Indigo Research Partners™: Building the World's Largest Agricultural Lab

By Geoffrey von Maltzahn

At Indigo, we believe the best lab for testing innovative agricultural techniques is the farm itself. Through collaborations with farmers around the US, we are building the world’s largest agricultural lab — Indigo Research Partners™ — with the goal of accelerating innovations that increase yields, improve environmental sustainability, and/or reduce risks for farmers.

While farms are great places to run experiments, they are also incredibly challenging places to draw reliable conclusions. Due to variability across soil type, terrain, water, nutrients, pests, and environmental stresses, the complexities can be overwhelming — even within a single field. Without detailed knowledge of these variables, the signals of on-farm experiments are often drowned out by the noise. This makes it difficult for growers to optimize their decisions and assess the value of new technologies on their farms.

Making life more challenging, there is no gold standard by which to evaluate new technologies in agriculture. Agricultural companies release their own data, which is neither standardized, nor formally judged by outside experts or farmers, and growers are left to sort through it, deciding what (if anything) they might believe. Many of these experiments are done in highly uniform conditions (called small-plot field trials) in order to show clear results, making them of little relevance to real farmer fields. In the absence of data that they can trust, it’s often easiest and least expensive for growers to stick with what they know — with what they’ve been using on their farm for years. Without the ability to make all decisions based on data, farmers miss out on innovations that could improve their profitability, and new technologies have a difficult time proving their worth. This slows innovation and the pace at which agriculture can adapt to changing consumer and environmental needs. 

With Indigo Research Partners, we are working to create the new gold standard for agricultural R&D based on four beliefs:

  1. The best labs for agricultural R&D are farms. The performance of new technologies can only be understood if they are tested in real-world conditions.
  2. Modern technologies and sensors can turn real-world conditions into an asset for conducting valuable experiments, rather than an obstacle.
  3. Farmer-led R&D is more valuable and trustworthy, driving both better decisions and faster market adoption of successful products.
  4. An open platform for real-world product testing will improve market access for new technologies, reduce costs for innovators, and accelerate agricultural innovation.

We’ve developed relationships with over fifty large and innovative U.S. growers and have begun to instrument their fields with tools that will enable a truly digital and sophisticated perspective on farm variability. We are using sensors, weather stations, soil mapping technologies, drones, and satellites to sub-divide farms into thousands of distinct experiments and evaluate the performance of new products, agronomic practices, farming equipment, and the many decisions growers make every year across these real-world conditions.

We’re currently generating over a trillion data points each day on Indigo Research Partners farms. With this kind of perspective, farms become powerful laboratories for determining the precise conditions in which new products can add value, as well as where they cannot. If a product works in winter wheat planted in clay in dry conditions, we want to figure that out. If it fails to perform in corn following soybeans, planted in silty loam, with pH <6.0, we want to know that too.

We envision allowing farmers to run decisive experiments on hundreds of innovations each year. In addition to our Indigo microbiome and data solutions, we are evaluating technologies of over a hundred start-ups with the goal of getting those best poised to improve productivity and sustainability onto the fields of Indigo customers. These technologies, whether digital, microbial, or mechanical, represent the cusp of a new revolution in agriculture.  The last agricultural revolution was built on the science of synthetic fertilizers, crop chemicals, and GMOs, with the philosophy of treating every acre the same. We believe that this next revolution will be built by farmers, innovators, and consumers, working together and treating every square foot of a field as unique.

If we get this right, the implications of being able to both run and interpret real-world experiments at scale are transformational to agriculture — farmers can rapidly adopt new technologies they believe in because they know they are tailor-made for their own conditions, and innovators can focus on science, instead of market access.   

If you’re an innovator with a technology you believe can help farmers, get in touch. Let’s turn farms across the globe into the world’s largest agricultural lab. Together, we can bring an enormous amount of innovation into agriculture and make it better every single year for growers, consumers, and the environment.