December 02, 2019
Farming Data, Improving Production
In farming, the difference between success and failure is often in the margins – the fine line between not enough water on the crops and too much, finding exactly the right amount of fertilizer, or identifying small shifts in temperature and climate.
For Arvind Murali Mohan (MS ’10, PhD ’13), the opportunity to use technology to help farmers compile previously siloed data into one central platform means the chance to help them even the playing field in an industry where so many inputs are beyond their control. As a co-founder of foris.io, a Silicon Valley-based precision agriculture startup that helps farmers with field management and crop performance, Mohan heads up research and development for the company.
Bringing with him years of experience in water management and the study of environmental microbiology – he had worked for Dow Chemical studying the microbiology of water used in fracking, helping farmers maximize crop production in an affordable and environmentally sustainable way is gratifying.
Farming in the 21st Century is far different than romanticized visions of farmers disconnected from society, plowing their fields in solitude for hours, Mohan says. For years, he says, farmers have embraced technology in a multitude of ways, from GPS in tractors and other vehicles, to weather stations, to soil-moisture sensors, and more.
“The amount of technology farmers actually use is mind-boggling,” he says, telling the story of riding on a tractor that was harvesting tomatoes and separating the tomatoes by color in real time. “That was really amazing.”
The company has developed the means to collect data from deployed technology throughout a farm’s operation and aggregate it in one place.
“It’s easier for farmers to derive insights,” he says of the foris.io system. “They can actually see the whole picture of what is happening on the field in one place.”
With all the data in one place, foris.io helps farmers determine how to optimize inputs such as water and fertilizers, which are both critical to crop performance and carry significant ongoing costs. The company also works with farmers to use the data to optimize soil health year-over-year.
The company is currently piloting its software with one large family-owned tomato farm in California, and is helping its client navigate changes to the climate which have brought more severe droughts and increasingly virulent wildfires. Mohan says that last year, for example, harvest was supposed to take place in late August – right about the time wildfires and smoke were ravaging the area and causing a two-week delay to harvest. Such delays cause problems throughout the system, because if farmers can’t deliver crops when promised, processors may decide not to take the crops.
The company is continuing to develop programs to help farmers navigate these varied issues through data. Additionally, the company is working on enabling traceability (food blockchain) information for crops. That means that information is collected about not just how much water or fertilizer is being used on a given crop, but also the quality of the water, and what kind of chemicals and fertilizer is put on the fields. Such information is important for consumers who want to know more about the food they consume, as well as help farmers and authorities track where problems may have occurred along the route from farm to store shelves in the case of a product recall.
A cadre of top researchers focused on water, and a strong emphasis on research, drew Mohan to CEE for his master’s degree. He says the interdisciplinary and collaborative nature at CEE allowed him to learn things he may not otherwise have been able to at another university.
“That helped me to think about problems a little differently,” he says, adding that the faculty support was “amazing.”
Mohan specifically cites research he conducted as part of his PhD thesis focusing on the quality and microbiology of the wastewater resulting from hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.” He says that when he began his PhD, fracking was becoming more widespread. Fracking produces millions of gallons of waste water, resulting in large waste water streams. As a result, he says, the quality and microbiology of the water needs to be understood in order to develop sustainable management strategies.
Mohan pursued the research under CEE Professor Kelvin Gregory, who he says encouraged him to develop new ideas and pursue external collaborations.
“That greatly helped me grow as an independent researcher,” Mohan says. “I continue to collaborate with Dr. Gregory to publish work on water quality and environmental microbiology.”
Ultimately, he says, CEE allows students to not fear tackling problems or topics in which they don’t immediately have expertise.
“I think CMU does that: You can see the confidence to pick up something new and the confidence that you can structure problem-solving,” he says. “You learn at CMU to be comfortable with uncertainty. You won’t know where to begin, but your still comfortable that you will figure it out.”