Precision Farming Forecast: 4 Challenges, Opportunities For 2017

Opportunities and challenges.

They are the yin and yang of the business world.

It could easily be argued that, out of any challenging situation that pops up in the field there in turn arises an opportunity for the prepared trusted advisor to distinguish oneself from the order-taking masses.

I believe it was my Gonzo journalism hero, the late, great Hunter S. Thompson, who once said “chance favors the prepared mind.”

In order to blow by chance and find success in 2017, precision ag service providers need to be prepared for the good and the bad. The opportunities to serve the grower in new and exciting ways, versus the reality that, hey, this isn’t exactly easy, or else everyone would be doing it.

Along those lines then, I present to you a handful of opportunities and corresponding challenges that ag tech service providers should be primed to face throughout the next 12 months.

■ Opportunity: Variable-Rate Everything
I couldn’t say it better myself than one Northeast Iowa ag retailer that also provides precision ag services to their growers, who boisterously proclaimed at our 2016 PACE meeting in Chicago (attendees are promised anonymity to encourage openness) that their growers see the most value in variable-rate fertilizer as a service because “they perceive it as the biggest bang for their buck.” We could talk variable-rate pain points all day, but simply put there is huge upside for ag service providers that can deliver on the promise of variable-rate to demonstrate their expertise and superior level of service, not to mention help them save a bit on inputs, through offering successful VR application programs across their product portfolio to growers.

■ Challenge: Standardizing Data across Multi-Color Fleets/Operations
Variable-rate applications haven’t quite reached a saturation point yet because the data sets necessary to accurately position crop inputs in a spatially varied manner can often come in different, sometimes incompatible file formats, or they are generated by different or at times competing systems that don’t exchange or flow data from system to system as freely as producers and advisors want, and they can also be cumbersome and frustrating to troubleshoot in the field when something, anything inevitably goes wrong. I believe it was Premier Crop Systems President Dan Frieberg who said “…today I spend about 80% of my time futzing around with my data, so that I can do the 20% of my job that I get paid for …” That is something that just has to change, and fast, before the mid-level adopters of precision ag get burned out and fall back to flat-rate.

■ Opportunity: The Holy Grail of Data Collection: Passive Data Capture
With growers at times relying on as many as 20 different software programs to manage all of the different production practices in a single field, and those same growers (or the service provider working on those acres) often managing many fields across a wide geography, finding a Turbo Tax type program that auto populates things like field boundaries, field names, products being applied, application dates and rates, etc., would be a huge help for technology integrators that are tired of entering or having to clean up after the fact double entry data.

■ Challenge: Rural Internet Speeds and Bandwidth Still Need Boost
I feel like we’ve been beating this dead horse longer than Sigourney Weaver held down her career defining role as Ellen Ripley in Ridley Scott’s Alien trilogy (come on, we all know Alien: Resurrection doesn’t count). For digital farming to truly hit the mainstream we need faster networks and more cloud-based computing power (which requires constant data transfer — which requires strong, fast and reliable Internet signals) in our nation’s often remote areas of intense agricultural production. Perhaps President-Elect Trump’s administration can #MakeRuralBroadbandGreatAgain?

■ Opportunity: Uber for Precision Ag
With the Uber business model being copied throughout many different industries, including one of the hottest segments of venture capital investment today as it relates to food processing in food delivery services (Uber EATS! and Seamless, to name a couple), someone is going to figure out a smart, practical way to leverage today’s ubiquitous smartphone technologies to transform a process or production practice in farming. I happen to believe IBM is possibly onto something with its Fertilyze app, which aggregates hyper local weather data from subsidiary The Weather Co.’s consumer weather forecasting app and combines that with IBM Watson cognitive computing capabilities to deliver fertilizer application recommendations.

■ Challenge: Ag Tech Investment Pullback Likely
At our October Vision Conference one of the more enlightening panel discussions featured three representatives from the leading ag tech venture capital firms. Rob Trice, founder of The Mixing Bowl and Better Food Ventures, expressed the common frustration that the current expectations of entrepreneurs versus venture capital investors are not aligned, and that makes him wonder “whether we will have a pull-back from Silicon Valley with ag tech funding.” Trice also sees a general increase in ag tech company consolidation coming in 2017. “We’ve had a lot of investor money that’s come in and I don’t think we’ve had the revenue come in to keep those companies afloat, so you should expect consolidation in ag tech going forward.”

■ Opportunity: The Internet of Things (IoT)
I must admit, for much of the last couple years since Internet of Things has begun being discussed in precision farming circles, I’ve been a bit skeptical of the concept myself. Perhaps a new name for the interconnected sensor ecosystem could clear that up, as the name “Internet of Things” sounds a bit, well, out there. The concept, however, is quite sound: Using physical, increasingly less-expensive WiFi-connected sensor technologies all over the operation — from at-plant sensors that monitor nutrient uptake or other plant characteristics that affect yield, to edge-of-field monitoring that quantifies nutrient runoff and allows for in-season fertility adjustments — the advent of more IoT technologies (including future applications that we probably haven’t even dreamed up yet) is only going to keep producers and their trusted advisors more closely connected to the land, plants, and equipment, and more apprised of what’s going on in the field and how to respond accordingly, than ever before.

■ Challenge: Making Big Data Small
There currently exists within the market some uncertainty as to which data layers are the most important for making certain management decisions. For example, a fertility program based solely off a grower’s past five years of yield data may in fact lack some granularity, since there could be hidden variables at play (extreme weather events for $500, Alex) that effected that yield output that the numbers off the combine don’t account for. But then, which other data layer, or layers, are needed? Weekly aerial imagery throughout the growing season? As-applied data plus nutrient removal rates for the past five years, to see where the soil is at currently with its nutrient bank? Once we get even further and further into these huge IoT ecosystems comprised of hundreds of sensors collecting data across the farm, 24/7, we’re going to need guidance on what data is useful in each management decision process, and what data can be thrown out to the curb every week. We can’t be expected to store, manage, interpret and understand every single data point across a large, multi-crop operation for an entire season; in the words of a data scientist, it’s just too much noise.

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