Remote Sensing & GIS

Precision Ecology: Regenerative Agrotech

The name of this site, Terra Preta, is a nod to the agricultural innovation and transformative power of the deep past. Yet, regenerative agriculture is not a solely backward looking movement; our ancestors did not always get it right. Technology alone is not the answer, but neither is it always the problem – like any other tool, it merely needs to be implemented correctly.

In order to get a sense of developments in agriculture technologies and to illuminate the business side of the regenerative agriculture, I talked to the team at Precision Ecology, an agrotech startup.

“The idea of our business is that there’s all this technology out there that’s been developed, called precision agriculture technology,” said Benjamin Kling, cofounder and CAO of P.E. “Drones, sensors, software, are all being used separately by the big ag companies. Our idea is to bridge that with the regenerative agriculture movement.”

Dubbed “precision agriculture”, this tech has been available for years, but its implementation has been limited. The problem, explained cofounder and CEO Whitaker Redgate, lies not in lack of technology but rather the inability to implement it.

A modern farmer evaluating their land has the same challenge as everyone else in the internet age: separating the signal from the noise. Just as you are bombarded with several million Google results for a simple question, they too are given a deluge of data from modern analysis techniques, without a way to separate the statistical wheat from the chaff. USMC Sgt. Andrew Methvin, Cofounder and COO, summarized: “they’re not looking for ones and zeroes; they want a pretty picture”

Precision Ecology aims not only to collect these data, but to present them to farmers in a format that is both understandable and actionable.

That is not to underplay the importance of collecting quality data; indeed, their data collection process is central to their pitch. P.E. will use the WingtraOne surveying drone equipped with a MicaSense Altum camera. “It collects massive amounts of data” said Redgate, “it can get down to centimeters, and can even measure the Chlorophyll content in plants. Drones are the future.”

Once the data have been collected, they are sent to the team’s scientists who analyze them and produce a report with recommendations to improve yields. Eric Redgate, a geologist with a background in environmental earth science, Elizabeth Diaz, soil and geospatial specialist, and Joey Navarro, horticulturalist, each bring their specialties to the team.

They anticipate a variety of issues: overfertilization, pests, humidity problems, even the need to optimize irrigation systems. “The main problem is monocropping,” said Kling, “but the problem that’s created by monocropping corn is different that the problems created by monocropping coffee, or oranges.”

Yet with every problem comes an opportunity; Parker Dinkins, cofounder and CTO, elaborated on their strategy. “You collect images over time of a specific crop, and get examples of what a healthy crop looks like,” he said, “overtime you can develop learned-based systems to eventually be able to detect these things in a mixed field.”

By collecting images of the same farms over time, they hope to gain greater insight into both the problems facing farmers and the efficacy of their recommendations. “As we collect more and more data and partner with other organizations to mine data, were going to start building a data consortium” said Dinkins, who anticipates the acquisition of more than a petabyte of data a year after operations begin.

This long term aggregation of data from different farms will give the team an idea of how their recommendations have affected the farm and its land.

Many of the solutions that the science team plans on recommending involve polyculture strategies; Navarro described his recent work using “cover crops in cannabis, which has not been previously experimented with, has been working extremely well.” He has had great success using “cloaking crops” such as dill and lavender, which are more attractive to pests than the target crops.

Benjamin Kling and Parker Dinkins interview a Florida water scientist

Long-term, the P.E. executive team hopes to be able to shift agriculture in a more regenerative direction “The global agriculture system is the most messed up system on the planet” said Kling, while describing the issues with export agriculture; “for example, India has a huge apple shortage even though they have tons of apples in Kashmir, since they import all their apples from Argentina.”

Kling continued “everyone is in this huge, tangled mess and regenerative agriculture is the answer to making things local, with enough diversity locally that you have a system that works economically.” The company only recently launched, now focusing on mid-sized farms in Florida and Puerto Rico.

The potential of Precision Ecology lies not in their technology, but in their people, varied and passionate: “I’ve found a very sacred level of connection that has brought me a lot of these people,” said Whitaker. That passion, a desire to change the world with their work, is all too rare in our increasingly pessimistic world.

Originally published on Terra Preta

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