Suburban Washington, D.C., might not spring to mind as a top U.S. farming community—but Montgomery County, Maryland, is embarking on one of the most innovative and unique initiatives in agriculture today. The county’s Thingstitute, a first-of-a-kind living laboratory for Internet of Things (IoT) technology projects, is starting an agriculture testbed to help farmers use data to become more productive, prosperous and viable—and Microsoft CityNext is proud to be its lead partner.
While the agriculture testbed is in its earliest phase, its aspirations are great, according to Dan Hoffman, Montgomery County’s chief innovation officer and Thingstitute leader: “The idea behind the testbed is to determine what types of services and support we can provide to county farmers using technology. Farmers care what’s happening at their farms—ground temperatures, weather conditions, the more local the better. A lot of farmers also have reporting requirements: a dairy has significant federal and state requirements regarding milk production. We want to explore services that may make it easier and faster to collect the data to be compliant with those regulations.” Other examples could involve better use of pesticides or more precise nutrient management practices.
“At the end of the day, we want to make our farmers as profitable as possible by helping them be as smart as possible, Hoffman said. “We want to better understand how we can use technology to help county farmers.”
It’s a tall order but Montgomery County makes agriculture a priority. It recently announced it will move its agricultural services function into a standalone county office to enable a focus on its mission and provide better services. With one-third of the county’s land area—93,000 acres in all—set aside for farming, the Office of Agriculture provides key services to support and promote the viability of its farmers, which employ 10,000-plus residents on 540 farms and 350 horticultural enterprises, contributing more than $287 million annually to the local economy.
The four farmers voluntarily participating in the Thingstitute agriculture testbed will allow sensor devices to be deployed on their farms, which are diverse in their operations, experience levels and use of technology:
- One is traditional farmer, whose family has farmed for several generations growing squash and pumpkins.
- Another is a startup farmer, who is establishing a new orchard for specialty persimmons.
- Local Roots Farms repurposes unused shipping containers to grow greens and berries—in essence, providing innovative greenhouses for urban settings (the startup was featured in this com article).
- Woodbourne Creamery at Rock Hill Orchard is the first all pasture, robotic milking facility in North America. This dairy and processing facility has a “voluntary milking system,” which allows cows to be milked when they want, typically between two to three times per day.
The agriculture testbed is the second Thingstitute IoT initiative, joining a project at a senior living community, with a third testbed planned later this year. What makes Montgomery County’s IoT testbeds unique is an emphasis on the multifaceted, real world of IoT as opposed to a single-point solution. “We’re putting together a really compelling blended team,” Dan explains, noting this approach will “allow us to better understand how IoT operates in a real world, integrated setting as opposed to (addressing) one specific solution.” By doing so, Dan contends it makes IoT real and “people can then understand why my city or county is making this investment.”
Microsoft CityNext is excited to partner on Montgomery County’s agriculture testbed, share our IoT experience and know-how, and apply our leading-edge Microsoft Azure Government cloud platform to the real world of farming. In fact, we can’t wait to make IoT real for agriculture in Montgomery County!
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Jeff Friedman is Microsoft’s director of eGovernment Business Development in the State and Local Government Solutions Group. He was most recently the Co-Director and Co-Founder of the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics for Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter.