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Agribusiness Gets Less Hands-on and More High-Tech

A farmhouse is picture at dusk in Ames,A farmhouse is picture at dusk in Ames,
This is the top "college town" for university students.Photograph by Jewel Samad — AFP/Getty Images

Like many people who did not grow up on a farm, I have a romanticized image of life in agriculture—waking up to a rooster’s crow, driving around in tractors, and wiping dirt off freshly pulled carrots.

I’m not sure if roosters are still part of farm life, but I do know these days most tractors drive themselves and carrots are rarely pulled out of the ground by hand. And now that the machines have been automated, agribusiness is getting even more hands-off and high-tech. Why? You guessed it, big data.

It’s been more than two years since Monsanto (MON) paid $1.1 billion to acquire Climate Corp., a startup that used machine learning to predict the weather. Today, there is a growing cluster of other big data startups hoping to capitalize on agriculture’s cash cow (no pun intended).

Between 2013 and 2014, Silicon Valley’s appetite for agricultural and food-related startups doubled in terms of deal size, according to data from the Cleantech Group (and a recent story from my colleague Katie Fehrenbacher).

Take Farmers Business Network. The San Carlos, Calif.-based startup, which runs a network for connecting farmers to agronomic data, raised a $15 million round in May led by Google Ventures. Even more recently, Descartes Labs, a small company utilizing artificial intelligence to process satellite imagery for agricultural uses, raised a $5 million round from Chicago-based Cultivian Sandbox Ventures (the most creatively named VC firm I’ve heard of to date).

Led by serial entrepreneur Mark Johnson, Descartes is comprised of a team of scientists from Los Alamos National Laboratory (yes, home of the Manhattan Project) and is actually based in Los Alamos. According to Johnson, there will be many use cases for Descartes’ technology. He decided to focus on agriculture first because of the large opportunities it represents and the obvious applications for satellite imagery. The company’s initial foray into the industry involves mapping all the wheat fields in the U.S. over the past 20 years in an effort to understand crop production with greater granularity (again, no pun intended).

“Agriculture is just one of the patterns of human life that can be seen from space,” CEO Johnson wrote in a LinkedIn post last week, announcing the company’s round of funding. “Understanding the changing world through time and space is an idea whose time is now.”

Lest you worry that farming as we know it (or as we envision it) is coming to an end, rest assured it already has. But the opportunities for startups in the agriculture space are likely just beginning.

This article first appeared in the daily Fortune newsletter Data Sheet. Subscribe here for a daily dose of analysis from Adam Lashinsky and a curation of the day’s technology news from Heather Clancy.