This Agriculture Giant Is Bringing in the Drones to Modernize Farming From Cornfields to Vineyards

June 19, 2018, 3:17 PM UTC

A Chinese, government-controlled conglomerate is seeding a bumper crop in big data that’s modernizing the world of farming, from the vineyards of Burgundy to the cornfields of Illinois to the lychee orchards of Guangdong.

A year ago, Bejing-based colossus ChemChina purchased crop protection and seed producer Syngenta of Switzerland for $43 billion, setting the all-time record for the largest overseas acquisition by a Chinese company. ChemChina quickly targeted Syngenta’s drive to transform farming through digital technology as the paramount area for investment and growth. “ChemChina is taking the long view by substantially raising spending on R&D, and by far the biggest increases are going to groundbreaking digital technology,” Erik Fyrwald, Syngenta’s CEO, tells Fortune.

Syngenta is providing two main digital services to farmers, packaged together under a product called AgriEdge, which also includes a suite of its seed and crop protection products. The first is FarmShots, a software offering that uses satellites and drones to pinpoint sick crops in the field. The second is its Farm Management System enabling farmers to create profit and loss statements (P&L) tracking every dollar spent and earned in each field of corn or soybeans. The satellites send farmers one photo each day of individual sections of their fields; an average shot covers several hundred acres. The photos are displayed on PCs, iPads, or smartphones as “heat maps” that identify ailing and healthy sections of plants using color codes.

The satellite software filters out the areas of soil, displaying only the foliage. The amount of light the plants generate helps establish the colors displayed on the farmer’s screen. “Healthy plants reflect a lot more sunlight, and depending on the filter, produce a bright green image,” says Dan Burdett, Syngenta’s chief of digital agriculture. By contrast, a patch of red signals danger, spotting a potato field, say, that’s starved for irrigation or fertilizer. Yellow can show that plants are stunted, as from over-application of nitrogen fertilizer that burns the roots of corn crops.

The advantage of satellite images is that they spotlight problem areas that could take a farmer a week or more to pinpoint scouting the spread on a Gator 4×4. Still, the daily photos produce only broad areas of color. They don’t yield up-close shots of leaves or stalks that might help the farmer identify the specific disease afflicting the plant. To zoom in, Syngenta teams the satellite with drone technology. Once the heat map shows the problem areas on the farmer’s GPS, he can dispatch a drone that sends back high-resolution shots of the leaves or stalks. Through experience, the farmer can frequently identify such common maladies as gray leaf, a fungal infection that damages corn, and then go to the site and spray the endangered crops with the correct fungicide.

Many diseases, however, are hard for even veteran farmers to diagnose with certainty. So Syngenta is pioneering the next giant step in drone technology: Software that identifies the precise rust, virus, or infestation, and sends instructions detailing the best treatment. Today, Syngenta is deploying a team of seven retired plant pathologists to compile a giant library of images displaying most plant diseases. The drone software uses machine learning to match a photo from that catalogue with the shot of a leaf or stalk taken by the drone. Syngenta expects to launch the first product enabling drones to diagnose plant diseases in 2019. For small farmers who don’t have access to the full package of drone and satellite images, Syngenta will offer a smartphone application. The farmer takes a shot of the diseased plant, and the app sends back a full diagnosis and plan for care.

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FarmShots partners with the Farm Management System, a financial tool that highlights precisely where and why farmers are making or losing money. FMS comes in two main parts. The first is new tractor software that tracks the amounts of seed, fertilizer, water, herbicides and pesticides being used in each part of the farm. Syngenta has data agreements tractor manufacturers John Deere and CNH Global, maker of Case and New Holland brands. Their tractors are equipped with an iPad-like computer that quantifies all seed, fertilizer and herbicides that a tractor or tank sprayer is applying. In the past, farmers measured those inputs only for entire properties often spread over several crops and 10,000 or more acres. “Now, we’re treating every individual field as a separate factory,” says Burdett. Using GPS, the tractor shows exactly where the machines are planting, harvesting, or seeding. Their sensors record all the materials used in each area of the farm, and send the data to farmer’s P&L, which runs on the Syngenta’s FMS software.

That data provides a detailed breakdown of which fields and crops are generating an acceptable ROI. Syngenta provided Fortune with P&Ls from fields in two Illinois farms that illustrate how these tools spotlight how these tools are used. One P&L covers a 117-acre field growing soybeans that’s a section of a much larger farm. In last year’s growing season, stretching from planting in May to harvesting in October, that field produced 7,000 bushels that it sold for $10.24 each, for total revenue of $71,708. Its tractors recorded the use of three inputs, seed, fertilizer, and crop protection products. The cost of those materials, plus labor, was $29,591. The big cost was rent, amounting to $41,120. By tabulating all of that data on his FMS P&L, the farmer learned that it had earned just $998, or virtually nothing, on those 117 acres.

Clearly, the soybean farmer needs to make big changes. He can’t influence the market price. But a solution might be raising his yield by using different seed or fertilizer. Syngenta software “benchmarks” the field’s soybean production per acre compared with other areas on the same farm, and unnamed competing spreads in the region, and also shows the products the best farms are using to achieve superior yields. It also shows rental rates for similar properties.

It’s crucial for farmers to choose the most profitable crops for each field. And the numbers from a nearby farm show that the soybean farmer might be better off replanting his field with corn. Here are the far better numbers on the 259 acres this farmer has planted with corn.

Unsurprisingly, his revenues––$221,147 last year––are much bigger, in part because his farm is more than twice as large. It’s the per acre figures that tell the story. Even though corn prices at $3.60 per bushel were one-third those of soybeans, the corn farmer more than made up for the difference in bountiful production. His sales were $854 per acre, 39.5% higher than the soybean farmer’s. Material and labor cost per dollar of revenues per acre were the same as the soybean farmer’s. Besides the superior yield that generated much bigger revenues per acre, the big factor was rent. The two farmers paid the same amount, $350 per acre. But the corn producer could afford it and his soybean neighbor couldn’t: That figure represented only 41% of the corn producer’s revenue per acre, versus 57% for the soybean farmer. The corn purveyor earned a sizable $153 per acre after all expenses, compared to a profit drought for the soybean farmer.

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The breakdown arrays the soybean farmer’s best options. He can negotiate with his landlord to lower the rent, arguing that soybeans won’t sustain a charge of $350 per acre. He can examine whether the different seed or fertilizer used by rivals generate the much higher yield needed to make the field profitable. Or he can replace soybeans with corn.

Farmers are getting comfortable viewing their spreads as a patchwork of profit centers. “I tell farmers that to be better farm managers, you need to know your numbers on a field by field basis,” says Burdett. AgriEdge is now Syngenta’s fastest growing business, accounting for $500 million of its $12.1 billion in sales. The product now serves 19 million acres. That’s more than 2% of all the farmland in the U.S. and AgriEdge’s domain is growing at over 25% a year. Nothing harvests cash from the back forty like big data.