Old 06-23-2008, 08:20 PM Offline   #1 (permalink)



 
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Default Feeding the Masses: Data In, Crop Predictions Out

Farmer's Almanac is finally obsolete. Last October, agricultural consultancy Lanworth not only correctly projected that the US Department of Agriculture had overestimated the nation's corn crop, it nailed the margin: roughly 200 million bushels. That's just 1.5 percent fewer kernels but still a significant shortfall for tight markets, causing a 13 percent price hike and jitters in the emerging ethanol industry. When the USDA downgraded expectations a month after Lanworth's prediction, the little Illinois-based company was hailed as a new oracle among soft-commodity traders — who now pay the firm more than $100,000 a year for a timely heads-up on fluctuations in wheat, corn, and soybean supplies.
The USDA bases its estimates on questionnaires and surveys — the agency calls a sample of farmers and asks what's what. Lanworth uses satellite images, digital soil maps, and weather forecasts to project harvests at the scale of individual fields. It even looks at crop conditions and rotation patterns — combining all the numbers to determine future yields.
Founded in 2000, Lanworth started by mapping forests for land managers and timber interests. Tracking trends in sleepy woodlands required just a few outer-space snapshots a year. But food crops are a fast-moving target. Now the company sorts 100 gigs of intel every day, adding to a database of 50 terabytes and counting. It's also moving into world production-prediction — wheat fields in Russia, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine are already in the data set, as are corn and soy plots in Brazil and Argentina. The firm expects to reach petabyte scale in five years. "There are questions about how big the total human food supply is and whether we as a country are exposed to risk," says Lanworth's director of information services, Nick Kouchoukos. "We're going after the global balance sheet."


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