Even though I wasn’t there in person it was an amazing sight to “watch.” Thanks to real-time telematics I was able to remotely observe a planter break the seeding speed limit—the pinnacle of precision agriculture technology in action.
The 60' wide planter with 36 rows at 20" row spacings was equipped with nearly $120,000 of advanced precision “accessories” on top of its $200,000-plus factory price tag. With its high-speed planting system, sophisticated row-by-row hydraulic down pressure and more sensors than the latest Mars rover, the planter’s capabilities boggle the mind. At 10 mph, twice the normal speed, the planter was doing a great job of putting corn in the ground with singulation scores of 99% and above. The planter averaged nearly 500 acres a day without breaking a sweat.
For those of us tasked with keeping the sophisticated machines running, it’s an increasingly heavy burden. We all dread the Apollo 13 moment. The “Houston. I have a problem” call at 4:59 p.m. on Friday afternoon. Today’s precision technology has to work. It is no longer a luxury. You can’t put down the markers in a pinch and plant old school.
The ag industry desperately needs a nationwide “Geek Squad” initiative. We’re already to the point there aren’t enough “boots on the ground” to support the technology, and we’re light-years from being able to handle what’s coming.
It’s time for the ag industry to pivot to a more service-based model rather than relying heavily on just selling the widgets. Some industry analysts will tell you the early trek of the direction of precision ag parallels the information technology (IT) segment. For those of us who lived through the “computer revolution” of the 1980s, who could forget the boring beige boxes called PCs? They bred like rabbits. A majority of those “boxes” were made by a company called International Business Machines also known as IBM or “Big Blue.”
Big Blue and other PC manufacturers sold enough PCs that eventually they became almost a worthless commodity. Many computer manufacturers either went broke or nearly broke chasing the race to the bottom to build the cheapest PC. Even though IBM ran that race, they were smart enough to call an audible that probably ended up saving the company.
Today’s IBM is not your father’s IBM. They transformed themselves from a heavily hardware-based company into a IT services company that sells everything from IT maintenance to cloud systems and storage services. IT hardware still plays a role in IBM’s mission but it represents a fraction of the revenue it once did.
One example of their diversification is they now own the Weather Company, which is behind the Weather Channel and the Weather Underground. They also have a supercomputer network called Watson that can beat the best human chess masters and will likely be the backbone behind IBM’s Blockchain initiative. Ironically, Blockchain is poised to have huge implications for ag.
For precision ag to progress and be sustainable, it needs to pivot like IBM did after the PC boom and bust. The precision industry must move on from its hardware-heavy mentality. In addition, precision tech end users, farmers and ag retailers, must be willing to pay for services. That might be the toughest pill to swallow because in many ways precision ag services are devalued by the ag industry.
For ag to benefit with the next wave of precision, the cloud, artificial intelligence, robotics, the Internet of Things and big data, it is going to take an army, and it’s time to start recruiting. Spread the word. Ag’s future depends on it.