Many years ago, while doing a stint in academia, I participated in an introductory course in agriculture for freshman students. The course provided an overview of the field from a number of perspectives, which were represented by the instructors. On my first day, I would start off my lecture by commenting that the students could have gone into an easier major such as nuclear physics but instead they chose the more difficult field of agriculture.
As you would expect, this pronouncement enlisted a hearty round of laughter, but there was in my comment a strong element of truth, which was missed by my young audience. Simply stated, agriculture is a complex system, which requires adherents of the field to have a broad range of knowledge and experience. Add in the technological advances associated with “precision” agriculture and you have defined a pretty challenging endeavor for students and adult learners.
Probably the single greatest challenge for precision agriculture is attracting “qualified” individuals into the field. I emphasize qualified because too many times I see personnel being “retrofitted” for precision agriculture. That is, individuals were originally hired to be field advisors or salespersons who are now being told to participate in precision agriculture. Worse yet, their participation was inaugurated without technical preparation, without a reduction in their original duties, and, in some cases, without the support of their bosses. In other words, employees are being asked to be nuclear scientists without the education and training, and, in many cases, without their interest. It is little wonder why many organizations struggle with precision agriculture.
So what are the barriers that must be overcome to ensure there are “qualified” individuals in the field of precision agriculture? The first barrier is education. No matter what the undertaking, individuals must first acquire knowledge about the subject area. Whether formal through university degree or informal through independent courses or an apprenticeship program, education is the first step.
The second barrier is training (activity leading to skilled behavior). Training puts education into action. Since agricultural practices vary significantly by commodity and geography, training provides help to fine tune what a person has learned.
The third barrier is culture. Every agricultural organization has its way of doing things. Roles and habits in these organizations have evolved over many years based on the needs of growers and the economic opportunities in the industry. For precision agriculture to work, these roles will have to change to accommodate new technologies, data, and decision making.
The fourth and last barrier is value. Most agricultural professionals have a good idea what their efforts are worth in the marketplace. When something as different as precision agriculture enters the picture, the work associated with it has no established value. Worse, the initial value is often perceived to be low when compared to other efforts. This perception can be positively corrected by documenting the efficiencies and monetary benefits accrued the grower through the use of precision agriculture in their management. Once value is recognized, it is an easy step to provide incentives for individuals to excel in precision agriculture.
It is clear from the “Precision Agriculture Success Stories” in this and other previous publications that individuals can overcome the barriers. Careful readings of the stories reveal that success was the result of education, self training (typically through trial and error), working in a culture comfortable with change, and exceling in an environment that provides incentives. Furthermore, as one follows the stories over the years, it will also be apparent that success feeds on success. The more effort individuals work with precision agriculture, the greater is the return of their investment in time and energy.
Individuals or companies interested in precision agriculture may ask, “How does one get ‘qualified’ to improve their chances for success?” One great starting point is to find out about companies providing information technology (IT) services for precision agriculture. These companies, which can be IT specialists, soil labs, dealers, or consultant groups, can offer different levels of programs along with training to meet the needs of most professionals in the industry. Another area of help is with books, journals, vendor literature, and trade magazines such as this one.
Once individuals get proficient with the programs and other tools of precision agriculture and are current on what works in the field, only their imaginations become the limiting factor on the path towards success.
Editor’s note: This article first appeared in the Winter 2006 issue of PrecisionAg Special Reports.