Here at PrecisionAg® Professional we’re all about the numbers.
And taking a look back at the numbers, it appears that many of you thoroughly enjoyed June’s featured Listicle, the “Top 10 Most Intriguing Technologies in Agriculture,” making it the top viewed item here at PrecisionAg.com over the past 30 days. So, we figured, why not throw another list-type article out there to keep the dialog going strong with our readers as they await fall harvest season?
Seeing how busy everyone in farming seems to be at this critical juncture in the growing season, I won’t waste anymore of your precious time with a long-winded, superfluous introduction. Let’s just get right down to brass tacks, so without any further adieu, here are our Most Influential Precision Farming Advocates for 2017:
Edward (Ed) M. Barnes, Cotton Incorporated
When it comes to precision agriculture in cotton country, very little escapes the notice of Dr. Ed Barnes. As Senior Director of Agricultural and Environmental Research at Cotton Incorporated (CI), he has managed agricultural engineering related projects for the last 14 years. From precision farming, ginning, and irrigation management, to conservation tillage and cotton harvest systems, Barnes is out in front of project coordination and promotion and keeps the momentum going for continuous improvement through technology integration.
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He has also served as a team member in documenting cotton’s progress in reducing its environmental footprint while at the same time increasing productivity and currently serves on the Science Advisory Council of Field to Market, The Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture.
An accomplished and recognized ag engineer, Barnes spent seven years in that field with the USDA, Agricultural Research Service (ARS) at the U.S. Water Conservation Laboratory in Phoenix, AZ, developing uses of remotely sensed data for agricultural management, with a focus on water optimization. He’s also been a consistent, and active, award-winning member of American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers (ASABE) for three decades, serving as chair of the society’s Engineering for Sustainability Committee, and is a trustee of the ASABE Foundation.
PrecisionAg Professional (PA Pro): What is the most promising product and/or practice that farmers should consider adopting?
Barnes: “While we are making progress, I still want to see greater adoption of yield monitors and the use of those monitors to generate yield maps. Part gets back to the challenge of adopting technology, but it is a lot easier to generate a yield map than it used to be, and this is getting easier all the time. Without a yield map it is impossible to determine if you are hurting or helping yourself with any variable rate management that may be in place. Plus, it is a great way to see how bad the variation in the field is. I know many producers tell me they know where the weak spots are, but is that weak spot yield 500 pounds or 100 pounds per acre? Without the answers to that question, there is no way to know if you are making or losing money in that part of the field.
Another generic recommendation that will apply to farmers, unless they have a farm that has only perfectly rectangular fields that always have the number of rows that is a multiple of the width of their sprayer, is segmented boom control. It is almost always a safe bet to get a quick payback on investment. Similarly, if producers have a pivot on their farm, adding the ability to control pivot speed to allow slices of the field to automatically get different amounts of water should be given consideration. Just a soil and/or elevation map could be enough information to make some improvements in water use efficiency.”
PA Pro: What factors do you feel most hamper technology adoption among cotton producers?
Barnes: “Management time is clearly the biggest factor limiting technology adoption. While we may be able to demonstrate an economic return on investment for a technology, if it is going to take the producer more time to be able to use that technology that the current approach he/she is currently using, that technology has a high probability of failure. We need to find an “easy” button for all our precision technologies — once the value is demonstrated and validated — it all needs to be a black box running in the background. I see this happening in the industry, especially with the opportunities that come with cell modems transmitting data from equipment in real-time. USB sticks have to go the way of the floppy disk (if you are under 30 you will have to Google that last one).”
Don Bierman, Crop IMS
Don Bierman grew up on a small farm in southeastern Illinois. After graduating from the University of Illinois in 1981, he began his career at Wabash Valley Service Co., a GROWMARK owner and member. Over the next 33 years, Bierman held various positions including the manager of Wabash’s information management unit as well serving as its plant food product manager. In 2005, Wabash Valley along with four other input supply cooperatives, formed Crop IMS, where since 2015 Bierman has served as its CEO.
Most recently, Bierman has been involved with the formation of the Ag Data Coalition (ADC) helping to bring about a new entity championing the rights of producers with respect to production ag data. Crop IMS is a founding member of ADC and supporter of the Growers Ag Data Cooperative (GADC), the first cooperative focused on the business of empowering producers with the ability to manage the storing and sharing of their data.
PA Pro: Precision agriculture can be a maddening industry to serve. What gets you up in the morning?
Bierman: “Relationships, in a word, is why we do what we do. Our customers, business partners and colleagues, and our employees constitute a network of connections that all rely on one another in various ways. Agriculture, as much as some would like it to change, is still a people business. Being useful, making a difference to others and creating value are all what drives ag today.”
PA Pro: What makes you believe precision agriculture/agronomic consulting is a sustainable business?
Bierman: “I thought we took a vote and decided to quit using the term ‘precision’ anymore! That word doesn’t mean what it used to mean decades ago. That said, I’m pretty sure every other industry has progressed, evolved, and continues to improve because it has become “more aware”; learned new things applicable to its efforts. Being a biologically based system as ag is, until the day comes everything that is knowable is known, I’m confident there will be a demand for people and companies who help others to learn and profit from these new knowledge sets. Learning to make better decisions won’t become obsolete for a while, surely!”
PA Pro: What is the industry’s biggest roadblock to greater technology adoption?
Bierman: “Producer profitability and the “FANG’ing” of ag. FANG, an acronym created by TheStreet’s Jim Cramer, is representative of four of the best-performing tech stocks of the recent past — Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, and Google. With the historic returns to investors this group of companies has achieved, it’s understandable why new investment is pushing this same model into ag. The upshot though of this is that producers cease becoming customers/patrons: they instead become ‘users’ or a source of raw material for these new enterprises and processes. Put simply, when others have more information about a producer’s farm than the producer him or herself, that will be a bad day; bad for the producer and bad for those whose business is to bring value TO THE PRODUCER! It’s no wonder then that producers are skeptical and hesitant to embrace at least some forms of technology. Greater transparency and the empowerment of producers to have, hold, and control their data are critical steps to address this concern.”
Matt Carstens, Land O’Lakes
Carstens joined Land O’Lakes, Inc., in 2015 with the merger of the United Suppliers and Land O’Lakes crop inputs businesses. He serves as senior vice president of Land O’Lakes SUSTAIN business unit, which formed in 2016, and provides leadership in aligning environmental sustainability efforts across the enterprise. With 20 years in the agriculture industry, Matt’s experience spans retail, wholesale, and manufacturing functions in the crop inputs business. He was responsible for developing the sustainability business while at United Suppliers. Land O’Lakes, Inc. is a farmer member-owned cooperative with industry-leading operations that span the spectrum from agricultural production to consumer foods. With 2016 annual sales of $13 billion, it is one of the nation’s largest cooperatives, ranking 215 on the Fortune 500.
PA Pro: Why is sustainability such a prominent component of Land O’Lakes’ work these days?
Carstens: “Sustainability for food and agriculture starts in the farmers’ fields and has for generations. Our work at Land O’Lakes SUSTAIN is a continuation of our commitment to sustainability. We’re helping our farmer and ag retail member-owners communicate how they’re achieving continuous improvement in on-farm sustainability to their customers who are looking to meet consumers’ increasing curiosity of where their food comes from. We’re gathering on-farm data and enhancing our technology toolset to help instruct the continuous improvement that will help us paint an accurate picture of what farmers are doing to preserve our most precious natural resources.”
PA Pro: Talk about the moment you decided that this would be a key focus for your career.
Carstens: “When working in the Crop Nutrients business, I was reading articles about Walmart’s fertilizer optimization efforts to address greenhouse gas emissions. It was at this point I began engaging in what sustainability could do for ag retailers and their farmers. Upon further investigation, it became apparent that there was a common thread running between society and agriculture that sustainability can be both profitable for farmers and beneficial for the environment. Today, Land O’Lakes’ farm-to-fork participation across the agri-food chain puts us in a great position to help all ends of the channel.”
PA Pro: Why should service providers and farmers care about sustainability?
Carstens: “As consumers gain more interest and ownership over the food they eat, the entire food chain needs to engage to build greater understanding of modern farming and food production practices. From soil health to crop nutrient optimization and water quality, farmers have a lot to consider when it comes to minimizing their environmental impact. By coupling agronomy tools and insights with precision conservation practices, farmers can drive productivity and sustainability making them more efficient and profitable.”
Amol Deshpande, CEO & Co-Founder, Farmer’s Business Network
Admittedly perhaps not the most popular choice here among some of our audience members, Deshpande nevertheless is leading the closest thing we can find to a farm data “revolution” over at FBN, and the Silicon Valley startup sounds from recent marketing materials like it is intent on taking no prisoners going forward. Recently having launched a bunch of new data products through the FBN farm-sourced data network such as FBN Yield Potential (integrated seed-field matching based on networked data), FBN Price Transparency for Seed & Chemical, the FBN Seed Relabeling Study, and an FBN Best Seed Brands Report, Deshpande and his crew of ag tech disrupters don’t view themselves through the same lens as others who’ve admittedly been a bit put-off by FBN’s direct-to-farmer strategy.
“We do not set out to be disruptive for the sake of it,” Deshpande answers. “At FBN we are just looking to help our farmer members be more profitable. We are totally independent, and we put farmers first. Also, I should note that the credit for everything FBN does has little to do with me, and it should recognize our entire team, engineering, field team, customer service and others, and especially our farmer members for supporting such contrarian efforts.”
Deshpande has reportedly spent the better part of his career in and around agriculture at start-up companies including VoloAgri, a leading vegetable seed company, as well as large established players such as Cargill and, most recently, as a partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers.
Going forward, expect FBN to continue investing capital and resources in building out its controversial FBN Direct crop protection product delivery business.
“We are very interested in expanding profit margins for farmers. That involves focus on both input cost reduction and efficiency, as well as maximizing value on the output crop. I believe this may be the single biggest problem farmers face, across crops and geographies worldwide.”
Jorge Heraud, Blue River Technologies
Heraud is Blue River’s CEO and co-founder, and he has accumulated 20 years of experience in precision agriculture. He has a passion for the intersection of agriculture and high tech that started during high-school summers, when he split his time between working at his grandparent’s farm and his father’s high-tech start-up.
Heraud worked at Trimble Navigation for 14 years heading the Precision Agriculture group working in automatic guidance, and GPS receivers, as well as agricultural technology company acquisitions. His roles at Trimble included Director of Engineering, Director of Business Development, and Head of Precision Agriculture. He co-founded Blue River in 2011 and has grown it to more than 55 employees. Heraud holds three Masters Degrees from Stanford University in Electrical Engineering, Industrial Engineering, as well as an Executive MBA.
Blue River is building smart implements that use cameras, computers, and robotics to spot spray herbicides only to the weeds and not to the crops. This targeted approach reduces chemicals by up to 10x and controls herbicide-resistant weeds. In the future, Blue River will deploy this smart sprayer technology to fertilizers and other crop protectants, equipping every farmer to understand and manage every plant in his field.
PA Pro: Talk about the ‘Aha’ moment when the basic concept for Blue River came about.
Heraud: “I’ve been working in precision agriculture for over 20 years, and during this time I’ve seen the focus of farm equipment shift from entire implement widths to sections, and then to rows. I’ve been dreaming of taking the next step all the way to each plant for a long time — I always thought that computers would be fast enough to do it one day. Seeing self-driving cars detect pedestrians and other cars in real-time made me realize the time had arrived.”
PA Pro: What is the most important aspect of bringing a technology like yours to agriculture?
Heraud: “Our technology is cutting edge and complicated — just like automatic steering was in its day. In bringing it to market three things have been crucial. First, we accumulated a deep understanding of farmer needs. Second, we assembled a cutting-edge technical team dedicated to the problem — we now have over 35 engineers and scientists. And third, we had ready access to an iterate crop — we use lettuce, a crop that is planted year-round. We couldn’t have done it without all three of these things.”
PA Pro: Where is the R&D focus headed for Blue River?
Heraud: “Our research and development efforts are focused on the innovations needed to give farmers the equipment to understand and manage every plant in their fields. We’re particularly excited about the progress we’ve been making in three areas: more advanced sensors, artificial intelligence algorithms, and mobile processing platforms. On the sensor front we’re looking to extract the most information about each plant by looking at the full spectral signature as well as three-dimensional information in very high resolution. We can then feed this rich sensor information into artificial intelligence algorithms that we are creating and adapting specifically for the agriculture environment. These algorithms allow us to reliably pull insights about the status of each plant and make decisions about how to best manage them. Finally, we’re pushing the envelope of real-time processing of all this data on machines out in the field with the use of cutting-edge processors. We’ll be deploying these innovations first in our See & Spray weeding machine, which we’re demonstrating in cotton this year. We’ll follow it with soybeans shortly, and the capability to apply fertilizer or crop protectants a bit later.”
Dr. Raj Khosla, Colorado State University
Besides speaking at a lot of our live events and being a past recipient of the 2015 PrecisionAg Educator of the Year for our annual Awards of Excellence, Professor Raj Khosla is the Robert E. Gardner Professor of Precision Agriculture at Colorado State University. In 2012, Dr. Khosla was named the Jefferson Science Fellow by the National Academy of Sciences and was appointed as the Senior Science Advisor to the U.S. Department of State. From 2011 to 2015, he served two terms on NASA board membership to the U.S. “Presidential Advisory Board on Positioning, Navigation, and Timing” and worked on the U.S. space-based GPS policy. Dr. Louis Longchamps, a colleague, writes of Khosla: “Dr. Khosla has generated many discoveries in precision agriculture, most widely recognized among them is the innovative technique of creating ‘site-specific management zones’, currently being used by farmers in Colorado and many other places around the world.”
PA Pro: How did you decide to focus on agriculture technology for study, research and education?
Dr. Kholsa: “My roots are in farming, and as I look back our family has been engaged in farming for many generations. I was the first one in my family who went to college for higher education in agricultural sciences leading up to Doctoral program, so agriculture and farming is in my blood and it has always been my passion to improve crop yields, efficiency, profitability and sustainability — something I have been innovating through the work in my lab for more than 20 years.”
PA Pro: What does our audience need to understand about precision technology use around the world?
Dr. Kholsa: “It is important for us to understand that precision agriculture is in the stage of infancy. We have been practicing agriculture for thousands of years, whereas precision ag for about the past two decades. Though precision agriculture uses many aspects of IT and ICT technologies, the core business of agriculture cannot simply change in a few years, like in the IT-world where technology can advance through 2G, to 3G to 4G in a matter of couple of years.
I feel in many cases that the technology is ahead of science. We need to make sure that we have solid science behind every technology we advise our farmers and practitioners to embrace. Also, precision agriculture spreading globally will depend on our ability to make it scale-independent. It is a challenge of tall-order, but I believe it can be done.”
PA Pro: Here in the U.S., what in the next 5 years will be the biggest benefit of technology that is emerging today?
Dr. Kholsa: “I think in the next five years we will begin to understand and harness the power of data science and how it may enable us to pick and choose precisely what is most suitable for our farms — for example, making our practices site-specific, locally adaptive, operationally feasible, and economically affordable. Data will be among the biggest influencer of our decision making process — our ability to record, estimate, and subsequently predict will improve tremendously.”
Tom Nassif, President and CEO, Western Growers Association
When you look around at the various stakeholders that encompass the truly massive California agriculture system, Western Growers Association (WGA) President and CEO Tom Nassif is pretty much universally respected in the Golden State for his life’s work advancing the interests of California specialty crop growers.
A former politician, in 1981 Nassif was appointed Deputy and Acting Chief of Protocol for the White House under the Reagan administration, and in 1985 he received appointment by President Reagan to be his ambassador to the Kingdom of Morocco, where he served until 1988. Prior to joining the Reagan administration, Nassif was a partner in the Gray Cary Ames & Frye law firm, where he represented the Imperial Valley Vegetable Growers Association along with numerous growers and shippers throughout California and Arizona. He was reportedly one of the first attorneys to try a case before the Agricultural Labor Relations Board.
Fast forward to the near-present, in 2015 Nassif launched an initiative to accelerate the development of technologies that solve agriculture’s most pressing issues. The initiative revolves around the Western Growers Center for Innovation & Technology (WGCIT), a technology incubator aimed at bringing entrepreneurs together with farmers to collaborate on innovative solutions.
When asked his thoughts on how coming advancements in robotics will help California producers remain profitable amidst $15 farm worker minimum wage regulations passed recently in the state, Nassif doesn’t mince words.
“The future is now. The inability of our federal government to provide agriculture a legal workforce has been the driver for automation including robotics and mechanization. Our labor shortages are at a critical stage, so we created the Western Growers Center for Innovation and Technology in Salinas, CA. We act as matchmakers between innovators and agriculture. While technology is moving at a rapid pace, worker shortages are increasing faster. We have no choice but to automate as many agricultural jobs as possible, moving the farm worker into higher paying, less stressful technological jobs. It can’t happen fast enough, but it will happen, and we encourage and financially support those efforts.”
Billy Tiller, Texas cotton grower and founder, Grower Information Services Cooperative
Tiller’s national profile took a healthy bump in the positive direction at this year’s Commodity Classic, where his Grower Information Service’s Cooperative (GiSC) announced an official alliance with the industry-backed Ag Data Coalition. Tiller himself spearheaded the effort to marry the two groups, and he cites the agreement as one of his greatest professional accomplishments. Tiller says the development “gives birth to a re-branded cooperative effort known as Growers Ag Data Cooperative.”
Tiller is the fourth generation in his family to manage a large family-owned production ag operation, which he has overseen for the last 35 years, in an area west of Lubbock, TX. This operation is his passion and his greatest business love, he admits, and Tiller’s past leadership roles include almost 22 years on the Board of Directors of two separate telecommunications firms providing all levels of telecommunications to rural America, from the pioneering days of cellular to the deployment of internet to its customers. He also spent nine years in a local agricultural bank as its Executive Vice President and served on its Board of Directors for 11 years. He was involved in daily lending to dozens of agricultural operations on the plains of Texas and the agricultural lending strategy of the bank.
On the precision farming side, he notes several accomplishments in what he refers to as the “Big Ag Data” space, including being a speaker and panelist over the last few years at many events featuring ag data, and he has also testified before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Agriculture in October 2015 at a public hearing titled: “Big Data and Agriculture: Innovation and Implications.”
“Right now there’s a lot of things in ag and some of them don’t solve even a single problem,” he says. “I’ve got more solutions for problems I don’t have than I’ve got real solutions that solve things on the farm. We’re always looking for things that really do answer the question for a grower, and so as we can get better funded through ADC I really want that to be our mission, to continue to help growers adopt technology, and to help them feel good about it.”
Paul Welbig, Senet, Inc., Director of Ag Business
Welbig, a former higher-up with Raven Industries, made the jump over to IoT-focused firm Senet (Portsmouth, NH), back in late 2015. After helping oversee the integration of AgEagle UAVs into the Raven product ecosystem during his time at Raven, he says that his efforts currently with Senet are focused namely on “applying Internet of Things (IoT) technology to effect positive change and drive profitable results in production agriculture.” Welbig’s had the opportunity thus far with Senet to lead the roll out of low power wireless network services and advanced sensor technologies in rural farming areas across the U.S., including California’s Central Valley and the Corn Belt.
“I’m also intensely focused on the strategic planning behind future network deployments and the commercialization of production agriculture solutions across North America,” he adds. “It is with great pride that I have the opportunity to champion the adoption of connected farming solutions and educate technology companies on the value of agriculture, and how it plays such a vital role in the sustainability of our world.”
Contrary to popular perception, Welbig shares, IoT technologies in farming are not exclusively a productivity booster. There’s a sustainability component as well, so the potential goes well beyond simply working smarter. “It is also about the adoption of technology that delivers sustainable farming techniques that protect the environment, preserve natural resources and improve animal welfare to help ensure that farmers can meet the world’s food demands in the coming years.”
Agriculture has been wined and dined by high-tech-toting outsiders for decades, promising endless prosperity, or seamless automation, or unprecedented crop production insights. Some have evolved into reasonable, smartly-implemented role technologies, but most end up washed ashore on a beach filthy with failed hopes and dreams.
So it’s not surprising that the promise of one of agriculture’s more recent newcomers, IBM’s Watson supercomputer, has been met with a mix of intrigue and dismissiveness.
After proving its mettle on the game show Jeopardy! in 2011 when it kicked mega-champion Ken Jennings’ butt in a head-to-head matchup, Watson got serious about establishing a foothold in data-intensive industries, including agriculture. And over the last couple of years, news of Watson’s application to ag began appearing in business publications.
In January 2016, Fortune magazine’s headline, “How IBM is Bringing Watson to Wine,” caught everyone’s attention. With a focus on using sensors, weather data, and algorithms to better manage irrigation for vineyards owned by wine industry heavyweight EJ Gallo, the premise and the application of technology appeared to make sense. These days, television commercials provide a visual explanation of this system for consumers.
How Watson, essentially a catchy (and effective) branding for IBM’s artificial intelligence initiatives, manifests itself more fully across other agriculture applications remains to be seen. For its part, IBM sees five major areas it could help the industry — bringing together disparate data from diffuse sources into usable, actionable knowledge; visual recognition and insight using imagery analysis; improving workforce efficiency; improving crop production decision making by collecting and analyzing weather and field data; and communicating with service providers and farmers in a more natural, language-based interface, called Chatbots.
Much work and evolving remains, and only time will tell how much help Watson will be to agriculture overall. But as one looks out at the future of agriculture and technology, Watson is unequivocally “intriguing.”