The Internet Of Plants

The ZIM Water Sensor Probe (Image credit: Yara)

As the fertilizer business risks being somewhat commoditized, Norwegian-based Yara, the largest nitrogen fertilizer producer, has put innovation on its management agenda.

At the core of its program is the insight that farmers need support in managing nutrients during the growing cycle, not just before or after planting, and that this need will only increase as weather becomes more unpredictable. It’s driving a shift away from selling just fertilizer, to selling an integrated crop nutrition solution.

“The most important thing is to listen to crops.”

“From there, you can reduce resource requirements, while raising the reliability and quality of harvest yields,” explained Magnus Rambraut, Director of Precision Farming at Yara.

“We’re not pushing products, but delivering a solution that combines crop knowledge and application methods that will improve productivity at farm level.”

Technology plays a large role in executing its strategy, not surprisingly. Since the 1990s, it has been selling a tractor roof-mounted sensor that reads the crop nitrogen status and automatically controls the fertilizer spreader. Built before the Internet of Things was ever mentioned in a management consulting presentation, its sales in 35+ countries have been hampered by somewhat high prices.

More recently, it introduced a handheld device (Yara N-Tester) that measures chlorophyll, which is used to determine the nitrogen status of the crop, and a mobile app (Yara ImageIT) that can interpret nitrogen status by analyzing 5-10 photos taken by the smartphone. To gain better visibility into fertilizer distributed through irrigation systems, it has developed a water sensor (Yara ZIM Water Sensor Probe) that measures a leaf’s thickness to determine the water need of the crop.

Use of such devices — combined with the company’s proprietary 100-year’s worth of insights into crop performance, and counsel from its global network of agronomists — has produced as much as 15-20% increases in crop yields, while at the same time reducing fertilizer use. Its water sensor can reduce water use by as much as one-third.

It has also built new services, such as Megalab, which lets farmers submit soil, leaf, fruit, and water samples to analyzed, and therefrom generate bespoke crop nutrition programs to which its sensor services can then be keyed (giving farmers a real-time management tool). The launch of the MyYara online portal is just around the corner, which will give farmers access to that data and other information for analysis and reporting purposes.

“The biggest challenges are habits.”

“Farmers in the US traditionally apply nitrogen once, while in Europe we see fertilizer and nutrients applied a 4-6 different times,” Rambraut said. The US is the world’s largest importer of nitrogen-based fertilizer.

When I asked him if there’d ever be something like a ‘wearable for plants,’ Rambraut chuckled.

“The data on one stalk of corn would be too detailed to be actionable,” he explained. “But listening to areas as small as one square meter of crops could be manageable.”