University of Nebraska–Lincoln faculty have an opportunity this year to join an effort intended to solve a longstanding problem in this era of precision agriculture: creating a national ag data system that converts producers’ raw field data into practical, usable information.
Tractors, combines and sprayers, aided by satellites, sensors and drones, now generate an ever-growing volume of field information for producers. If a standardized, secure system existed to process that data efficiently, farmers could fine-tune their efforts by using precise, properly timed amounts of inputs such as water, seeds and fertilizer in specific field locations. Such a system would open new opportunities for productivity, profitability and environmental sustainability.
A series of national efforts — the Agricultural Data Coalition, AgGateway, the Open Ag Data Alliance — have attempted to create such a data system in recent years, but the obstacles remain great. A new, federally funded initiative called the National Agricultural Producers Data Cooperative will promote brainstorming, collaboration and experimentation among researchers and stakeholders from across the country to develop a framework for such a data system.
Husker faculty can participate in a Jan. 24 webinar, from 1 to 2:30 p.m., that will introduce the project and explain its website, planned activities and request for research proposals. Registration is open. A competitive grant program will then fund a range of projects, across academic disciplines, intended to overcome the complications.
This effort is necessarily transdisciplinary given the complexity of the problem, says Jennifer L. Clarke, professor of statistics and food science and technology, and director of the university’s Quantitative Life Sciences Initiative.
Producers’ decisions, Clarke said, “can be informed by data from multiple sources — weather, soil health, management practices, historical performance, etc. — that cover many different disciplines and areas of expertise. In addition, the agricultural producer community covers many different disciplines. So, in putting together a team for the NAPDC, we wanted to encompass as much relevant expertise as possible.”
The faculty members serving on the university’s NAPDC executive board reflect that academic diversity. Its members are Clarke, data science, food science, plant phenotyping; Joe Luck, precision agriculture and biological systems engineering; Laura Thompson, ag extension and farm research; Liz Lorang, data management and information systems; Matt Spangler, beef genetics; Hongfeng Yu, advanced cyberinfrastructure and high-performance computing; and Trenton Franz, hydrology and water management.
Clarke highlights some of the challenges involved with this project. Crop producers have different management needs and expectations than ranchers and aquaculture producers, she said. Another obstacle “is the cost of the associated cyberinfrastructure and expertise needed to build and maintain such a system while meeting the return on investment that producers expect. Third is addressing concerns about data security and safety that may present a barrier to participation. Fourth is engaging with our system of land-grant universities to ensure that the framework is consistent with their mission and will benefit their partnerships with growers and producers.”
Precision-ag technology and commercial platforms continue to multiply, Clarke said, but much of the technology isn’t integrated across differing systems. Field data collected by drones is disconnected from soil or weather data, for example. Plus, “most of the data are contained in proprietary systems to which producers have limited access. The concept of a ‘producer-driven’ and ‘producer-controlled’ platform is still relatively novel and addresses a significant need in the data space.”
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has appropriated an initial $500,000 for this initiative, which will be led by land-grant research institutions in partnership with stakeholder organizations. Discussions, collaborations and experimentation will guide use of future grants with the aim to create, at last, the producer-driven platform discussed for so long.