Farmers tend millions of acres today with some of the most sophisticated vehicles on earth: tractors, sprayer, harvester, planters. They’re buying them all with high-speed Internet connections that can pump gigabytes of data into the cloud in a single day.

Every day agriculturists map, analyze, feed and harvest their land with GPS-controlled, self-steering machinery. From plowing to harvest and the down months in between, big-money equipment and low-cost drones are leading the way.

Here’s how it works: Imagine, if you will, one Sam Jones, a fictitious but not atypical corn and soybean farmer from Iowa. He farms 2,000 acres of corn and soybeans.

Practical application

Jones’ tractor rumbles down the field. Fifteen-feet high and 20-feet long, it cost him $450,000 down at the dealership, but he knows a few guys who have spent more. On board are tens of thousands of dollars in communications and data processing equipment. He doesn’t touch the wheel. Instead, the tractor drives him in surveyor-straight lines, thanks to the GPS steering in his cab. He tows a planter that cuts neat rows into the soil.

"The GPS module just saved him tens of thousands of dollars for his farm..."

He checks his computer tablet: Corn is up today, so maybe he’ll delay signing a forward contract with the grain elevator that buys his harvest every year. One monitor in the cab, meanwhile, shows a graphic representation of his field, the rows within it and his location. Another monitor keeps track of the seed that drops into each of the 32 rows. It notifies him if a seed fails to drop, a skip, in farmers’ language.

When he’s done, all is perfection. It’s a result no farmer could steer on his own without wasteful zigs and zags. And because the placement is spot-on, he uses 20 percent less fertilizer compared to the years before he had GPS steering. The GPS module just saved him tens of thousands of dollars for his farm and significantly reduced the inevitable fertilizer runoff that drives environmentalists to distraction.

And here’s where the big data comes in.

Using the information

Some places, right down to a centimeter or two, got more seed; some got less. The same goes for fertilizer. Just the right amount here, there and everywhere else. And that was guided by “prescriptions” from his data processor that track not just his tractor, but his planters, sprayer, harvester and even his land.

Because he had seven years of data, he could take advantage of the most sophisticated regression analyses available: formulas that use past results and weather forecasts to predict the best combinations of seed, water, fertilizer and weed, as well as insecticide to use on any one patch of ground.

Farmer Jones will return to spray for weeds a few weeks from now. And once again, GPS will steer his rig, avoiding wasteful overlap and spots he might have skipped without the guidance system. Sensors mounted on his sprayer will direct extra herbicide to places with a lot of weeds and none at all to others, saving money and reducing runoff at the same time.

Jones’s $10,000 drone, meanwhile, has been taking pictures of his farm with wide-spectrum photography and thermal sensors on and off all year. It’s given him still more data, producing a digital map that shows moisture, nitrogen and phosphorous in the soil the human eye can’t see.

The drone spotted an outbreak of corn rust last year he’d never have detected on his own. His farm hands tracked it down and eliminated it the next day before it could spread any further.

When harvest comes, his machinery will scoop up more data. The harvester will map where yields were high, low and in between and send it all back to the data provider. Algorithms will process the whole season’s data and produce a new prescription for next year: the combination of water, fertilizer, herbicide and seeds he will need to keep things in tune come spring.

All of this is data- and bandwidth-intensive, and it’s all at the cutting edge of the internet of things.  So, the next time your cell signal drops in farm country, remember: You’re not the only one who wishes he or she had a better connection. Odds are good that guy behind the tractor needs one even more than you do.