The WSU Farmers Network with Keith Curran


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Episode Transcription:

[ Music ]

Drew Lyon: Hello. Welcome to the WSU Wheat Beat podcast. I’m your host, Drew Lyon, and I want to thank you for joining me as we explore the world of small grains production and research at Washington State University. In each episode, I speak with researchers WSU and the USDA-ARS to provide you with insights into the latest research on wheat and barley production. If you enjoy the WSU Wheat Beat podcast do us a favor and subscribe on iTunes or your favorite podcasting app and leave us a review while you’re there so others can find the show too.

[ Music ]

Drew Lyon: My guest today is Keith Curran. Keith is a research associate working under Dr. Bill Pan and the project coordinator for the WSU Farmers Network. He began working for the WSU Farmers Network in November of 2018 and is currently developing a database to incorporate new website features to be released in March of this year. Hello, Keith.

Keith Curran: Good afternoon, Dr. Lyon. Thank you for having me.

Drew Lyon: It’s a pleasure. I’d like for you to tell us a little bit more about your Farmers Network. What is it?

Keith Curran: Thank you for asking. The WSU Farmers Network is based on a concept by Dr. Haiying Tao, who’s been working in developing this product for almost two years now. Dr. Tao has been working together with four universities as part of what’s called the DIFM Project. The acronym stands for Data-Intensive Farm Management. And the tools that we’re developing with this group involve big data and machine learning, and it’s fairly revolutionary. While the concept of a farmers network and on-farm collaboration is not a new one, the approach that the WSU Farmers Network is taking is unique and powerful, I believe. The Farmers Network, obviously, is for co-innovation. It’s a co-innovation platform to advance soil and nutrition management, crop productivity, farm sustainability, profit, and you advance these goals through collaborative on-farm research, extension education, and participatory learning. Growers who directly participate in on-farm research have benefited by learning firsthand which practices are better choices and which are able to fine-tune their nutrient management systems and other practices through their collaborative processes.

Drew Lyon: Okay. So, as you said, we’ve had farm — on-farm research for a long time, but this is kind of taking it to a new level.

Keith Curran: Yes.

Drew Lyon: Okay. And why do you think the Farmers Network is an important tool in advancing farming?

Keith Curran: Well, some of the traditional goals of a farmers network is to facilitate information and idea sharing between farmers, agronomist researchers, and other stakeholders. Other goals are to increase, improve, and enhance on-farm research collaboration, and through the function of our advisory committees, targeting research and extension needs to generate scientific publications and extension bulletins. Farming, as you know, is challenging. Farmers have to wear many hats in their day-to-day operations. They manage thousands of acres of crops, often scattered across many miles, and their fields vary by soil, water, climate, fertility, weed, and disease characteristics. They differ in management history, ownership, and landowner restrictions. All of these factors simultaneously interact at different levels to create challenges to information gathering and the application of that information in management. The WSU Farmers Network offers important and unique tools that provides a hosted big data platform in a centralized database from which farmers, stakeholders, and researchers can collect and analyze data, exchange information, and apply what’s been learned. And so the application of these digital tools and technology allow us to collect large amounts of georeferenced, high-resolution, high-quality data that support real-time learning and create low-risk decision making for growers. And that’s really what our goals are, the fundamental goals are.

Drew Lyon: Okay. So this big data idea, I think, that’s kind of what’s been missing for a lot is the ability to handle all this data because you collect a huge amount of data if it’s all site-specific and all of these farms. So that’s really the unique characteristic that’s — you’re bringing to bear on this big problem that we have, is making site-specific recommendations over a geography that’s as variable as eastern Washington.

Keith Curran: Right. And I think when you think about the traditional challenges to do doing something like this, first of all, you’ve got the limited bandwidth of farms. So how do you get their data from their farm up into the cloud, up into our servers for processing into the database and, of course, analysis? Uploading a shapefile on a farm’s metered connection usually will exhaust most farmers’ monthly bandwidth pretty quickly and their patience, I imagine, in a very short amount of time. So we’re trying to make the upload process simple for storing data on our secure database, in our cloud, and parsing that file information into the database schema. Also, when you think about how traditionally researchers — they store their data and their information, it’s not centralized. They store it in Excel files, PDFs, Word. And what we’re trying to do is get everybody to play in the same sandbox, get all that information, get that data onto a centralized database and not have it be scattered amongst the different individuals that are part of the collaborative process so that we’re all working from the same page and facilitating that collaborative efficiency. Obviously, when you’re working with cutting-edge technology, funding is an issue. Licensing, for example, when you bring a file up onto the cloud server from a farmer’s shapefile, for example, parsing that file into the database — if you were to pay somebody to do that and to code that to create the scripts, it’s generally less expensive to license a product or to purchase a product that you can simply retool for that purpose. And so we’ve been investigating different technologies. And so, obviously, we wish to fund these technological innovations at some point, so that’s a challenge as well. And then, finally, creating the tools to perform the data analysis on a server to remove the need from downloading terabytes of data to a local machine where it’s traditionally analyzed and processed — this is what we’re also striving to accomplish. So performing the analysis on the server so that it doesn’t have to be taken off the server, then put back — all these things, I think, are really important towards having a unique and, dare I say, first-to-market solution because there’s not a lot of people that are doing this right now. And so we’re trying to get these tools in place so that we can be one of the first folks to be doing this.

Drew Lyon: Yeah. I would think that would be one of the challenges is — I know how much time I spend in my program bringing data, analyzing the data, thinking about it, what does it mean, getting input — you’ll want to take all this data and have some kind of way of processing fairly quickly because I’m assuming growers aren’t going to wait for three years till you write a journal article to know what their data’s telling them. So there’s going to have to be some kind of process to analyze and interpret that data in a fairly short order, I would think.

Keith Curran: Right. And that’s the beautiful thing about big data and having this. We’re hosting our own server, so the idea is to get farmers to the WSU Farmers Network website, where they can log in and see what’s happening in real time. So I believe that, you know, having them participate and then having a functional web page where they really want to go to it and having the features used by the farmers — that’s important.

Drew Lyon: Okay. So how can farmers participate in the on-farm research if they have an interest in that?

Keith Curran: Well, thank you for asking. Farmers and interested stakeholders can register for membership online at Membership takes only a few seconds and is presently free, although I think that there’s plans to add some paid membership levels of service in the near future to cover the cost of hosting the database and, of course, the licensing for the web server software. But I can also be contacted directly. My contact information is on the website, and I’m located in room 171 in Johnson Hall at the WSU Pullman campus.

Drew Lyon: And email address. Is that a good way to contact you?

Keith Curran: Sure. My email address is my first name, Keith, dot last name, Curran, C-U-R-R-A-N, at And I welcome your emails.

Drew Lyon: Okay. Well, it’s a very exciting and ambitious goal, but I think it really could be changing the whole way we do on-farm research extension work, so I’m really excited to watch and see how this develops, and I hope growers will go to your website and take a look at it and think about it and perhaps contact you. So, once again, could you give us the web address for the website?

Keith Curran: Sure. It’s

Drew Lyon: All right. Thank you very much, Keith.

Keith Curran: Thank you.

[ Music ]

Drew Lyon: Thanks for joining us and listening to the WSU Wheat Beat podcast. If you like what you hear don’t forget to subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcasting app. If you have questions or topics, you’d like to hear on future episodes please email me at drew.lyon That’s ( You can find us online at and on Facebook and Twitter @WSUSmallGrains. The WSU Wheat Beat podcast is a production of CAHNRS Communications and the College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University. I’m Drew Lyon, we’ll see you next time.