David Friedberg brought his tech skills from Google and applied them on the farm by founding weather data company The Climate Corporation in 2008. In that time, the company has gone from providing weather insurance to predictive crop modeling and acting as Monsanto’s data science and precision agriculture arm. Monsanto acquired the company in 2013 for an estimated $1.1 billion.
We met up with Friedberg last fall in a huge tent at the Farm Progress Show, where Climate Corporation launched the latest phase of its growing data empire with updates to two online and mobile services, Climate Basic and Climate Pro. Both programs use crop modeling to provide insights into farmers’ fields.
Q. Give us a little history of Climate Corp.
A. We started out providing weather insurance. Very specific weather events would pay out specific amounts and it was designed to be an add-on to federal crop insurance to protect you against an early fall freeze or late planting.
The product over time required that we make the weather measurements more accurate and to make the understanding of weather impact on yield more accurate. So we had to build those capabilities, and as we did that, we saw farmers were getting value just from our weather measurements or from our yield estimates or from our projections on harvesting, and we began offering that as a stand-alone set of tools, software-based tools, to help farmers get better insight on their operations and ultimately make better decisions.
Q. Do you still offer weather insurance?
A. Today we help to “protect” and “improve” farming operations. On the protect side we offer federal crop insurance. We are one of 18 approved insurance providers, and we use a lot of our technical capabilities to provide insight on what external factors have impacted yield at the end of the season.
On the “improve” side, we provide Climate Basic, Climate Pro, precision equipment, and soil tests. Our transformation today is about bringing different teams together that have different capabilities to allow us to provide better measurements, better modeling capabilities, and better tools that can help drive more yield.
Q. What are some examples of those improvements?
A. Better measurements mean we want to more accurately and on a higher resolution measure weather and what is happening in the soil and in the field. On the modeling side we want to better predict how different agronomic decisions would result in different outcomes. And, on tools side, want to provide simple tools that actually drive yield and drive profit by delivering basic insight. So we have both hardware- and software-based tools, and we are providing more of them on an ongoing basis and in a more integrated fashion
Q. But don’t farmers have enough data to deal with already?
A. Farmers shouldn’t have to spend time trying to figure out what to do with data or how to store it. We’ve learned through feedback that farmers do not want to be IT managers. They have enough to do and enough to deal with already without adding more complexity. We want to take this as an opportunity to deliver a new set of tools that make farmers’ lives easier and make their farming operation more effective.
Q. What about data ownership? A lot of farmers are concerned about sharing data.
A. Any farmer can go to climate.com/principles and we list our principals on data use and privacy. Those principles state three things. First is that farmers own the data that they input or that is created by their machines and equipment. Second the farmer decides where the data goes. They can choose to transfer to another system or tool, including a competitor’s. They can decide to delete their data from our account and it will be gone forever. It is up to them to make that decision. Third, we are not going to charge farmers to store or transmit data. Creating data, storing it, moving it around is basically becoming free, so we shouldn’t try to build a business around that.
Q. Where do you see your business model?
A. We ultimately want to compete by providing farmers better services to drive more yield. Data is just a way to help make that happen, and so we should make it really simple and easy for farmers to access those services and not have to worry about where the data is moving to and how to control it. That should all be done in the background and should match their expectations and what they want out of it at the end of the day.
So our data use and privacy principles are pretty clear in guiding all this. And all of our products have terms of service or use that are legally binding. For Precision Planting, Field View, for Climate Basic, Climate Pro, and for the other tools we offer, our terms of service clearly represent those statements that we just went through. And we think that is the right thing to do by the farmer.
Q. How’s that?
A. If you do the right thing by the farmer, you should see the industry move forward. If you don’t do the right thing by the farmer, you will have a lot head-butting, confusion, aggravation and we won’t see the industry move forward because ultimately the farmer will have a lot of different services, tools, advisors, hardware and equipment. And of those pieces need to be able to easily speak to each other, easily move data back and forth between systems, and farmers shouldn’t have to have the burden of figuring out how to move data between systems or tools. So we need to first sign up with these principles and then get other companies to adopt that common mechanism to allow tools to talk to each other. [Update since this interview : Farm Bureau has led the development of an industry-wide set of principles that Climate Corp and many other companies have signed on to support. Here is a link to the Farm Bureau’s press release on this. That is why we were involved in the launch of the Open Ag Data Alliance, which is about building open-source software that any company can use for free, giving farmers the ability to control and move datain and out of their systems and and between other systems that use the same tool. So that is how we are trying to move the industry forward.
Q. Do farmers need to provide their own data?
A. Our products work without farmers providing us with any data. You can go to www.climate.com, sign up, get the mobile app, and start using it right away. So it can work out of the box. But the more data you put inthe more accurate the predictions and the service you’re getting back. We have north of 50 million acres actively using this service. But as farmers start to recognize the value and we earn their trust, then they will start to share more information or start to connect their cab using a 20/20 or YieldSense tool. And as they do that, the tools start to become more valuable and start to get more accurate yield estimates, more accurate harvesting data predictions and more accurate recommendation about planting population. So it doesn’t need to be all or nothing. We are trying to earn their trust and show farmers these tools are useful. And over time, the more you use them, the more value you will get back.
Q. Ultimately, where could your services lead?
A. I think how farmers are running their operations today is probably going to be quite different from how they will run their operations 10 years from now. Ten years from now, software-based tools and data science will be an integral part of their operation. That doesn’t mean they will need to become data scientists or experts on some software tool. What it means is that some of the decisions they will be making will be guided by recommendations coming out of the iPad in their cab or out of their mobile phone. And they will start to depend on that. And that conversation is going to be done in conjunction with their agronomic advisor, retailer or crop consultant.
But those tools will better equip them to make these decision. So rather than read a university report or research paper to try and figure out what they should do, these decisions will be better informed by customized, individualized recommendations for their particular operation, and it will just be part of their equipment, part of their daily life, is going to be on their phone, something they access every day when they wake up, it is just going to be how they run their business.
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