PERSPECTIVE: Is Bayer’s Highly Anticipated xarvio App the Next Uber for Ag?

The xarvio booth at Agritechnica 2017.

As many of our CropLife IRON readers might know, every summer at MAGIE we award the most popular product featured at the show with the ShowStopper Award.

Had we been doing a similar poll last week in Hannover, Germany, at the 2017 Agritechnica show, gun to my head I’d have pegged Bayer’s recently acquired xarvio Digital Farming Solutions (yes, the X is supposed to be lowercase) as the early frontrunner, and I’m not all that sure I wouldn’t have cashed in on that bet.

As intriguing a digital offering as this author has ever encountered in ag tech, xarvio is comprised of two apps, Field Manager (the FMIS piece) and xarvio scouting (smartphone-based scouting), as well as the high frequency aerial imagery product from Bay Area-based Planet Labs and the slick Bosch Smart Spray application system (think Blue River’s See & Spray tech taken a step further).

Currently available in Europe as well as several other parts of the world, and with a rumored wandering eye on the North American market, I spoke with Bayer’s Head of Digital Farming Tobias Menne to find out just when this potentially disruptive ecosystem will land stateside.

“Our ambition is to have 5 million growers (on the platform) next year with an emphasis on sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia,” Menne explained. “Our products in Brazil we market on a per acre basis, and of course the scouting app is free of charge. We have currently 350,000 users, and we have a pre-product which is a weed scout in the market now. The Deputy Ag Minister of Sudan just visited me and said this is what we need for our farmers, they all have a smartphone but they are lacking credible knowledge around agronomy.”

After dancing around my question a bit, I do confirm with Menne that xarvio is planned for a U.S. release sometime in the near future, probably closer to the end of 2018 than the beginning.

“Overall we are guided by the idea that our planet currently has 500 million farmers, and essentially currently as it stands one percent of those farmers produce around 80% of all the calories, so those farmers we need to help be more efficient in their operation, and to be more environmentally safe to increase sustainability,” he says. “What you see here at the booth is exactly doing this. Essentially all around crop protection, making sure we are using the minimal amount and every drop counts.”

With 350,000 users worldwide submitting smartphone images of field conditions, diseases, and pest pressures from agronomic regions across the world, one has to reckon that xarvio is building a particularly powerful image recognition library. Menne agrees.

“It’s helping farmers with a more targeted disease and weed management. We are helping farmers to determine the exact right moment to come in with a treatment, field specifically, based on agronomic modeling, satellite data, and the crowdsourcing we have from scouting.”

“It is a zone management,” he continues. “And understanding what exactly is needed in those zones. We also have an exclusive collaboration with Bosch on the Smart Spraying system, which is a camera system identifying which weed is it, and opening really the nozzle and, what I think is very specific and really unique is, it is mixing different herbicides in the nozzle, so that is a key component.”

Wait a minute, what? It’s not only sensing and spraying in real-time, it’s custom mixing different AIs right there on the rig, based on weed type?

“Yes, like I said this not only recognition, it’s mixing four components in real-time in the nozzle. And we also are convinced that, speaking with regulatory bodies like U.S. EPA, we’ll be able to register entirely new crop protection products which are resistance breaking, and we can tell them and actually prove that we are using them across only maybe 1% of the total acreage.”

Menne also notes that the Field Manager FMIS app will not be your typical standalone agronomy software suite, but rather he sees the app as a sort of data portal that connects across equipment and sensor networks to make all of the data flow where the grower wants and need it.

“What we feel is really important is that we do not intend to position Field Manager as a standalone platform (for agronomy), but rather as a vertical ‘tapping in’ to other platforms. Working with the John Deeres and retailers, and other users and interested parties.”

One region who’s interest in xarvio that has surprised Menne is our very own North America, where he guesses some guys are using the free scouting app just to more easily identify issues in field.

“During my last trip over I checked with some friends that farm and I said ‘Why are you using our product?’ And they said ‘Look, we’ve become so accustomed to using glyphosate and Roundup over the last 30 years that we’ve lost the traditional knowledge to identify individual weeds and to determine them.’ So with that app that becomes very, very easy. And besides that, now I can send my farm worker, because he too has a smartphone, instead of the agronomist.”

And, unlike some of the more once-promising efforts around ag data in the past, xarvio is attempting to do all of this without a bank of historic yield data to lean on. An interesting approach, for certain, but one that we will have to monitor closely going forward to see if it actually succeeds.

“I’ve worked on farms in Ukraine and our yield monitors were really inefficient and inaccurate, because we were never bothering calibrating (them),” Menne reasons. “So what we are doing is, we are coming with a yield determination for the season and we are using this to calibrate satellite data to come up with much better and more accurate yield maps than the current yield meters are providing.”

For any ag service professionals that have made it all the way through this article to this point, I doubt I have to spell out the implications for you of all of this – were it to succeed – on your future business plans. The idea that a huge corporation like Bayer can largely automate and deliver agronomic recommendations remotely though a smartphone is a far greater danger to the future sustainability of any agronomic consulting operation, in this author’s opinion, than a few large growers buying generic glyphosate off an online marketplace.

So, has Bayer found the next groundbreaking, culture-defining app (ala Uber) for agriculture? And what does the coming debut of xarvio mean for many of North Americas current biggest players in agronomy-based software, like Climate Corp., Farmers Edge, and the recently formed FieldReveal venture?

That all still remains to be seen, and will essentially be decided both on whether we see more consolidation among ag tech software companies, as well as how the slated sometime-in-2018 North America debut goes, but xarvio will remain something, yet another thing, for all of us to keep our eyes on in 2018.

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