Precision Agriculture, Then And Now

A friend recently asked me if precision agriculture is going the way of the airline industry. In other words, will the various companies, large and small, begin to consolidate so that over time there are just four or five major players? This is a fascinating question, especially in light of recent acquisitions and partnerships in the agricultural sector. Before answering this question, it may be helpful to provide some background on where precision agriculture is today relative to its beginnings some 30 years ago.

Like most other technology-oriented industries, precision agriculture is going through evolutionary phases, though at a relatively faster pace. Using a human habitation analogy, precision agriculture began in the early 1980s with trailblazers. Trailblazers consisted of pockets of one or two individuals scattered across the country. They saw a vision of what a personal computer coupled with a geographic information system (GIS) and a global positioning system (GPS) could mean for agriculture. These innovators in government, university and industry took advantage of later generations of these systems that were becoming both practical and cost-effective. Most of their energy was focused on adapting the software and communication components of these systems so that they could work together in an agricultural field setting. While far from commercial services, these individuals were able to demonstrate the value of geographically-addressed points in a field to record observations and to make derivative products such as a variable-rate map. One forgets that during the late 1980s, fax machines could only transmit text at very low baud rates at a cost of thousands of dollars and that the Internet was in its infancy.

The Early Pioneers

The 1990s was the decade of pioneers. Small start-ups were introducing more accurate GPS units, yield monitors and software programs that assisted growers in the collection of field data and the interpretation of that data for production decisions. Most software was distributed on floppy disks but a few companies were taking advantage of the Internet with Web-based programs. Larger equipment companies were incorporating GPS units into their hardware so that the geographic positioning of material applications or harvested biomass could be tracked across a field. The 1990s saw the widespread use of laptop computers and handheld devices in the form of personal digital assistants (PDAs). Laptop computers and PDAs gave individuals mobility in the field. Software followed these mobile devices allowing participants in precision agriculture to trace a boundary, record a soil sample location and make crop and pest observations.

The pioneers, be they growers, consultants, retailers, distributors or companies, faced two major hurdles in the adoption of precision agriculture. The first hurdle was the incompatibility of hardware and software. Every equipment company had their own proprietary wiring, devices and file formats for recording and transferring data to and from the field. It was a meticulous and painful process to get machinery and programs to talk with one another. Incompatibility resulted in a high level of frustration among growers and their providers and slowed the adoption of a beneficial technology. The second hurdle was the learning curve among agricultural participants. Precision agriculture demanded not only new technical skills but a new mindset. A hundred years of whole field practices had to be adjusted to subfield information. Consumed with getting things to work, the second hurdle was rarely addressed in the early decades of precision agriculture.

The 2000s was the decade of settlers. During this period, the basic elements that would ultimately define a precision agriculture service came to fruition. Whether offered by small or large companies, these elements consisted of boundary making, recordkeeping, field notes, crop and pest scouting, field sampling in coordination with soil labs, variable-rate applications and other software tailored to crop-specific production practices. Nearly all companies staked out well-defined market geographies with little overlap. Some companies targeted growers while others worked through retailers, distributors, consultants and other entities who engaged growers.

During this decade of settlers, customers jumped from company to company in quest of new offerings or price advantages. The 2000s witnessed the widespread use of tablet computers and cell phones. In the latter years of this decade, cell phones evolved into smartphones, with their built-in accessories and ability to access the Internet. Flash drives and cloud computing also made their introduction in the 2000s. Flash drives made an immediate impact on precision agriculture with their ability to shuttle data to and from a desktop or portable computer to hardware in the field.

City Building

The present decade, 2010s, is seeing the rise of cities. As precision agriculture becomes more main stream, the larger equipment, seed and chemical companies, distributors and retailers are either buying or partnering with smaller companies offering new technologies or solutions. Simply put, to compete, any entity supplying products or information to growers must have a precision agriculture service. At the same time, venture capital outside of agriculture is buying up farmland and retailers across the country. As each retail location comes into the venture capital fold, a local precision agriculture program is replaced with a corporate one. The continual acquisition of farmland and retail outlets reduces the market for other competing companies.

The present decade also marks the movement from “precision” agriculture to “decision” agriculture. The earlier learning curve for technical skills and data solutions went from being voluntary to a requirement for participation in precision agriculture. Customer desire for both technology and knowledge fueled the vertical integration of entities in order to provide a “one-stop shop” not only for a precision agriculture program but also for a decision support system. A decision support system that supports best management practices and covers the risk for their implementation. The decade saw the introduction of calculators to assess the sustainability of production practices. A sustainability assessment helps growers be more efficient with their resources and better stewards of their farmland.

New technologies, such as described in this PrecisionAg magazine edition, will continue to define precision agriculture in the future, but the vertical integration of entities with its focus on decision making will change the composition of competitors. In answering my friend’s question, precision agriculture in the remaining years of this decade will, like the airline industry, end up with four or five major players globally. And, to the surprise of some, the monies fueling this integration will very likely come from outside the agricultural community. While many of the early and later entrants in precision agriculture will be absorbed in the current and future consolidation, others will redefine themselves. Even as precision agriculture matures like other technology-oriented industries, there will always be new innovations creating new opportunities due to the complex and changing nature of agriculture.

Leave a Reply

One comment on “Precision Agriculture, Then And Now

  1. Where do you see the soil labs offering field services and software programs fitting in as we move to the “future”? Will they be “gobbled up too by the venture capital?

Professionals Stories
Professionals5 Compelling Reasons To Join The PrecisionAg Professional LinkedIn Group
March 1, 2017
Many ag professionals are actively using sites such as Twitter and Facebook to promote their businesses. But perhaps no other Read More
UNL Researchers
ProfessionalsPrecision Agriculture Makes Farming More Sustainable, Profitable
February 23, 2017
Farmers have numerous sources of technology and data available to use in their operations, but many producers struggle with what Read More
DronesLand O’Lakes Drone Challenge Crowdsourcing Competition Underway
February 17, 2017
Land O’Lakes, Inc. is calling on innovators from the tech industry to enter the Land O’Lakes Prize: Drone Challenge, a Read More
ProfessionalsDeere Details New Connect Mobile App, C850 Air Cart
February 15, 2017
To help growers monitor, adjust and learn from the performance of their planter or sprayer while it moves through the Read More
Trending Articles
Connected Farm Scout Trimble Agriculture - featured image
Decision Support Software17 Field Scouting Apps For Precision Agriculture
February 6, 2017
There are dozens of easy-to-use mobile apps that are ideal for every day field scouting tasks. From record keeping and Read More
John Deere Dealership
Business ManagementAg Retailer, Equipment Dealer Improve Service By Working Together
January 27, 2017
Some believe that in many aspects of life, timing is everything. Among those believers, please count Randy Bartholomew, Integrated Solutions Read More
Innovation SeriesPrecision To Lead Agriculture In 2017?
January 25, 2017
Another new year is upon us! And I’m certain I speak for many in the agricultural world when I say Read More
Terry Griffin
Business ManagementUsing High Tech To Make Farm Decisions
January 17, 2017
Raj Khosla, professor of precision agriculture at Colorado State University, challenged farmers to think about how far the technology of Read More featured image
ProfessionalsWelcome to the Newly Enhanced
December 29, 2016
Talk a quick look around our website and we hope you’ll notice it’s significantly different as we head into 2017 Read More
Ryan Raguse and Matthew Grassi
ProfessionalsIndustry Executives Talk New PrecisionAg Professional Brand
December 19, 2016
EFC Systems President and CEO Ernie Chappell Myriad Mobile Cofounder and Chairman Ryan Raguse Read More
Latest News
Professionals5 Compelling Reasons To Join The PrecisionAg Profession…
March 1, 2017
Many ag professionals are actively using sites such as Twitter and Facebook to promote their businesses. But perhaps no other Read More
Trimble Connected Farm Dashboard ipad and desktop
Decision Support SoftwareWhat’s The Deal With Dashboards? — A Seinfeldian Look A…
March 1, 2017
First off, if you read that title in the voice of Jerry Seinfeld, I have your attention, and you also Read More
GuidanceTopcon Debuts SI-21 Lightbar for X-Family of Displays
February 28, 2017
Topcon Agriculture announces the release of the SI-21 Lightbar, designed as a cost-effective, user-friendly product to complement manual guidance, providing Read More
Imagery/SensingAgrible Launches Pocket Drone Control App for Crop Copt…
February 28, 2017
Agrible has a new tool to help the farming community by giving users the power of aerial insights. Pocket Drone Read More
GuidanceTopcon Launching New X35 In-Cab Display Console
February 27, 2017
Topcon Agriculture introduces the new X35 — the next generation in the X-Family of touchscreen displays with advanced functionality. Designed Read More
Brazilian Agriculture
Ag Tech GlobalInside The Life Of A Precision Ag Consultant In Brazil
February 27, 2017
Editor’s note: Maurício Nicocelli Netto is a Precision Ag Consultant in Brazil. While he has witnessed a lot of growth in Read More
Professor Simon Blackmore
Ag Tech GlobalUK Professor: Name Change Needed For ‘Precision A…
February 24, 2017
‘Accurate farming’ would be more apt than ‘precision agriculture’ to describe this agricultural practice, says professor Simon Blackmore of Harper Read More
EventsInnovation Series 2017 Quick Thoughts: Gaining Ground
February 23, 2017
If you’ve been following past coverage of our PrecisionAg® Media Innovation Series events, this column is going to sound a Read More
UNL Researchers
ProfessionalsPrecision Agriculture Makes Farming More Sustainable, P…
February 23, 2017
Farmers have numerous sources of technology and data available to use in their operations, but many producers struggle with what Read More
Ag Tech GlobalSciFi in Ag: What do North Dakota, Peru, and Mars Have …
February 23, 2017
In early 2016, I was lucky enough to hike the Salkantay Mountain range in Peru. It’s about a 50 mile Read More
Sentera drone
DronesPrecision Ag Professionals Will Find Advice, Applicatio…
February 22, 2017
The upcoming ASCEND Conference & Expo will deliver practical information about using drones to improve processes in precision agriculture. ASCEND Read More
Case IH - AFS AccuStar and UAV Offering - Magnum MX210 AccuStar Receiver
DronesCase IH Adds New GPS Solution, UAV Package To AFS Offer…
February 21, 2017
Driven by the growing demand for efficient data management, the latest Advanced Farming Systems (AFS) solutions from Case IH help Read More
Mobile Phone in field
Systems ManagementBayer Enters Farm Recommendations Arena With Yara Colla…
February 20, 2017
Crop protection and ag biotech giant Bayer and fertilizer producer Yara International ASA have entered into a software collaboration and Read More
Hort Smart Vineyards Set to Revolutioniz…
February 17, 2017
Phil Asmundson is by no means a veteran viticulturist, but a half-dozen years ago, after watching his wife and business Read More
Soil testing
Data ManagementOpinion: Soil Testing Needs Sensors To Get More Accurat…
February 17, 2017
We are entering a very exciting time in agriculture. With so many great software platforms and data collection tools we Read More
Australian Harvest
Decision Support SoftwareGarden City Co-op Added as MZB Regional Mapping Center;…
February 17, 2017
Garden City Co-op (GCC), through a retailer agreement, has been using MZB Technologies as their precision ag platform for a Read More
DronesLand O’Lakes Drone Challenge Crowdsourcing Compet…
February 17, 2017
Land O’Lakes, Inc. is calling on innovators from the tech industry to enter the Land O’Lakes Prize: Drone Challenge, a Read More
DronesDrone Startup Hits VC Jackpot: Skyward Acquired by Veri…
February 16, 2017
Building on its strategy to drive innovation and adoption for IoT services in high-growth markets, Verizon today announced that it Read More