SmartBarley + Sentera: Advising our farmers from afar with remote-sensing technology

Posted: June 03, 2021
SmartBarley + Sentera: Advising our farmers from afar with remote-sensing technology

Behind every one of our beers are natural ingredients—grain, hops, water and yeast. Our business is closely tied to agricultural crops like barley and rice, and the water sources that help them grow.

We are deeply connected to the places where we live and work because the majority of our products are produced and sold locally. We know that the economy can't recover unless communities are thriving. 

That's why we are working towards our goal that 100% of our direct farmers be skilled, connected, and financially empowered by 2025. One way we are helping to make this happen is through the work of our agronomist teams using high-tech analytics and insights from Sentera.

Our agronomists are helping farmers maximize sustainable production

If you haven't heard the term before, you might be thinking—what's an agronomist? Simply put, they are advisors who are often embedded in local farming communities and work directly with farmers.

At AB InBev, we have teams of agronomists around the world who provide access to crop varieties, training and timely information for better decision-making in the fields.

Meghan Gleason, one of our U.S. agronomists located in North Dakota, explains, “Our most important role and our mission is to be a trusted crop advisor. Historically we do this by putting our boots on the ground and providing real time feedback and support to farmers as we stand in the fields with them.”

Meghan Gleason is one of our 14 agronomists working with farmers in the U.S. In 2021, our U.S. agronomists are working with 660 farmers, advising them as they produce barley, rice, and hops.

How we use technology to provide even better support

Our agronomists use our internal platform called SmartBarley to help farmers improve productivity through data and analytics. In 2020, we made this platform even more useful for our teams by integrating with our technology partner Sentera.

Our partnership with Sentera improves farmer advisory through real-time analytics and insights on their FieldAgent platform, which integrates seamlessly with the field data collected through SmartBarley. This tool allows agronomists to monitor farmers' fields throughout the season and provide timely advice during critical periods. With climate change and increasingly volatile weather events, this information is critical to building resilient supply chains in our local growing regions.

“As technology advances, so do our capabilities. We can continue to do this role on a much broader spectrum by utilizing technology, especially FieldAgent, to scout and diagnose field issues remotely,” says Gleason.

The technology was especially helpful as our agronomists worked to support farmers during the pandemic. The satellite imagery and weather data provided through FieldAgent enabled our agronomists to continue providing support remotely as the pandemic limited our team's ability to be in the fields alongside farmers. The adoption of the tool was also enhanced by the need to conduct field scouting when face-to-face meetings were not possible.

Using Sentera's FieldAgent tool to deepen our connection with farmers

In the U.S., our agronomists are using FieldAgent to provide important weather notifications to farmers. For instance, it can warn farmers of local weather events, like significant rainfall, and advise them on how to respond.

FieldAgent is also used to make pivotal crop management decisions throughout the growing season. A historic drought has plagued much of the upper Midwest this year, leaving fields with little to no moisture to be utilized by crops. Our agronomists have been utilizing FieldAgent to help recommend farmers' next steps in the face of the drought. Satellite imagery in FieldAgent allows us a view of a field that we wouldn't get by scouting it alone and provides an accurate view of crop emergence and growth. With this information, agronomists can then recommend that farmers stay the course and continue as is, replant a portion of the field, or begin anew with the aim of producing quality malting barley.

An image from FieldAgent taken during the current drought conditions in the Midwest, illustrating the high variability in crop performance that may result.

To further strengthen the relationship between farmers and our agronomists, we are trialing giving farmers direct access to FieldAgent. The shared tool will connect remote sensing and in-field advising, creating a common language for agronomists and farmers through shared information.

The reach of FieldAgent extends beyond the U.S. to other fields around the world. For instance, in Mexico the tool is used to check on isolated fields that cannot be visited easily or frequently. It also helps our agronomists identify faulty equipment, tailor nutrient management recommendations for fields and understand the impact of previous season rotations, all using remote sensing.

New weather reports

The latest feature to roll out on FieldAgent aggregates weather data for farmers' specific fields to provide a summary of weather in a region. It lets agronomists view historical data and compare it to current season weather patterns, including growing degree days, precipitation, and solar radiation.

Past growing seasons teach us a lot about the weather conditions that can either make or break a crop. Having access to this data will help us spot risks, advise farmers, and continue to build our understanding of weather variables for our crops.

“We depend on a reliable, quality supply of crops to brew our beers today and in the future. Insights from Sentera help us prepare for environmental stressors by fostering resilient farmers and crops,” says Adam Griffith, AB InBev Global VP, Vertical Operations, Raw Materials.

Our agronomists combine their local expertise with Sentera's imagery and weather data to tailor their recommendations and support productive, profitable and sustainable farmers.

Next up: Developing specific tools for rice farmers

As FieldAgent continues to deliver positive results for barley farmers, we are exploring expanding the technology to rice to improve productivity and profitability by optimizing nitrogen usage. This project represents an important opportunity from a sustainability perspective, as it would help to manage water, nitrogen and methane emissions.

At the end of the day, Sentera's technology supports our agronomists as they advise and empower our farmers with the tools they need to succeed. Our company-wide 2025 Sustainability Goals guide us in all that we do, and Sentera's technology helps us achieve our vision for sustainability by equipping our farmers with cutting-edge technology to help make better-informed farming decisions. We look forward to what the future of farming holds in partnership with Sentera.

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