Commodity Classic 2018: Can’t Algorithm Agriculture (OPINION)

Comedian Mark Mayfield opens Commodity Classic 2018 at the General Session.

Once the annual end-of-winter blowout known as Commodity Classic wraps, it basically signals that we’ve reached go-time for agriculture.

The new products, high-yielding seed varieties, and all the software updates should all be turned loose into the wild now, so a grower can take a full view at everything in front of them and make an educated decision on what to do, or not do, for the upcoming season.

At the center of that process, as evidenced by much of the messaging around this year’s meeting, held at the end of February in sunny but kind of chilly Anaheim, CA, is an industry-wide embrace of the growing importance of the ag service provider. Companies like Trimble — some would argue an outfit long focused on delivering solutions directly to the grower — as well as the conversely channel focused WinField United, along with others, all seemed to increase advocating the importance of the local agronomic advisor.

“I don’t believe that you can algorithm agriculture,” WinField United’s Joel Wipperfurth, Ag Technology Applications Lead, told me when asked his impressions of the 2018 show. “I believe that its still people that make the difference, and it’s that local trusted agronomy advisor that’s going to do it.”

2018 Trends on Display

This sign was on display at the WinField United booth all week 😉

Wipperfurth, an up-and-coming ag tech guy that has rapidly ascended the corporate ladder at Shoreview, MN-based WinField United in the last couple years, also sees change in the world of crop protection having a big impact on farming in 2018 and beyond.

“The consolidation among the basic manufacturers, and $400 billion having changed hands in the industry in the last six months, opens the door to a wave of partnerships, innovations,” he shares. “Some of them are trying to bundle things together with seed and chemistry, some of them are trying to unbundle things with seed and chemistry, it is absolutely crazy the amount of new, dynamic values that can be brought to an acre of crop in the U.S. with the shakeup that’s gone on there.

“And it’s going to require that local trusted advisor to sort out these new combinations of chemistry and new modes of action, and then layering in residuals,” he adds. “The Roundup Ready Babies are going to have some new challenges, that’s for sure.”

Wipp, as he’s known to colleagues and customers alike, says the second aspect of Commodity Classic 2018 that struck him was the scope of the emphasis at the manufacturer level on collecting and analyzing tillage data.

“We never before this have been able to see compaction in a geospatial layer. And now you’re seeing equipment companies getting wise to the idea that passive information collection can just go on the machine,” he explains. “This is the first time that machines are collecting information just beyond yield. They’re collecting multiple components of information, and the mechanics of the machines, I don’t view as upgrading drastically.”

Indeed, Wipp says, it’s not the machine mechanics at the meaty center of product innovation any longer. Relatively speaking, we’re not getting all jazzed about new coulters or higher horsepower tractors, or some new threshing mechanism anymore. Like the iPhone, which carries a similar aesthetic from version to version, it seems that now what’s on the inside of agricultural machinery – sensors and artificial intelligence computing, and machine learning algorithms that allow machinery to take on operational intelligence – is becoming more important than the Iron itself.

“I see the equipment industry kind of getting into this iPhone Era, where the new 7 Series Combine from John Deere, it calibrates itself and it uses machine learning,” Wipperfurth opines. “The combine is now an iPhone! You’re going to be updating your features just because it’s hygienic to keep the health of that combine, that the latest innovation is going to be from the technology stack in there, not a new bearing, not some new poly-plastic coating on something. This is the first time that technology is almost taking over the mechanical innovation, at least from my point of view.”

GiSC, Main Street Data, IBM Link Up

Now that we’ve talked general impressions of the 2018 show, let’s get on to the hard news.

One of the more newsworthy developments from an Ag Tech standpoint was announced Tuesday at the Grower Information Services Coop (GiSC) booth, where GiSC founder Billy Tiller announced a new alliance to bring advanced benchmarking capabilities to GiSC’s grower-customers. Tiller hopes the retail channel will embrace and help facilitate grower adoption of the new GiSC data products.

“You know they’re (retailers) working with growers and we see there’s a unique opportunity for GiSC because we don’t sell chemicals, we don’t do agronomy recommendations,” Tiller explains. “We’d love to partner with these groups, and have them bring their growers in. We have a place for them to store and manage their data, and then we can bring our preferred partner network to the table – that being Main Street Data and the effects that benchmarking data can have for them on not only identifying fields that are underperforming, but also within fields – what areas are underperforming.”

Main Street Data, an outfit founded by Ron LeMay, a former president of Sprint Wireless and longtime IoT industry vet, brings the data set necessary for GiSC to deliver on its local benchmarking promise, while IBM’s The Weather Center brings its class-leading weather analytics and model capabilities, as well.

“Through GiSC we’ll be working for the farmers, so we’ll bring the best technology, proven technology, and the platform to the mix,” says Chacko Jacob, Global Agribusiness Lead, IBM. “Internet of Things, weather data, and the data science piece, we love to work in agriculture because we can bring other experiences from other industries we work on and see what best fits with agriculture. And farmers want to have a place where they can store the data securely, an independent data platform, that can bring more insights to the farm.”

Tiller foresees his GiSC building on the intrinsic data value question that Farmobile has capitalized on by offering its customers the chance to market data outside of the industry at about $2 or more an acre. Tiller is thinking the value is bigger when it empowers farmers productivity.

“I want to get real value from the actionable insights that are made possible by the data, and I want those insights to make every farmer — including me — more economically productive. To me, the real value of these insights is at least $20-30 an acre, and I think the value is there now because of our partnerships.”

Trimble Embraces Service Providers, Again

Another news tidbit coming out of the show was Westminster, CO-based Trimble launching it’s Advisor Prime platform for ag service providers.

Kory Kress, U.S. Sales Lead, Agri-Services, says the company is leveraging its strong background in data management to make a play on the agronomic advisor market, helping these folks tasked with managing hundreds of thousands of acres of crop ground per year to operate more efficiently.

“What Advisor Prime does is it’s a robust tool that allows you to manage multiple farmers from one spot. It’s not clicking between screens, or constantly switching between platforms,” Kress explains. “Its all working in one spot, or one program, to help create management zones, managed soil testing and prescription generation, and then create deliverables that you can give to the farmer in an efficient and quick matter.”

Probably most notable about Advisor Prime is it’s holistic look at how farm decisions are made. Traditionally, Kress notes, decisions come after all the work has been done to collect and analyze data. With Advisor Prime Trimble is moving that decision timeline up significantly.

“We’ve moved the decision from the end of the process to the beginning,” he says. “Any other product you start with a field and field boundaries. Then you soil sample it, figure out what crop you’re going to do, and you make the prescription and you deliver it and then you apply it. With this we decide what we’re going to do up-front: Is this a farm we’re going to push fertility on? Is this farm going to be corn? Is this farm going to be soybeans? What is the management that we’re going to do in this area?

Advisor Prime is fully launched and available globally as of the writing of this article.

Precision Conservation?

Land O’Lakes sustainability side project, SUSTAIN, also had a booth at the show. That’s where I ran into Precision Conservation Sales Specialist and big Minnesota Vikings fan Matt Kruger (editor’s note: I think everybody I’ve ever met from Minny are YUGGE Vikes fans).

When we weren’t debating the merits of whether Minnesota can sign Kirk Cousins (IMO Minnesota should commit the money to Cousins and go all-in on a title next season) and still afford to pay its many high-profile playmakers on both sides of the ball (Steph Diggs, Anthony Barr, Eric Kendricks, and others will hit free agency next offseason), Kruger was walking me through some of the work Land O’Lakes SUSTAIN is doing to help growers deal with conservation requirements in Kruger’s home state.

“We know that growers want to do the right thing, but sometimes they don’t know what the next step is, and what the best bang is for their buck,” Kruger admits. “So using precision technology at our fingertips we can figure out what is the best bang for their buck, what is the next step to take, to help guide you in the right direction so that you’re not spending money where it’s not needed.”

The outfit currently is focused on getting in front of Minnesota farmers to help them with new water-adjacent field buffer requirments. The state of Minnesota is mandating a 50’ buffer zone on any field adjacent to a waterway, meaning growers are worried sometimes prime ground will have to be taken out of production to meet the mandate.

That’s where Kruger and his team come in.

“Our tool is a variable-width buffer,” he says. “Farmers are kind of upset they were given the one-size-fits-all approach, the 50’ for everyone. We built this tool where we see how much soil the 50 foot buffer is saving you, and we can bring your buffer down to 16.5’ and just put the grass where it’s needed to meet the same reduction number as the 50’ buffer. A lot of time we’re saving growers 40-50% of the tillable acres that otherwise would’ve been taken out of production because of the buffer law.”

Minnesota growers that fall under the new regulation can expect a call or visit from Kruger in the coming weeks.

“The whole month of March I’ll be in Minnesota, meeting with ag retailers to deliver this demo of how many acres I can save these growers,” Kruger shares. “Using our R7 Tool we’re targeting growers that are affected by the buffer law, so we’re not wasting anyone’s time. We’ve invited them to a meeting where I’ll demo the tool for an hour, and any growers that are interested can meet with me one-on-one afterwards and we’ll figure out the best plan for their farm.”

Kruger advises that growers looking for more information on the regulations contact their local crop input supplier for details.

Random Tidbits & Thoughts:

Blue River Technology Update

Kudos to the Commodity Classic show floor planning people for putting our PrecisionAg® Professional right next to the Blue River Technologies’ booth.

It was good to meet one of their newest team members, national sales rep Ted Mayfield, a longtime precision ag industry vet, and catch up with See & Spray Technology General Manager Ben Chostner, who hosted me on my visit to the Blue River cotton testing in Lubbock, TX, this summer. Chostner said the company is still shooting for a 2020 commercialization of the See & Spray technology, and this summer will be spent perfecting the now-12 row concept rig in cotton while also getting the techs feet wet in soybeans. It sounds like from speaking with Chostner that thus far the takeover by Deere has indeed gone swimmingly, and just as Deanna Kovar pledged in our talk just after the deal was announced Deere is letting Blue River manage much of its day-to-day as it previously did before the merger. In the meantime, we still await news of just how Deere will integrate See & Spray into its commercial application lines…

Quantix Drone + DSS software impress

You can ask my colleagues, I’m not really one for taking in a lot of product demos, but I legitimately wanted to get one at the AeroVironment booth for the companies’ Quantix drone and, the real power behind the system, its Decision Support Software (DSS) post flight processing software. Simply put, I’ve yet to see a drone ecosystem as efficient and effective for in-field diagnosis as what AeroVironment has done with the full Quantix ecosystem. The company is making the drone imagery acquisition process as pain free and passive for the operator as any product I’ve witnessed, hell the thing even eliminates much of the pre-flight planning process that eats up a significant portion of a drone service providers time by autonomously setting flight path, altitude, etc., all as it launches and positions above the field. Very cool and promising stuff from AeroVironment on the drones in ag front...

A Sonny Day?

Secretary of Ag Sonny Perdue stuck around to hit the trade show floor Thursday, March 1, at Commodity Classic 2018 in Anaheim, CA.

Not a Trump fan at all (I’m sure you’re all shocked!), but I’ve actually enjoyed the two interactions I’ve had with Trump’s feisty Secretary of Ag, Sonny Perdue. Perdue oozes that good ol’ farm boy vibe, so it’s easy to see why he’s been such a hit with farm audiences in his short time on the job. Still, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention my personal disappointment at Perdue’s use of the term “fake news” twice during his appearances at Commodity in reference to an article posted the previous week on Agri-Pulse. Look, I know #FakeNews is the cute new pop culture thing to say when you don’t agree with something that’s been reported, but as someone who’s been in this business six years now I seriously doubt anyone in the play-nice ag media is trying to undermine the current administration by overtly publishing misinformation (in fact, ag media could be generally described as largely unabashed cheerleaders for this administration thus far). If Secretary Perdue believes something published about his group or administration is false, he certainly has the right to say as much, but the whole fake news narrative is played out, divisive and in this case, inaccurate. I don’t think the rural farmers largely responsible for voting his boss into office would agree with anyone labeling their favorite ag media outlets as “fake news.” Perhaps I’m off-base here, but it’s my opinion that the office of the Secretary of Ag should be above the petty Beltway political games that the President is forced to dabble in. Someone who unites, if you will. Additionally, the Commodity Classic as I know it is an annual celebration of farming and the industry that supports farmers, not a venue for the airing of grievances or litigating media reports. Now, in his defense Perdue is still getting his feet under him as Ag Secretary, something that will be key for him in the coming months with NAFTA negotiations heating up and an ag community that seems to largely favor maintaining NAFTA as is. Hopefully there are Sonny skies ahead for Perdue and his team at USDA…

Local Craft Beer Thought

Stereo Brewing’s Roadrunner Roadrunner IPA.

Unfortunately, another trip to California ends without this author obtaining or even getting a sniff of Russian River Brewing Co.’s penultimate IPA, Pliny the Elder. However, the happy hour bartender at Wilbur-Ellis’ booth on Tuesday and Wednesday afternoon was slinging some tasty local suds himself in the form of icy cold, complimentary (!) 16 oz. cans of Placentia, CA-based Stereo Brewing’s Roadrunner Roadrunner IPA. Yet another entry to the now-ubiquitous New England IPA style, if you like hazy, dank ales this one is sure to scratch your hop juice itch. BTW, if any of our California friends can fax (mail) me some Pliny, I’d be more than happy to reimburse…just throwing that out there…

Local Food Scene Thought

Former President Barack Obama visited a Roscoe’s in Los Angeles, CA, way back in 2011.

The area around our hotel was your typical tourist-focused area with many of the national chain restaurants present, and much of the food scene in Anaheim seemed to skew seafood, not exactly one of this author’s favorite categories. Imagine my Fat-Guy-In-Kind-Of-A-Skinny-Body-Happiness, however, when I stumbled upon the Anaheim-area franchise of Los Angeles stalwart Roscoe’s Chicken and Waffles a mere mile up the road from my accommodations. I went with the Obama Special (3 crispy fried whole wings and a fluffy Belgian waffle and a side of maple syrup), and it was every bit as good as the homie Snoop Dogg said it would be. That is, if chicken and waffles is your thing.

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