Planting the seeds of digital agriculture: Startup bets the farm on Microsoft’s new ag tech platform

Apple orchard sensor installation
Innov8 Ag’s team installs solar-powered microclimate weather stations in an apple orchard early in the growing season. From left are Innov8 founder Steve Mantle; Tate Gabriel, a 4th-year ag student at Walla Walla Community College; and Innov8’s Todd Tucker. (Innov8 Ag Solutions Photo)

Microsoft’s cloud-based platform for data-driven farming, Azure FarmBeats, had its official coming-out party this week at the company’s annual Ignite conference for developers, but Steve Mantle has already been using FarmBeats’ tools to grow his business — and help farmers grow their crops.

Mantle, the founder of Innov8 Ag Solutions in Walla Walla, Wash., is leading the development of a data analysis service that provides agricultural insights to dozens of apple growers, as well as farmers who grow other crops ranging from wheat and barley to grapes. He’s even signed up a few wineries for Innov8 Ag’s services, which leverage Azure-based cloud components.

Azure FarmBeats brings together all those ag-related components, making it possible to combine data from soil moisture sensors, satellites, drones, weather stations and other sources. Developers can add artificial-intelligence applications to the FarmBeats foundation, like adding muscles and organs to a skeleton.

FarmBeats has been under development since 2015, and this week it became available for public preview through the Azure Marketplace. “Now we’re actually able to use that skeleton, as it were,” Mantle told GeekWire.

Here’s a Microsoft video setting the scene for FarmBeats:

Mantle has been able to get a head start on Azure’s agricultural applications in part because he spent 12 years at Microsoft, with more than half of that time devoted to Azure and other aspects of the company’s cloud-computing business.

He left Microsoft and founded Innov8 Ag in May, but continues to partner with his old employer as well as with Washington State University and Walla Walla Community College.

This summer, Innov8 Ag and its partners kicked off a pilot project to monitor microclimates in the apple orchards of central Washington state, the epicenter for Washington’s $2.5 billion-a-year apple industry. “It’s the state’s largest crop by a long shot,” Mantle said.

The project has already documented cost savings — and Innov8 Ag is just getting started. “We figured if we could get it right for apples, then we could apply it to other crops fairly easily,” Mantle said.

Innov8 Ag’s cloud-based service knits together weather data from WSU’s AgWeatherNet as well as solar-powered sensors placed in orchards and fields, plus multispectral satellite data that can provide clues as to the health of agricultural crops. Farmers can feed readings for irrigation levels, pesticide usage, and even labor and equipment usage into the system for processing.

“That can come from logbooks, or literally from whiteboards,” Mantle said. “Snap a picture of the whiteboard, and we can digitize that data.”

The service also keeps track of parameters such as market prices, seed availability and crop storage capacity, depending on the crop in question. “We tie all of those together, and that’s where Azure FarmBeats comes in,” Mantle said.

Steve Mantle
Steve Mantle is founder and CEO of Innov8 Ag Solutions. (Innov8 Photo)

FarmBeats leverages unused TV spectrum to extend Wi-Fi connectivity over traditionally unconnected farmland, and handles the back-end data from sensors and drones. Meanwhile, Innov8 Ag’s software handles the front end — including the user interface and the analytical algorithms that have been developed in cooperation with academic partners.

Data can be added to the mix as frequently as every 10 minutes. Every day, Innov8 Ag provides its customers with geo-specific insights on planting, watering, fertilizing, spraying and harvesting their crops.

“At the end of the day, all of this data is indexed by time and geolocation,” Mantle said. Customers can keep track of their data using tools such as the AgriNET app for Apple iOS or Android.

There’s lots of maturation ahead for Azure FarmBeats as well as for Innov8 Ag. FarmBeats is likely to undergo further tweaking as the preview period proceeds.

Meanwhile, Innov8 Ag is operating in barely-out-of-stealth mode, with funding from a handful of investors, support from Microsoft’s Azure for Startups program — and a lean, mean team of five employees. Mantle said he’s looking for angel investors and preparing for a venture capital round next year.

Mantle, who spent part of his youth in Eastern Washington’s farming communities, said he’s not in it just for the money. He noted that the world’s population is on track to surpass 9 billion by 2050, sparking deep concerns about feeding all those mouths.

“We’re doing this because we see there are a lot of challenges for farmers, including climate change and other challenges like soil health,” he said. “It really comes down to environmental responsibility.”

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