Whether Monsanto retains the Climate Corp. after various acquisition scenarios have played out or else Bayer CropScience or even some other entity ultimately holds title to it, the one-time “unicorn” tech startup acquired a few years ago for $1 billion is now pointed in a direction that is relatively unique to agriculture: They would like to have your adoption first, and a deeper financial commitment second.
“This is a platform play,” Mark Young, Climate’s Chief Technology Officer, said recently of the Monsanto Division’s comprehensive Climate FieldView digital agriculture technology. “We want people on the platform. The value is that the more and more people we get on the platform, the more and more data we have, and the more valuable it becomes.” That’s “valuable” on two fronts: the more data farmers input into the platform from their own fields, the more valuable, accurate, and actionable the customized insights become for them; and the more aggregated data that Climate and Monsanto can glean on real-world farming practices, the better they’re positioned to improve Climate FieldView as well as other products — seed hybrids and varieties, for instance.
It was mid-April in San Francisco’s South of Market district, and in Climate’s 11th-floor loft space with commanding southwesterly views of the Giants’ AT&T Park and the bay just beyond, Young and his colleagues excitedly considered the planting season that was swinging into action in the Midwest a thousand miles away and more. With U.S. farmers in 2015 using the Climate FieldView platform to map more than 75 million corn and soybean acres — nearly 45% of the total — Climate had raised its sights for 2016 with a coverage target of 90 million acres, and now actually looks to clock in at 92 million. Seventy-five percent of those platform acres are with growers who are monthly active users of Climate’s digital tools, the company notes.
Climate officials say Climate FieldView is priced for adoption, now, with a goal of getting farmers to see the inherent value of the technology. If it succeeds, the thinking goes, farmers won’t hesitate to place more of their acres — and dollars — into the platform. Yet growers and ag retailers have heard the siren song of precision farming before, and perhaps too often have responded with indifference or disappointment. What’s different now?
Silicon Valley Meets U.S. Breadbasket
Most notably, Climate aspires to bring a Silicon Valley sensibility to the plains of the U.S. breadbasket, approaching each of agriculture’s age-old and most nettlesome issues as just one more “data science problem” to be solved. And Climate personnel are obsessive about data. Soil conditions can vary significantly across as little as three feet, they note. Ten different rain gauges placed next to each other can render 10 entirely different readings. “So how do we, from a usability perspective, introduce that concept (of variability) to the grower?” Young asked.
For a farmer, ease-of-use of Climate FieldView’s basic interface — visual representation of their fields and point-click (or draw) interaction with the graphical interface — can be almost mesmerizing. Every data point has the capability to be stored in the cloud and represented in a farmer’s online account, which then can be shared with trusted advisors and displayed on a desktop or mobile device — especially an iPad, which Young, the son of a part-time farmer in New Jersey and a Purdue alum, knows is huge for growers. “If I were to introduce this on a PC and say, hey, download this piece of software, install it, run it on Windows, etc. — I’ve already lost 85% of my customers,” he said. “But if I can hand it to farmers on an iPad, that barrier to adoption is now gone. They’re actually very comfortable with it.”
Escalating levels of capabilities, decision-making tools, and data points — what Jim Ethington, a Climate veteran and now VP of Product, described as a “data layer cake” — are available to farmers based on interest and financial appetite. For instance, with a free subscription to Climate FieldView Prime, the base entry to Climate’s current three-tier model, farmers receive the company’s bread-and-butter offering: field-level weather data — daily and hourly forecasts, real-time, and historical — along with e-mail and text notifications and a scouting tool that captures geo-located notes and images.
Move to the mid-level, Climate FieldView Plus, and things start to get especially interesting. Plug Climate’s FieldView Drive, a hockey-puck-like device, into a tractor’s or combine’s controller area network (CAN) diagnostic port and it lights up, connects to Bluetooth, and sparks data connectivity — digitally displaying real-time field data right on an iPad as equipment passes through the field, then storing it in the cloud. No need for ag retailers or precision ag personnel to wander the countryside each autumn with USB sticks so they can pull data off equipment consoles, hop in their pickups, upload data to their computers, then send that data to agronomists or third-party suppliers. “That is not a value-added sales visit, let’s not kid ourselves,” said Doug Sauder, Climate’s Senior Director of Product. “That’s just inefficiency.”
With Climate FieldView Plus also comes “Field Data Visualization”: Specifically, digital maps that allow farmers and their advisers to peel back layers of data — soil, as-planted, as-applied, as-harvested, imagery, weather, elevation, topography, drainage, etc. — so they can draw correlations and get to the root of what Climate likes to call “yield-limiting factors.”
This is the heart of the Climate FieldView platform. Field conditions and anomalies can be isolated, observed, analyzed, and notated, all in a very visual environment, but still based on highly detailed data sets that are “under the hood” and ready to be studied in far greater depth by technical agronomists and other specialists. As a grower, “I can very easily drop a pin that my agronomist is going to see,” Sauder said as he trotted through a demo on his laptop.
Just as importantly, an agronomist can make a custom prescription in Climate FieldView, then “beam” those recommendations to, say, a MyJohnDeere account, or a 20/20 SeedSense Monitor System from Precision Planting — and likely other lines of equipment down the road too. “It’s a very clear strategy for Climate to be neutral to paint color and seed brand, and to provide value to growers on a very broad footprint,” Ethington said.