At the end of the day, if a planter plants seed, a combine cuts corn or a picker picks cotton, that’s good enough, precision agriculture be damned. Harsh words, heretical in some quarters, but nonetheless true on many farm operations.
When a shiny precision ag technology packed with promise and potential drowns in complexity, the absence of simplicity isn’t merely an Achilles heel or inconvenience; it can be the death blow for the technology. In an industry awash with the latest and greatest, mounting voices are calling for change.
The promise of precision ag to find the sweet spot between hardware and agronomics, under the banner of simplicity, hasn’t arrived. When a farmer is rolling all day, the data sucked into the cab is often limited to entertainment. Once the day is finished, the machine is shut down, fade to black.
Steve Cubbage spends a great deal of time on Missouri farmland as an independent consultant on precision ag data. When he meets a producer to discuss data management, Cubbage commonly finds three to four years of data stored on a yield monitor. It is agronomic gold trapped in a box.
“Precision ag technology often lacks an emphasis on user experience. The products are not clear on how to operate and how to get the most out of them. Data is left on the table,” he says.
Data recorded is different from data in action. Failing to recognize the difference is a costly error for the precision ag industry, Cubbage warns. “Of all the field information collected, you’d be stretching to say 20% gets back to a computer or the cloud,” he says.
Who is to blame? First, Cubbage believes the precision ag industry hasn’t provided clear instruction on how to use data. Second, producers haven’t accepted the true value of collection possibilities. Varieties, seeding rates and application data should be top-drawer accessible for farmers, but the information is difficult to get in and out of the field. It can also be unreliable. The latest ag data platforms to burst from Silicon Valley typically require basic planting and yield data as prerequisites, which doesn’t exist even on some good farms, Cubbage says.
When the noise of technology promises is deafening with assurances of bigger and better, some producers turn off the volume and walk away. Cubbage hopes an independent grower organization will grab the megaphone to take a guiding role in outlining what’s important—and what isn’t.
“Right now, growers need to surround themselves with guys taking a holistic approach,” he says. “Don’t believe the myth growers can do it all alone.”
Part of a family team, Charles Johnson farms corn, cotton and soybeans on 7,000 acres along the Mississippi River in Lula, Miss. With margins wound tight, he’s wary of anything new.
“Let the brains of Silicon Valley put something simple on the table with proven rewards and I’ll get excited,” he says. “I’d love to have reliable data help, but I’ve already used tech that didn’t deliver, and it didn’t entice me to go much deeper.”
Johnson is typical of many farmers and gun-shy at the perception of bells and whistles. From his equipment to smartphone apps, Johnson only puts stock in what he understands.
“When spring arrives and I’ve got four planters running, I have to know exactly what works,” he explains. “I also deal with a labor problem that keeps getting worse. There aren’t many guys looking to operate farm equipment anymore. And most of the ones who are willing don’t do well with computer technology.”
Farmers thrive on the timeless progression that pushes a seed toward a mature plant and on to harvest. At the end of the process waits a measurable financial benefit. In a similar vein, farmers take satisfaction in the maintenance or repair of equipment and get a tangible reward when vehicles rumble back into the field. Getting stoked to spend money and computer time poring over yield maps and fertilizer prescriptions is tough for many producers.
“Many of us are not concerned about which piston fires first in an engine, or the pitch angle of a disc blade. This same mentality applies to analyzing farm data. We just want it to work with minimal input from us.” Sage words from grower Donavon Taves, a certified Louisiana Master Farmer and president of the Louisiana Association of Conservation Districts.
The output from a well-supplied data bank can make a significantly positive impact on the bottom line of an operation. However, it is the input to the data bank that often frustrates growers, Taves emphasizes.
“If computer-based farming is such a good thing, make the computer do more of the tedious task of inputting so the grower does not need to,” he says.
In an age of increasingly open-source connectivity, where devices of all sorts essentially talk to each other, Taves is frustrated to see big ag companies fight to remain proprietary with precision ag information.
“The starving poor, and the world as a whole, would be better served if the focus was on the benefit of maximizing production while conserving our natural resources, as opposed to which name brand data bank has the highest return for stockholders,” he says.
The disconnect between promise and practice remains a tangle for precision ag, and the knot won’t be undone by pulling loose a single strand.
“Tech manufacturers make assumptions about user experience but don’t always realize how much data is mostly abandoned,” Cubbage says. “Farmers can do so much with data, but the right, simple tools aren’t yet there.”