Farmers have always sought ways to ensure success in an activity plagued by risks and uncertainties. The ancient peoples of the Nile Valley used the position of the stars and the phases of the moon to determine when crops should be sown and harvests reaped. Planting by the signs still has its adherents today. The Farmers' Almanac, an annual periodical that provides astronomical data and astrological advice to American agriculturalists, published its 200th edition last year.
Most commercial growers have moved on to other methods, however. And increasingly, those methods involve big data, advanced analytics and the internet of things.
Picking the right day to put seeds into the ground is only one of many decisions that determine the ultimate success of a crop. To get food onto our shelves and money in their pockets, farmers must juggle a host of variables, seeking to maximize yields while minimizing the cost of inputs such as water, fertilizers and pesticides. It's a tricky balancing act. Give plants too little and they won't produce, but excess inputs don't just drive up production costs, they can also depress output and lead to lasting damage to soils and the wider environment.
To compound these challenges, the right combination of inputs can vary significantly over time, depending on the weather and the presence or absence of pests and diseases. And within the same crop, variations in local soil and shade conditions, or differences between plants, can mean that the right inputs for one individual are too much or too little for another.