Making the Most of the Internet of Soil
July 19, 2017
By Tomer Tzach, CEO of CropX
The soil under your feet is still as mysterious as the ocean’s depths. The soil is a dynamic ecosystem with physical attributes that help determine storage capacity of the soil relative to fertility, and water and biological attributes make the soil a living, breathing organism. Even after years of study, there remains much to learn about agricultural soils and their relationship to the crops we grow. However, the visibility of these factors is reaching new heights thanks to soil sensors. We are in the midst of a connected soil, sometimes called the internet of soil revolution, as these smart sensors are deployed on a large scale across some of the most productive agricultural land in the world.
Overcoming Current Challenges
Unfortunately, what we know about soil at the moment is far less than what we don’t know. Our current knowledge comes mostly from static measurements taken from soil samples at select times of the year, or from laboratory studies on soils. Luckily, the ag industry is now entering an era of real-time soil measurements, which can be taken continuously throughout the year and for many years on end. As we expand what we know about the soil used to grow crops, the era of connected soil will reshape ag.
Think of connected soils as the next weather station. Typically, in the United States there are weather stations every 50 miles or so, sensing atmospheric conditions which are combined with large-scale measurements such as satellite imaging and plugged into models predicting global weather. Once the internet of soil is firmly established, the connected soil will accomplish the same thing in terms of gathering data on soil condition—such as water, temperature, fertilizer, and biological activity—as well as some surface reading like under-canopy light, CO2, and humidity. These measurements can then be used to provide predictive and actionable results to the farmer. Farmers will be able to predict soil needs like meteorologist predict the weather.
The scale of the connected soil begins at the farm and field levels, feeding data to the farmer working the land. However, significant challenges exist when it comes to accessing that data. Getting data to the cloud from the soil below a 10’ corn crop in rural areas across the globe is an obvious challenge. Making sensors both accurate enough to measure small changes in the soil condition and inexpensive enough for mass deployment, without impinging on the soil ecosystem, is another challenge.
Furthermore, variations in weather generally occur on the scale of miles, whereas the variations in soils occur on the scale of meters. Thus, a higher density of sensors is needed, and low-cost sensors and data transmission is essential to maximize deployment. During the early stages, the results must be easy to see and instantly beneficial to the farmers, as they will be building the initial infrastructure. The irrigation cost savings thanks to water and energy reduction is the easiest, and most readily tangible for farmers.
Planning for the Years Ahead
You do not have to be an ag expert to know that water is critical for plant growth, so it is not surprising that the creation of the internet of soil is starting with soil-moisture sensing and driving the rise of smart irrigation. As natural rainfall and drought create a major risk for farmers, many have turned to irrigation for help. Worldwide, only 20 percent of agricultural land is irrigated. Yet, this land yields 40 percent of the world’s crops. The cost of irrigation and the use of precious water for crop production demands the farmer carefully manage this resource.
While soil-moisture sensing is already a large business with hundreds of companies worldwide involved, expensive processes have limited the reach of the technology. Traditionally, the installation of sensors and the process of getting data to the cloud has required a team of technicians and a day or two of hard work. The real smart farming revolution depends on installation scalability and a rapid-fire setup process. A few companies, including CropX, are pushing to create a true do-it-yourself product that can be quickly installed and used by any farmer. This is the process enabling the true internet of soil, where fractions of a field are monitored to maximize efficiency of water applications and reduce variability in crop yield and quality—ultimately increasing profits for the farmer.
In the coming years, lessons learned from real-time measurement of soil water will be applied to other key indicators of the soil—from fertility and biological activity, to carbon. As applied fertilizers, either organic or inorganic, are the second biggest expense on the farm, it will likely also be the next focus of smart farming initiatives. While farmers are often blamed for runoff into streams, farmers certainly have no interest in wasting fertilizer and watching thousands of dollars run downstream. They simply need better tools to properly manage the fertilization process, and the ag industry may be turning the corner in better overall plant and water health thanks to continued sensor technology innovations
The Connected Soil Vision
The soil ecosystem is extremely complicated and can be compared to the biological ecosystem of the human body, where beneficial and pathogenic organisms vie for a foothold. Understanding how to maximize the conditions where beneficial organisms thrive is a goal of the internet of soil. The organic components of agricultural soils play a big part in carbon sequestration and understanding how to improve the ability of soils to hold carbon while improving overall soil health adds to the importance of a better understanding of soil.
The internet of soil is at the forefront of creating a real-time understanding of the activities that make for a healthy soil to improve crop yields and feed a growing population. Soils may still be at the early stage of the connected revolution, but the future promises better understanding of how to maximize the productivity, while maintaining the health of this critical resource for future generations.
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