Startup Profile: Modeling Decisions for a Sustainable Future
June 10, 2011 | Robert Puro
As computing power increases and the amount of data supplied by remote field sensors and satellites around the world proliferates, agricultural modeling and IT tools that help growers make decisions will play an outsize role in both driving agricultural sustainability and feeding a population that will increase by 40% to 9 billion people by 2050. One company at the forefront of this movement that is developing informational technology to drive sustainability is ZedX, a Bellefonte, Pennsylvania-based company that provides IT solutions and develops integrated information technology for decision making for the agriculture sector.
The company has been providing innovative modeling tools and solutions to growers, major agricultural companies, the USDA and government agencies in other countries for nearly 25 years in order to ensure, as its mission states: “abundant, secure food, water and energy supplies, and a healthy environment, the foundations of sustainability.”
I recently interviewed Keith Wheeler, the Chairman and CEO of ZedX, to learn more about the company’s products, commitment to sustainability and plans for the future.
Q: Can you tell me about ZedX and the evolution of the company’s core product offering?
Keith Wheeler: When Joe Russo (President of ZedX) started the company 24 plus years ago here in Bellefonte, PA it was initially focused on taking weather information and coupling it with agronomic information to provide decision support tools for growers.
The first product that was developed is a product called SkyBit®. That product is in its 18th year and we still have customer number one. It was designed to take weather information, forecast information and taking a look at what kind of decisions growers would have to face on a weekly basis and providing them a fax – back at that time it was a fax that they got – every week that basically had a calendar and let them know when certain pests were going to emerge based on the weather conditions. The target audience was orchards, fruit growers and some vegetable growers. [SkyBit®] is still being offered primarily in the Northeast.
From there ZedX moved into the area of precision agriculture and was really the first company to look at integrating GPS technology with decisions on the ground in a products line that we call AgFleet®. AgFleet® has over 15 million acres of agriculture in the US in our system. It looks at various decisions that a grower needs to make throughout season, everything from planning before they plant, all the way through the season and provides GPS related information so that they can be very precise in the decision. [Growers] can also become more efficient and apply less inputs, whether it be fertilizer or chemicals. We developed the ability to write files that went to onboard computers or controllers on the tractors that would create variable rate applications, so the grower could apply so much fertilizer, herbicide or pesticide in one part of the field, but different amounts in other parts of the field. AgFleet® is really for commodity grains and that’s where I would say 80% or 90% of our client is – so corn, soybean, wheat, cotton, rice.
Then we got into a higher level of sophistication in beginning to look at crop pest disease modeling. The USDA contracted with Penn State, North Carolina State and ZedX to develop the first early warning Soybean rust model system. It’s called the ipmPIPE (integrated pest management Pest Information Platform for Extension and Education). Through the PIPE, we model Soybean rust movement in North America. Soybean Rust first moved out of Africa and South America traveling on the wind and so we began to model how and where these spores move and impact the U.S. We and our partners developed and maintain the website with support from USDA as an ongoing service to the nation’s Soybean growers.
A new product that we have is called CropForecaster, which has been developed utilizing some of our advanced deterministic models on how crops grow to make in season and end of season yield predictions. We’ve partnered with a company called Astrium-Geo in France, which is a satellite company and we’re doing worldwide prediction now for end of season yield for the commodity grains. Eventually we hope to branch out to other crops.
Q: How are all of your products related to one another?
KW: When you’re doing this modeling, there’s a certain set of data you need to be pulling in to model how a plant’s going to grow over the course of a growing season. The weather data is really important for all of our plant growth models. So, if we’re collecting the weather data then we look at ways not only to run it through our plant growth models, but also how can we sell some of the weather data for other sources, for other demands. So there’s a synergy between all of this stuff. Don’t think of [our products] as little silos, think of them as integrated. We try to custom make products and tools for people to use the data more effectively.
Q: Can you explain ZedX’s commitment to sustainability?
KW: Sustainability is at the end of the day the most important thing you can do in any industry, and agriculture is one of the most important. We are involved in an ongoing project being led by the Keystone Center called Field to Market. Our contribution is with the modeling and the software development for the [Fieldprint Calculator – a tool to help growers analyze how their on-farm decisions relate to sustainability]. We think that it’s a really good way to go for people not only here in the US, but globally in trying to begin to get on the path towards sustainability and helping growers look to getting a mindset of continuous improvement around the sustainability issues.
Q: What is your view of sustainable agriculture with regard to profitability?
KW: Sustainability is all about efficiencies. The more that we know about how a grower, a community, a county, a state, a nation is really managing its resources then we can build a certain set of efficiencies in there. In the end you could be more profitable if you really keep your eye on not only your carbon footprint and your water footprint, but also on creating the most efficient use for the resource and the kinds of crops that you’re going to grow. The biggest limitation is to get the right tools in the hands of people that are making these decisions every year, every season, every week out there in the field. If they’ve got the tools in their hands they’re going to make the decisions that are going to be most productive in terms of capacity of what they’re growing, but also keeping their eye on the efficiencies for their input costs and how to do things in a different way.
Q: What does the future look like for ZedX?
KW: I think the big thing is that we believe that a significant amount of evolution in terms of modeling is happening at faster and faster speeds. We’re seeing that both in our capacity and also in the computing power that’s available now – the computing power and the sensing power. Our models get exponentially better the more data that comes into them whether it’s from onboard sensors on field equipment or remote sensors that are going to be ubiquitous in fields that will be wireless. We’ve made a big transformation into cloud computing here. As we begin to have more data available from a variety of sources around the world in these cloud environments we’re really excited about the kinds of models that we can build, which will be much more predictive and much more well defined for decisions that growers can and should make to become more sustainable.
If we can create just in time decisions that allow growers when they get up this week or this morning to be able to have access to all the data they need to adapt their decisions for the changing nature of weather and other things that happen in this complex system called agriculture, then they will be able to maximize productivity with less and less input.
The whole changing nature of seed stock, not your company, but the kinds of seed that will be coming out are going to be more and more fine tuned to meteorological, climatological and soil conditions. So you’re going to see customization of the seed material evolve and we want to have our models there for that.
An additional area that we have a strong desire to be more involved with is smallholder agriculture. We’ve got the large holder agriculture that we’re engaged with, but in the end we’re also going to need to feed 9 billion people in the world. You’re going to need more efficiency in smallholder agriculture and so we’re keeping our ear to the ground now to see if there’s a place for us to bring some of these technologies especially now that we’re moving more into Smartphones. When you think of the world today, out of 6.5 or 6.6 billion people there’s 5 billion cell phones out there. What is the opportunity to take some of the modeling that we get better and better at everyday and how can you bring that at a very minimal cost to somebody in a second or third world so that they can be making better decisions on their three hectares or four hectares? I am not sure what the business model would look like there, but we know that there’s a need and we need to try to figure out how to bring what we do to a much larger audience in that area.