Florida Sugar Grower’s Digital Plans Crystallize

‘If any business can be considered analog until very recently, it’s farming,’ says CIO at Florida Crystals.

“For years, billions of dollars in technology innovation have flooded the agriculture sector, promising cutting-edge data collection and analysis around the farming process. Some farms are only now starting to figure out how to put that data to work.

Florida Crystals, one of the largest growers of sugar cane in the U.S., is one of them. The privately held company farms 130,000 acres in Florida every season, and for decades it has used Excel spreadsheets or physical paper to map out when and where it would plant, tend and harvest, relying on subjective and experiential knowledge, CIO Kevin Grayling said.

But the plan was always out of date as soon as it was printed. Weather would change, machinery would break, crops wouldn’t be ready when anticipated or there would be personnel challenges—and there was no mechanism for optimizing or replanning the season, Mr. Grayling said.

“And then as stuff happens to that plan to upset it, they kind of wing it after that,” said Mr. Grayling. “If any business can be considered analog until very recently, it’s farming.”

Tremendous innovation is happening in the sector, from drones that can spot potential insect infestations to the use of satellite imagery to help boost yields, according to Accenture global agrochemicals lead Priscila de Pinho—as well as advances in autonomous, sensor-enabled farming machinery.

But, bringing together even basic weather, crop and personnel data on a shared platform and then using it to model and optimize operations has been a heavy lift, Mr. Grayling said.

The cost, complexity, availability of appropriate software solutions and cultural adjustment to new ways of working have all been barriers, he said.

Last year Florida Crystals implemented a digital farm management platform from Brazilian software company GAtec, a company with niche expertise in sugar, resulting in a transformational shift in capabilities and efficiency, Mr. Grayling said.

The platform doesn’t leverage cutting-edge AI or machine learning. Instead, Mr. Grayling said it accomplishes something like what basic enterprise resource planning systems offered to the manufacturing sector two decades ago.

“If you get in a time machine and go back to the late 90s and look at how people used SAP, that’s how we’re using farm management today,” he said. “The agronomists and the farm operations people get together and they plan their planting and harvesting plan in the digital farm management system.”

Agriculture is a varied and heterogeneous industry but the problem of successfully using all available data is one that all companies—even the largest most advanced ones—still contend with, according to Ms. de Pinho.

Florida Crystals is owned by privately held Fanjul Corp., and includes a sugar refinery business. Every year it grows approximately 1 million metric tons of raw sugar and refines 5 million to 6 million metric tons, including raw sugar it purchases from global commodities markets, equating to about 3% of the world’s sugar. The Fanjul family started its sugar empire in Cuba during the 19th century. The Florida Crystals subsidiary has existed since the 1960s.

The company’s platform is trained on 12 to 15 years of its historical farming data and pattern analysis, including information about what the final output looked like when one particular variety of sugar cane was harvested at a particular time. It also has third-party data inputs including information about weather and soil quality.

Using that, the company can enter information about which varieties were planted in which areas, and then model scenarios based on what output would look like if those were tended in a certain order. The goal is to ultimately come up with a way to optimize the quality and amount of output.

It can also apply constraints such as the cost of labor, equipment and energy, since the highest optimal yield might be at a prohibitive cost if, say, the model suggests harvesting a huge area of land all in one week.

For unexpected events such as personnel challenges, equipment malfunctions or poor weather—all of which happen often—the company has the flexibility to replan, which was unfeasible before the platform, Mr. Grayling said.

Although modernization can have a big payoff, there is a cultural factor holding back some companies from diving in further, according to Jeff Wong, EY Global Chief Innovation Officer. Managing change in a sector that has historically done things a certain way for centuries is hard, he said.

o be able to celebrate that success, something that had never been accomplished since the school grading system was established, made me feel like we can do anything,” Moore said.

One school, in particular, saw great success; Glade View Elementary went from an F-rating to a ‘C’.

“We are Eagle Strong!” said Shundra Dowers, Glade View’s Principal. “The reason for our success is due to the relentless determination of the students, staff, and the entire “Muck City” community.”

The Glades Region is already focused on next year, aiming to bring all schools to a ‘B’ or higher.

“We must remain focused if we want to continue to improve outcomes for students,” Moore said. “We know that the work we are doing in Pre-K to 12th grade is going to make a difference in preparing our students for post-graduate