Feel Something is Missing in Precision Agriculture? Answer These 10 Tough Questions

I’ve seen a lot of ideas and met a lot of people in the agtech world. There have been great achievements but also inevitable failures. There have been good times, bad times, and everything-in-between times, all of which bring me to the same conclusion. Something is missing in agtech and precision ag.

I’ll be honest here, I’ve experienced that eerie, something-is-missing feeling for a while now, and sense colleagues and customers feel it too. And while I and others can’t seem to quite put a finger on that something, here are some hints at it in today’s precision ag industry. Cross your fingers…

  1. Algorithms/AI/Robots vs. People and Services. This has been heating up between agronomists and software companies, begging the question of how they can get along since neither is going away? One prescription for both: Patience, plus understanding from each side on the validity of each other’s practices. It could be worse, this is the adult entertainment industry’s biggest problem. Yikes!
  2. New Equipment vs. Used Equipment. This is an age-old question. New has benefits and warranties, but also more troubles (glitches) and need for more outside tech help. Used equipment is usually simpler and easier to maintain and, don’t forget, cheaper. Further, as ag evolves, No. 1 will make this dilemma trickier still.
  3. Zones vs. Grids. I grew up with this business, so have dealt with the zone/grid question most of my life. Grids are easier to administer, but zones make greater logical sense. Sometimes it even seems it’s simply a north vs south kind of thing. I hear, “At least they are doing something,” but proactivity alone doesn’t lead to correct decisions. I do see zones winning long term, when greater understanding of zones’ relationship to productivity is achieved, and when people become more comfortable with using the data.
  4. Independent vs. Corporate. This clash is present in many industries. Both will likely exist into infinity, but here’s the rub when it comes to tech in ag: Corporates give things away, or offer deals independents can’t provide. Plus, they seem to get all the free press. And it is hard not to get sucked in by a free lunch. Independents often don’t or can’t offer freebies because of the expense in money, time, or expertise required. But independents do have a leg up in offering personal service that the corporates can’t. This segues into the next division…
  5. Free vs. Paid. Clearly the FREE part is popular, but at what cost? Free definitely feels better, yet it often requires you to give up a lot, like your privacy. Of course in ag, it seems paying for a service can do the same thing. Many recent startups have caused trust issues among their users. Also, FREE makes data feel worthless; this I’ve experienced personally. Again, this draws a close line with No. 4 since only certain groups can handle free and still survive. Balance is the prescription here.
  6. Simple VRA vs. Complex VRA. You could write a book on this one but basically what I’m saying is that many want to provide a simple map with a few data sets, but others know it is more complicated than that. For instance, a soils map alone isn’t that great, but is it better than nothing? Conversely, does a group have the proper education to understand the complexity of agronomy and variable rate application (VRA)? Depending on what the application, crop, and knowledge is will determine a lot, as well as area and who is doing what. We all need to look deeper into this one as there are many answers and No. 1 is dealing with this head on right now. Pray to the Agronomy Gods.
  7. Investment vs. Sales. A personal dilemma for sure. Sales are the tried and true way all businesses have worked usually and investment is a method that is also well supported lately. In the ag world, sales are applauded more but then again it doesn’t mean that is all people go with. It can be very hard to rely on the kindness of strangers with sales when starting. Can sales actually support the hopes and dreams of this industry while the grower basically pays for it all? Does creating a product with tons of money and mindless promoting create actual value? Probably not for both the way I’ve seen it, then again it seems some are having success doing just that. Maybe it’s passion in the product that should answer if the service or product is good or not.
  8. Startup vs. Not. Does this really matter? Many are unhappy about outsider startups coming in and ruining a good thing or getting in the way. The truth is, many older companies do the same. Disruption is a word thrown around a lot but new isn’t the only one that can do this; old needs to as well. I think it comes down to a culture shift. If this last year has shown us one thing, it’s that old buys new or at least tries to copy it. It seems similar to No. 7 and maybe it’s an issue with the “Good ole boys” mentality in ag. It is a real thing, trust me. With many in ag at retirement age soon it’ll be interesting where this thought goes.
  9. Diverse Systems vs. One System. A lot of people have been talking about the idea that agtech needs one system to hold everything, or at least one sector of ag needs a centralized system. Not a new concept and in many ways not a bad idea considering how confused growers are in general about FMIS software. But does one really solve the issue? In the northern plains we farm differently than in the Mississippi Delta or in Europe. Every place is different, a fact evident in the many softwares that are more regional than global/universal, showing that both can live in the same plane. Perhaps someone has the “unified field theory” of agtech systems, but remains as elusive as that international man of mystery. Sing it with me now, “Secret AgTech Man.”
  10. ROI vs. Peer Pressure. This was very apparent in the recent good times enjoyed by many in ag. There is this constant battle between does it really make money with the time I have versus well, the neighbor does it so I have to as well. On one hand, peer pressure can allow one to force themselves to try new things (which can certainly be good), but it also can set many back. Veteran and newbie farmers alike have gotten caught up in this recently. ROI is king at the moment due to prices, but how will this balance with more tech on the horizon? One answer is: be careful of advertisements.

Perhaps the main “missing thing” in precision ag is knowing just who and/or what it is ultimately serving — is it investors, corporates, outside profits, user’s numbers, acres, and whatever else? Or are we serving a grower or trusted ag advisor through helping them be more efficient in the field by better understanding their operation, and then offering products, services, and tools to help?

We all could benefit by becoming a bit more philosophical, to really think though how the decisions we make and the products we sell affect the larger goal. We have a huge opportunity to take technology and use it to better our own agendas, yes, but also to improve the industry itself and even serve the greater good of humanity.

That message is getting lost it seems to me, and that can damage the culture in agri-culture. Maybe we need to use the whole word agriculture more often instead of just ag, since clearly there is more to it than just growing a crop. Heck, maybe that is the answer to my initial question. We need a better set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes us as part of this group. Oh wait…that is the actual definition of Culture.

Well, that’s all folks!

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