Farming in the cloud: How tech transforms traditional businesses

Farming In The Cloud

Under a clear blue sky, fields of golden barley rustle in the summer breeze, the lilt of birdsong and the malty aroma of the crop making for a heady assault on the senses. It’s a rural idyll – and one that you’d find hard to connect to the world of high technology.

Think of all the beautiful green fields of Ireland and all the cows and sheep you see when driving around the picturesque countryside. The last thing you would associate with that is technology, right?

But that is changing: increasingly, traditional countryside industries like farming are harnessing a powerful new technology platform – one that is moving them from the tech wilderness to the very leading edge of the digital revolution. That technology’s name? Cloud computing.

The cloud is particularly attractive to small businesses because it relieves them of the technical hassles involved in running, maintaining, updating and securing their own servers. Instead, they access all the computing power they need by accessing a remote data centre – a building filled with connected computers – over the internet. And those computers will be configured precisely to the business needs, running all the office, back-office and analytics software its employees need – plus providing secure storage for all its data.

Fly-by farming

How can the cloud help farmers? Well, one of the first things a farmer needs to do is to monitor the state of their land. Where are the weeds, where have crops failed, is the soil too wet or dry and how much fertiliser do they need to apply? In Ireland, a lot of this monitoring is done manually and is very lengthy and time-consuming. However, one way to assess all this is to fly drones fitted with special remote sensing cameras over the farmland and stream the video back for analysis and believe it or not, many Irish farmers are already harnessing this technology to benefit their farms. However, images and videos captured by the done create huge multi-gigabyte video files – far too big for email attachments.

But by streaming that video wirelessly to the cloud, a Bulgarian firm called Flyver is giving farmers unprecedentedly fast info on their land and crop conditions. Once the video is stored securely in the cloud it can be accessed easily with no need for vast attachments or use of file transfer services. Flyver’s drones can survey 2,500 hectares in a mere 90 minutes – an amazing productivity boost. Think about how much time that could save you!

Connected cows

The cloud’s “always on” nature is key to the next example of its usefulness in farming – but this time it’s dairy farming that’s the target. With the right software, a cloud service can monitor data on any crucial facet of a business. That’s the case with a product from Israeli firm SCD Dairy, which has developed a neck-worn, wireless, motion-sensing tag for dairy cows that farmers can use to monitor the animal’s movement in the cowshed – essentially, it’s a bovine Fitbit.

How much a cow moves is a measure of whether it is ovulating or not – the more it is moving the more likely it is to be ‘on heat’, and so worth the expense of artificial insemination. Attempting to inseminate at the wrong time is a major source of lost revenue for dairy farms. So, the bovine tag data is beamed wirelessly to the cloud where software works out if the farmer should be alerted. In addition, the motion sensor reveals if the animal is not eating enough, or if she is having trouble calving.

Previously, says Steffen Hake, who runs a dairy farm in Wagenfeld-Strohen in Germany, they had to wait around in the cowshed for 30 minutes, five times per day, to spot signs of cows coming on heat. That need is now history thanks to the SCD device.

Growing Underground

Yet another interesting cloud-based farm is operating 35 metres beneath Clapham North tube station in London. When World War II broke out, the authorities decided to extend the underground tunnels for use as a bomb shelter in the blitz. But those tunnels – two of them, both 500 metres long – are now being used for what is known as a ‘vertical farm‘. This is a type of horticultural nursery that can be set up in any building, at any scale, because it needs no daylight. Instead, vertical racks of growing crops are fed water hydroponically, and also bathed in pink LED lighting that is so coloured because it mixes the precise red and blue light wavelengths that makes plants undergo photosynthesis.

The result: Steven Dring and Richard Ballard’s business, Growing Underground, is growing fresh lettuce, radishes, peas, parsley and celery for sale at New Covent Garden market. To make it work, however, they need to constantly monitor the LEDs, air temperatures, humidity, water recycling volumes and ventilation in those tunnels. So Dring and Ballard use sensors to measure those parameters and feed their data to the cloud – which sounds an alert if anything untoward threatens the pair’s subterranean crops.

Something brewing

Of course, crops ultimately go into making foodstuffs – and another newly-cloud-based traditional business, that of craft beer making, is turning crops like barley and hops into a tasty array of craft ales. The tiny four-person Lehe Brewery of Keila, in Estonia, faced logistical problems managing the complexities and legalities of operating a brewing business.

While they want to focus on their craft, says cofounder Gristel Tali, they need to track critical feedstocks like hops and malted barley, manage their inventory, handle alcohol excise duty demands and monitor their sales operations.

The last thing they wanted, says Tali, was that bunch of tedious tasks getting in the way of their beer making. So, they chose to run their business in the cloud, using resource planning software to keep track of their supply chain and myriad legal commitments. The result is, by all accounts, a premium beer that’s loved by the firm’s clients.

At its root, the cloud is a technology that gives small businesses back what they probably did not know they had lost: the time to do what they do best.

Imagine if you could implement technology like this to help you with your farming duties? Think of how much easier it would be!

Find out more

Microsoft commissioned Spiceworks, a network of IT pros, to survey over 250 IT experts working at small to medium sized businesses to tell us how and why they moved to cloud. Download the report now and discover how businesses, like yours, are using the cloud to scale quickly, work on the move, and keep costs down

Trend Report: Why Businesses are Moving to the Cloud

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