Farming is not an industry most people associate with advanced technology, but a fresh crop of startups is slowly changing the way farmers do business.

Agricultural technology--or ag tech, as it's known in Silicon Valley--is a relatively young industry focused on helping farmers make their fields more profitable. One startup in the sector, FarmLogs, builds software that aggregates crop-field data and analyzes it to increase efficiency and yield. Because it's industry standard for farm machinery to come with built-in sensors that track everything from precipitation to soil composition, companies like FarmLogs don't have to manufacture any complementary hardware. As with an increasing number of industries, it's all about the data.

As a part of Inc.'s annual look at the best industries for starting a business, we spoke to Rajiv Khosla, professor of precision agriculture at Colorado State University, to hear more about opportunities in the ag tech space.

C.S.U. offers a degree in applied information technology in agriculture. Are ag tech companies increasingly hiring your students?

When kids graduate out of that program, they're in pretty high demand. John Deere, Pioneer, Monsanto--all of these companies have hired our students, and they've moved on either with the same company or with other companies, like the Natural Resources Conservation Academy, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the Agricultural Research Service. State and federal agencies favor students who have experience and training in computer information systems, and students coming out of this program have that.

Is the ag tech sector one that is due for a meaningful amount of growth in terms of the number of companies in the space?

I would say yes. FarmLogs is the classic example of a company that's translating data that already exists in the public domain to help farmers make better decisions. Do we need more outfits to enable that? Yes, because the agricultural space is huge. Companies like Monsanto and DuPont recently opened up entire divisions that handle nothing but that. Monsanto bought out Climate Corps for more than $900 million to enable this large conglomerate to fill in that space.

Do you see this sector growing not just in the U.S. but globally as well?

We're starting as an advanced economy, but this will slowly trickle down to other economies. I have projects worldwide in many different economies. Agriculture is slower in adopting information age technologies, but it's happening. If you look back 40 and 50 years at how well we have increased production in North America, we have done really well, but with these new technologies, we can do even better, particularly when it comes to the environment, climate change, and healthier, nutritious food. 

Is there anything holding ag tech back from growing even faster?

What we really need in terms of innovation is planting 2.0, where we're able to understand the signatures coming off of the plants that signal how much nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium are required. If a crop is undergoing stress, we should be able to detect whether the stress is happening due to water, disease, or insects. And not only that, we should be able to detect it asymptomatically, meaning before the stress happens. There are changes that are happening in the plant that we should be able to detect two days before the symptoms even appear. It's possible because there are biochemical changes that are not yet visible to the naked eye, but that are detectable because of fluorescence.

When do you think ag tech will start seeing widespread adoption?

It's already happening. People outside of agriculture don't really understand how accomplished this whole industry is. One example is auto guidance or autopilot systems. The first auto-guidance systems came out in 2004, and the most recent survey shows that 30 percent of farmers across 33 major agricultural states in the U.S. are using some form of auto guidance. It's allowing them to farm in low visible light, to plant straight, and to not overlap chemicals. It's increasing production, and you're not even touching the steering wheel.

Published on: Mar 23, 2015