Opinion: Reality vs. Hype in Precision Agriculture
I think there is a certain word that can accurately describe much of the precision ag and/or ag tech industry right now. That is hype. Many are overhyping the possibilities and what can be done or even how it will save the industry and usher in ag 2.0. The reality is that we are a long, long way from that happening. And while everyone is saying it’s crucial because the world needs to feed itself by 2050, I’m pretty sure we can almost do that now. We just waste a lot and half of it all is used for animal feed or fuel. That’s important, but there are issues there, too.
Also, why does ag need to be saved? I hear that a lot. I’m pretty sure it’s the oldest industry in the world and it’ll be fine as long as we are careful and are stewards of the land. Maybe I’m just cynical, but everyone claiming that precision agriculture is the answer to solving the world food equation is crazy to me. It is not as simple as that. Sure, it’s a needed item, but there are so many other pieces to the puzzle.
Technology is a tool. So much like in the rest of the world if you want to make something easier, you use a tool. Think of a hammer and a nail instead of hand and nail. The problem is that precision ag, while a tool in agriculture, does not make things easier. Well, at least is hasn’t yet, except for autosteer and row-shutoffs. Sure, there are great things precision ag can do for people, farms, and the industry, but it hasn’t been easy. Also, I think many people are confusing precision ag with site-specific ag, and algorithms with agronomy. Others are now throwing genetics and biologics into the mix in precision ag. I mean I get it. They all have technology involved with them and some level of precision, but lumping it all together is not smart to do. It is not fair to this specific industry.
If you really want to confuse this industry, just tell them that everything has to have precision ag technology in it, which is exactly what is happening. It is such a bland statement that it suggests if there isn’t precision ag technology involved, it’s worthless or pointless. Put it in and it’s the best thing since sliced bread. Now that sentiment is what is confusing people. I’m pretty sure that the majority of agriculture in this world is still running off of “technology” that is 20-50 years old, maybe more. There is nothing wrong with that, and to be honest, it is the only way some can survive. In reality, this precision tech has been going on forever, if you look at it correctly. We’ve always become slowly more precise in ag. We just haven’t called it that. It really can just become technology and throughout time, ag technology has always evolved and advanced in a variety of different forms, fashions, timelines, and ways.
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The steel plow, steam power, combines, air seeders, planters, sprayers, herbicides, pesticides, fungicides, anhydrous and man-made fertilizers, plant breeding, genetics, GMOs, GPS, GIS, etc……. I could go on and on, but each one of these was just as amazing and technologically advanced as the next one in the minds of the grower. Precision ag is surely a part of this, but we need to be careful about how precision ag is explained since it can mean a lot of things. For instance, using the term “mechanized agriculture” describes most of the list above, yet many of those advances did not happen at the same time and are not directly related for where they were useful. This is why we need to separate the explanation and reasoning behind precision ag and figure out what is the real technology behind it and not the hype that may surround it.
So, what is the hype all about then? Basically, what I’m seeing more of is the old snake oil game with “I have an idea, tell everyone it is awesome with no evidence, give me money, get customers, bail out, and go to the next area.” This is where ag technology today is going it seems, instead of the the old “I’m going to build it and keep making it better while putting everything I know into it because I believe in it.” Now this isn’t going on everywhere, but growers and companies are being threatened by the “look at this shiny object” world and it can be scary.
The reality is that most are tired of trying and hearing it all and have bigger concerns to deal with now than using these hyped technologies. I hear it everywhere. It goes like this: “Well, we bought this service and it seemed good, but then they didn’t deliver and it brought us and the grower no actual insights that we didn’t already know, and it wasn’t really actionable to make a difference.” Or this one: “They claimed an ROI and yield increase of this and while we knew it was BS, we still tried it. Now we just don’t trust that process or others like it, so we’ll just do what we did before. That seemed to work fine.” Unfortunately, this is becoming a constant. It reminds me of the stories I heard about hundreds of tractor manufacturers from the start of the machinery revolution in ag in the early ’20s. So many to choose from, but only a few made it and many failed because they over promised and under delivered.
This issue is concerning to me since there are some groups that seem to be excelling in precision ag that have these hyped traits, and fortunately for them, have a ton of money behind them and crazy marketing budgets. Some force you down their path without caring about the aftermath that was left behind. What happens is the local groups and smaller service providers have to pick up the pieces and deal with re-educating growers on how to really use precision ag technology, what it really costs, and what it really can do to benefit the farm. That process can take years. I’ve experienced it personally and it sucks. I’m just not sure if we can prevent this issue from continuing.
What do we do then? I’m not sure if I have the answer anymore because with the current consolidation and prices in ag, it is very hard to fight against a hyped and well-funded idea or company. Marketing and hype sells, and the more you have the better it seems companies can make it. This is happening everywhere in all industries. Heck, maybe in the end it’s a good thing, I don’t know. But I do know that while some are trying to disrupt agriculture using bad numbers, hype, influence, and just unrealistic data or solutions, there are plenty of great people out there that see this and will stand up against it. Precision ag is important and a great tool and there are plenty out there doing good things with it. We need to be careful though in how it is portrayed, explained, and what it can actually do in today’s world.
Basically, everyone in this industry needs to do what we’ve always done. Find the ones that actually innovate and support them, be it a new or old idea. That is where all of the technology came in ag and where it will continue to come from if we all get behind it correctly. Let’s separate the reality from hype so we can move forward. That’s the path I’m going to take, will you?