield, wildfires) or to hydrological drought (water supply, energy, transportation, recreation, water quality) rather than directly to the meteorological drought. This means that we need a better understanding of how meteorological drought relates and translates into soil water drought and hydrological drought.

Citation: Büntgen, U., Urban, O., Krusic, P.J. et al. Recent European drought extremes beyond Common Era background variability. Nat. Geosci. (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41561-021-00698-0

💡Key takeaway: The historic nature of droughts in Europe (and elsewhere) will require a concerted effort across research, policy, market understanding, and funding. 

Build, buy or invest?

😅 tl;dr (too long, didn’t read): “Software is feeding the world” has covered tech for autonomy, electrification, and edge computing since the beginning. OEMs are increasingly making investments in all of these areas.

Agriculture equipment giant CNH recently led a Series A investment in French company Augmenta. Augmenta retrofits existing tractors with smart tech capabilities. 

Augmenta has “developed an AI-powered ‘field analyzer’ system that can be mounted onto the cabin roof of a tractor, sprayer, or spreader. Using multispectral cameras, the device analyzes crop foliage and keeps an eye out for things like damage or flooding in the field. It then channels this information to send commands to the implements it is attached to, telling them to apply appropriate amounts of chemicals or fertilizers in a single tractor pass.”

The startup is taking an interesting approach as it seems to be a hybrid between a lower height installed sensor device, and a drone. Given the height at which it is installed, there are certain use cases it will work for better than others. E.g. it might work well for obstacle avoidance, identifying areas of low fertility, and then actuating the right controls on the equipment to take relevant action.

Also given the height, it might be tricky to address “see & spray” use cases (this is a bit of conjecture on my part) as you might not get the right level of resolution, and localization to hit the target area with a high level of accuracy. Based on the Agfunder report, it is an area that the company will use the funds to build the necessary tech, control systems, and software.

The retrofitted device eliminates some of the challenges with using drones like power, capacity, regulations, safety, and specialized operator training for the drone itself. It does assume that you can get the equipment in the field, and can reach all the necessary areas of the field.

The pricing model is interesting as it includes an upfront cost of about $ 12,000 for the hardware and a per acre cost (to be paid only once per unique acre) of about $ 2.50. The retrofitting nature of the device, and the software as a service model, will open up interesting possibilities on the distribution side for OEMs, as they try to understand how to make it easier for farmers to adopt this type of technology, given the recurring revenue from it.

Will there be a winner?

One of the interesting questions to consider is as to who is uniquely positioned to take advantage of this technological advancement.

Original Equipment Manufacturers

Will it be the OEMs, who already have a distribution network in place, and have a strong grower relationship? They control the access to distribution, the interface between the AI models, and the actuation infrastructure, the actuation infrastructure to act on the decisions recommended by the on-the-edge ML/AI algorithms, and the service network required to support it.

Input companies

Will it be the input companies, with access to the distribution network and the end customer, are facing an existential threat of lower input usage due to this technology. They have the know-how and the expertise to actually make newer/better products that will be needed to utilize this capability. 

Outsiders

Will it be some rank outsider, who can get to distribution first based on their superior tech? Will it be smaller autonomous, electrical equipment with AI/ML on-the-edge capabilities, which will do a run-around for the big OEMs? If they create smaller, autonomous, electric, It will be a very very difficult task for an outsider to pull off, due to the stranglehold on distribution and grower relationships by the input and OEM company.

Especially OEMs are closely evaluating their buy, build, or invest portfolios for technology. We have seen many examples of that with Blue River (JD acquisition), investments and partnerships between new AgTech companies like Augmenta (CNH), Monarch Tractors (CNH investment for electrical and autonomous tractors), Sabanto (autonomous tractors) etc.

💡Key takeaway: OEMs and input companies are closely evaluating their buy, build, or partner investments within their tech portofolio. Electrification, autonomy, and edge will be the key drivers, when it comes to application and monitoring in fields..

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XAG raises money

😅 tl;dr (too long, didn’t read): Drones for agriculture continue to show a rapid growth rate, partially fueled by CoViD, and a desire to reduce input costs wherever possible.

As discussed earlier, the Augmenta service could potentially act as a substitute to drone spraying, due to its benefits of power, range, speed, training needs compared to a drone spraying application. This does not mean that drone makers are sitting idly. Drone maker XAG raised $ 46 million in season 46.. They claim to have operations in 42 countries on about 100 million acres.

The presence of ag equipment, and the condition of the field so that the equipment can roll in are requirements for an Augmenta type device. Drones work really well, if the equipment infrastructure is not available (e.g. the rate of mechanisation in India is only 40-50% ) or the crop makes it difficult to get heavy equipment in (e.g. paddy). The lack of mechanization and heavy usage of crops like rice, make the smallholder / developing world space a very attractive option for drone based services for agriculture.

Regulation or the lack thereof, will create more opportunities for drones in the developing world. The use cases and  requirements will continue to evolve, drones will have a brighter future.

💡Key takeaway: Drone companies will continue to provide alternative options for use cases around input application, precision spraying, and will grow rapidly in developing countries.

The old and the new

😅 tl;dr (too long, didn’t read): The cultivation of maize from teosinte is one of the marvels of human ingenuity, courage, and persistence. Corn has grown in productivity over the last few decades, especially with the advent of fertilizers, GMO seeds, and other advances. Researchers have found that compared to older varieties, the newer varieties do a poor job of interacting with their microbiome, and so do not get the “assist” from it.

Teosinte, a distant relative of corn/maize evolved in a rich context of an entire ecosystem. This ecosystem dynamic allowed it to form a close relationship with the soil, including soil microbes that make soil nutrients to make it easier .

Most of the breeding process for corn over the last 50 years has increasing yields significantly. But recent research published in the “Multidisciplinary Journal of Microbial Ecology”, shows that over the course of the last 50 years, corn yields have increased. The focus on aboveground traits for corn breeding has altered the microbiome in non-sustainable ways, thereby reducing their capacity to get help from the microbiome, when it comes to critical processes like nitrogen use rate yet.

This study opens up the fascinating possibility of taking genes from the teosinte (original grass for MinerL0 and then doing a cross with current varieties. It has the potential to provide the yield of today, while still inserting some additional interactions between plant roots and microbes.

Reference: Favela, A., O. Bohn, M. & D. Kent, A. Maize germplasm chronosequence shows crop breeding history impacts recruitment of the rhizosphere microbiome. ISME J (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41396-021-00923-z

💡Key takeaway: Looking into old practices, forgotten crops etc. is a great way to bring forward some of the old characteristics into newer crops e.g. microbiome interactions.

What the “dibble?”

😅 tl;dr (too long, didn’t read): Planter technology has gone through a lot of technological changes over the last few years. The net effect has been that planters (and equipment) has gotten bigger, with some side effects like soil compaction. The “dibble” tech could solve some of the problems.

Planter technology (at least in the developed world) has evolved quite a bit over the last few years. The drive technology transitioned from sprockets and chains to shafts and to hydraulic motors. We currently have electric-drive motors on each row unit. Other interesting technological developments have been the use of rubber tires, remote power through hydraulics, ergonomic controls, along with electronic control systems. Other key technology over the last few years has been down-force management, variable rate seeding, and section control.

Some of the latest developments (as we talked about earlier) are around autonomy through sense & react, electrification, section control etc.

All kinds of equipment has been getting bigger and bigger over the last few years, be it planters or combines or other types of equipment, as efficiency has been the name of the game. This has resulted in compaction issues, with heavier equipment, and disk based planter systems.

The existing planter systems assume a certain level of dryness of land, and tillage practice with certain residue assumptions (minimal residue.) The current disk design has not changed in many years, and so it is interesting to see new tech come out, which can reduce compaction and also can operate in sub-optimal conditions for existing planted technology.

Re Envision Ag is developing a dibble-style planting system that allows seed to be placed with a minimum of soil disturbance. The dibble, which features a hollow spike attached to a small seed box, punches through the soil and delivers seed at a precise depth.

Re Envision Ag will sell the hardware unit as an individual row mount. The dibble system will enlarge the planting window, lower input costs, capture large yield potential, and reduce soil compaction.

The company is using a different go-to-market by working with AgLaunch. Aglaunch is roughly a network of farmers and entrepreneurs. The dibble tech makes a lot of sense to go through the process. AgLaunch provides a network of growers to work with. 

💡Key takeaway: The “dibble” can address some of the problems associated with existing planters, and provide benefits. The consistency and quality of the tech, and its ability to perform at scale will need to be tested out thoroughly.

So, what do you think?

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