Spencer McLeod wanted a better way to track the many moving parts on his family’s farm, but he ran into limitations. So, he took matters into his own hands.
Earlier this year, McLeod received his first bulk shipment of digital trackers that carry the motherboard he helped engineer and had manufactured in India. He plans to deploy and test the devices on the farm this season, hanging them on the network he created on his South Carolina farm and monitoring the devices with the interface he developed with two partners.
McLeod, 28, received an agriculture mechanization degree and a Master’s of Business Administration from Clemson University. His father, Kemp, and family were the South Carolina Farmer of the Year in 2017. They own one of the largest peach operations in the Southeast, along with growing strawberries, blackberries, pumpkins and row crops on about 7,500 acres total in McBee, S.C. They practice an intense hands-on approach to farm management.
From planting, to spraying, to irrigating, to coordinating labor and regulatory requirements, to harvesting and handling crops and inventory, tracking activities on an operation as large and diverse as the McLeod’s is a challenge.
“We have capable technology and live in a time where we can collect data, but we are limited by the economics and availability of the current solutions that would allow a significant amount of "data-collecting" devices in the field. In order to make this an economical solution, we needed a reliable, self-deployed, long-range network. From there, we can have actionable data that we can analyze, monitor, and control,” he said. “Making that link was non-existent, and that is what I was looking to accomplish.”
To solve this interconnection problem on the McLeod farm and to get more devices relaying useful data to him, he first started a few years ago to piece together a reliable, economical Wi-Fi network “to bring full-blown Internet to remote parts of the farm,” he said.
Like many operations, as the McLeod farm built out — adding pump stations, for example, or sheds or grain elevators — over time the operation spread logistically and geographically. And most of those additions, at least up until recent times, were not built with Internet connections in mind, such as running Category 5 cable for high-speed access to the Internet.
A big step for McLeod was getting high-speed fiber optics run to the farm’s main headquarters. He leveraged that fiber connection and started shooting it (10 miles in some cases) to a dozen different locations on the farm using small dishes built by a company called Ubiquiti.
After building the Wi-Fi infrastructure, he could hang different devices on the network, such as cameras and some programmable logic controllers, PLCs, which are rugged programmable controllers.
“In the Wi-Fi project, we quickly learned how valuable it was to have Internet access in these remote locations, where critical operations such as irrigation, wind machines or grain storage could benefit from monitoring,” he said.
Cellular access might have been the simplest route, he said, placing cellular modems and hotspots in the areas he wanted to cover and on sensors he wanted to monitor. “But with cellular, you’re paying by the bucket load, not the pipe, which means it’s metered. This can limit you in certain uses, like cameras, for example. After the initial investment in the Wi-Fi antennas, we were done with recurring costs and had the full capabilities of the internet. Wi-Fi gave us the freedom from those expenses, but not the coverage.”
Wi-Fi alone wasn’t enough to achieve complete farm coverage. McLeod wanted more. “I want to connect everything,” he said with a grin and a tone of dramatic hyperbole but also with an edge of seriousness.
“Wi-Fi wasn’t the answer. Its deployment is cumbersome for the average user and required regular maintenance. Battery life was also a problem, so we couldn’t go completely remote. We had to stay near the power grid. Finally, we just weren’t getting enough coverage area. To cover thousands of acres would require lots of devices. Huge infrastructure costs. It is just out of the question,” he said.
To solve the coverage limitation, McLeod turned to a LORA network, or low-power, wide-area wireless technology, which allows remote devices to communicate to a central gateway with a range of up to five miles, he said.
“Although we sacrificed some bandwidth, (the LORA) network solved our coverage issues and allowed the devices to use less power. Which makes true standalone solutions for the sensors we were looking to connect,” he said.
McLeod, for the most part, used off-the-shelf technology to build his platform to connect, monitor and receive actionable data on his farm. He’s had some setbacks, but has learned a lot in just the last few months and hopes to learn a lot more about it this season.
The final piece to his connecting-the-farm project was to create an interface. “Because we are building devices to communicate over a single network, we can now build a user interface that combines all these aspects into one portal, and share this information across an organization with a variety of permissions and to display the information over a number of different devices,” he said.
The network project to connect his farm was born of need to solve a problem, or improve management, on the McLeod farm. But not far into the process, McLeod began to think about how he could turn the project into a service for other farm operations. He and two partners created the AgriLinx platform in the cloud.
“AgriLinx is a communication and interface platform for users to deploy their own networks across their farms and hang devices on. From soil moisture probes, valve controls, equipment trackers, to employee activity trackers, AgriLinx can support a multitude of applications,” he said.
This season will be the first all-system testing of the GPS-capable trackers that were made in India. And he will use them to track labor activities to streamline accountability on the farm.
“For field workers, location dictates what commodities and cost centers their labor hours can be coded to. By establishing geofences around our different fields and even packing areas and shop work areas, we can use worker location to identify where labor costs should be coded. Using the time of year, we also established a general activity a worker would be doing,” he said.
Going on 20 years ago, the McLeods were one of the first farms in South Carolina to use the H-2A federal foreign temporary agricultural worker program. They know how important accountability and difficult regulatory requirements can be.
So, how does a South Carolina farmer even start to get digital trackers engineered and manufactured in India in the first place? McLeod admits he is no coder, but he does know what he wants in a technology. He searched online, got some connections and landed on a partner in India’s tech-hub of Hyderabad to help make his vision come to life. They are already working on the next-generation motherboards and devices for the AgriLinx platform.