When most people think of farming, they think of milking cows, hearty farmhouse breakfasts, fresh eggs, and rows of carefully cultivated crops. In reality, farming is a mix of everything, from no-tech operations to sprawling factory farms. Moreover, in almost every farm setting, tech is gaining ground and MSPs should take note. There may be opportunities for MSPs to harvest among the corn, soybean, and wheat of America’s heartland.

Smart cities, smart cars, and smart factories are well-documented, but smart farms are also taking root, and they’ll need traditional IT tools to irrigate IoT growth.

According to research firm Alpha Brown, 10 to 15 percent of farmers are using IoT solutions to farm across 3.1 billion acres and 250,000 farms. Collectively, they’re spending around $960 million, as the agriculture-IoT market continues to grow. With all the new sensors, IoT devices, and connectivity in the field measuring everything from moisture to nutrient content, farms represent new, potentially vulnerable, attack surfaces for hackers. Defending these farms is where MSPs that specialize in agricultural needs could find fertile ground.

The food system in the United States is very complex, and the proliferation of sensors is generating massive amounts of data. Hacking into this reservoir of data and the nation’s agri-tech ecosystem could be tempting for nation-states’ wishing to disrupt the nation’s food supply. The government is accelerating efforts to shore up this vulnerability. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture recently provided a grant to the University of Arkansas to help train food science cybersecurity professionals.

The importance of protecting farms

Steven Ricke, director of the System Division of Agriculture’s Center for Food Safety at the University of Arkansas, described the vulnerabilities in a recent news release:

“Advances in food-borne pathogen whole genome sequencing methodology and food microbial community microbiome profiling have resulted in an explosion of large data sets, which require not only much more sophisticated analytics but protection of the data from outside threats.”

Building the farm of the future is taking place on the campus of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, which is steeped in agricultural traditions. Smarter MSP caught up with Santosh Pitla, Assistant Professor of Advanced Machinery Systems at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln to talk about the impact of IoT and connectivity on the farm.

Cybersecurity in the food supply is something that is generating greater awareness. That cybersecurity awareness extends to all corners of the farming ecosystem.

According to Pitla, “Cybersecurity of farm machines are important both from the perspective of data privacy and machine performance.” In machinery, if hackers target a tractor, then data like GPA positioning, application rates for a spraying operation, and seeding rates for planting, could be stolen or tampered with. Interference in the nation’s interlocked food supply chain in one area can wreak havoc far beyond a security breach.

“Additionally, hacking an auto-steered or autonomous tractor often results in improper field operation. That could waste crop application material such as seeds, chemicals, and fertilizers. In some extreme conditions it could even damage farm property and equipment,” details Pitla.

This is where the robust security tools offered by managed service providers is a good fit on the farm. The involvement of MSPs in agriculture is at its nascent stage, but one that will likely expand.

“Discussions on farm cyber-infrastructure issues so far has been primarily on “data privacy” and “data ownership.” The dialog on cybersecurity is still in a nascent stage, but with expanding Ag IoT solutions and the autonomous tractors (that are on the horizon), the cybersecurity issues will play a big role,” predicts Pitla.

Sensors from cornfield to cupboard

Unless the farm is Amish-owned or a tiny family operation, most farms utilize some elements of connected technology.

“On an average farm, you can find IoT solutions typically for irrigation scheduling and weather station data collection,” Pitla says. However, IoT and AI often go much deeper.

According to Yufeng Ge, assistant professor of advanced sensing systems engineering at UNL, other connected technologies used on the farm include measuring networked soil moisture for variable rate irrigation management, networked crop sensors for variable rate nitrogen/fertilizer management, and connected ag equipment for machine management.

Ge concurred with Pitla about the volume of data smart farms will generate and the need to protect it:

“There are discussions on the ownership and accessibility of data in this “agricultural big data” era. IoT generated a lot of data (such as soil nutrients, production inputs, yield) about growers’ fields and operations. It is vital to bring protection to these farm generated data.”

Most farms, family or factory, don’t have the in-house tech staff to monitor data and connected devices that will be vital in feeding future generations. For MSPs looking for new business, the agriculture industry may represent a bumper crop.

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Photo: Konstanttin / Shutterstock

Kevin Williams

Posted by Kevin Williams

Kevin Williams is a journalist based in Ohio. Williams has written for a variety of publications including the Washington Post, New York Times, USA Today, Wall Street Journal, National Geographic and others. He first wrote about the online world in its nascent stages for the now defunct “Online Access” Magazine in the mid-90s.

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