Perspective: Finding Precision Agriculture People

Last fall at a technical workshop for specialty crops, growers were asked what their top concern was for field production. They replied without hesitation — labor. At an international conference in Mexico this past spring, I was surprised to hear from representatives of South American countries that labor was their No. 1 problem. I had always assumed that the growing agricultural labor shortage in the U.S. was the result of stricter immigration enforcement. So it was news to me that the labor shortage was in fact an international phenomenon. Given that agricultural labor now appears to be a global concern, it was not surprising that one of the keynote speakers at the 9th International Conference on Precision spoke about a “new mechanization system based on agricultural robots.”

Before plunging into my thoughts about robots in field production, I would like to broaden the discussion about labor in agriculture. I believe there is a quieter labor shortage going on in academic and industrial circles. The impressive amount of research reported upon at the recent International Conference on Precision Agriculture in Denver, CO, was only outdone by the remarkable range of topics. It is simply mind boggling how sophisticated precision agriculture has become in such a short period of time. There was everything imaginable between the “fuzzy” approach for defining yield zones to the “hybrid artificial intelligence” approach for diagnosing diseases from imagery. But somehow, by the end of the conference, all the reported research efforts seemed to reflect a continued fragmentation of knowledge. In some eerie way, I felt a sense of stifled action amidst a wealth of knowledge. In other words, there seemed to be far too little qualified experts (i.e., labor) to bring all this new knowledge to growers.

This fragmentation of knowledge was implicitly addressed in the recent Specialty Crop Research Initiative, which is part of the new USDA Farm Bill. This initiative sought to address the various crop challenges, including the shortage of labor, by funding “systemsbased, trans-disciplinary approaches.” By the government’s definition, trans-disciplinary is a “multi-discipline approach that brings biological and physical scientists together with economists and social scientists to address challenges in a holistic manner.” In simpler terms, the USDA Initiative was designed to bring the different research efforts into a single context for the benefit of growers and society in general. It is the government’s attempt to make more efficient use of intellectual capital (i.e., labor) and to make funded research more focused on growers’ needs.

More To Come

There is another impending labor shortage in the not-toodistant future. As the university educators and business professionals of the “baby boom” generation begin to retire in large numbers, there will be many vacancies. These vacancies will need to be filled by the next generation of graduates, who not only need to be technically proficient but also socially and economically minded. As society and agriculture compete for the same resources, the next generation of precision agriculturists will have to seek a balance and build production systems that are sustainable and environmentally responsible, while still being economically competitive. This is no small challenge for a shrinking pool of talent.

The impending shortage of intellectual capital will only accelerate the trend of growers taking on the responsibility of technology transfer. That is, while state extension services continue to be stretched thin of resources and work on other non-agricultural programs, more growers will be fending for themselves when making choices on new technologies. They will to some degree seek the help of extension, industry and friends, but in the end they will be personally responsible for acquiring new knowledge and applying it to their operation. In a nutshell, growers will, from now on, be working smarter not harder. And precision agriculture tools will be their labor saving devices.

Now, I wish to return to the robots in the field. The mechanization of agriculture as a solution for the increasing labor shortage is a noble goal. But as one grower reminded me, he did not need the “perfect” solution, only a “better” solution than the one he had today. I do not think agriculture can wait for the robot to replace the worker. Rather, today’s workers need to be equipped with “robot-like” tools to make their work easier and more efficient. Hand-held, cost-effective mechanized tools that result in more productive workers raise the intrinsic value of labor. More valuable labor justifies higher pay, which, in turn, attracts more people to the agriculture labor force. I believe, in the short run, it will be a lot easier to alleviate the labor shortage by finding creative ways to attract people to agricultural enterprises than to build technologies to replace them.

In closing, it is important to note that precision agriculture is part of the labor solution. Precision agriculture has been incrementally introducing technical innovations that have made crop production more efficient and viable in a changing world. For many of us in precision agriculture, working on these innovations has been a labor of love.

Editor’s note: This article first appeared in the Fall 2008 issue of PrecisionAg Special Reports.

Leave a Reply

Service Providers Stories
GAR-Tootelian-Sensor
Service ProvidersGar Tootelian: Putting Ag Technology to the Test
October 8, 2018
In California’s Central Valley, a diverse crop market in which Pest Control Advisors (PCAs) are the dominant players when it Read More
Thad-Becker
Business ManagementMFA: Mainstreaming Precision Ag Services
October 1, 2018
There’s no ironclad approach to building business through a precision program offering. There are as many nuanced approaches to success Read More
Business ManagementIvy Tech, Farmers Partner to Help Precision Ag Education
September 20, 2018
Harvest time has taken on a new meaning for some Wabash Valley farmers, and Bobbi Hunt-Kincaid hopes her family’s first Read More
PenelopeNagel
Business ManagementWhy Is Funding a Challenge for Women-Led Agtech Companies?
September 17, 2018
When it comes to women-led agtech companies the funding discussion never seems to cease. In June after the The New Read More
Trending Articles
Mike-Gomes
PrecisionAg InstituteOne on One with Mike Gomes, Topcon
October 15, 2018
Mike Gomes of Topcon Precision Agriculture joins Paul Schrimpf, Group Editor of PrecisionAg Professional magazine, for a discussion of key Read More
PrecisionAg InstitutePrecisionAg Institute Whitepaper Library
October 1, 2018
Welcome to the PrecisionAg Institute Whitepaper library! Here you will find free whitepapers and case studies from the PrecisionAg Institute Partners Read More
Sensors
Sensors/IoTThe Answer to Agriculture’s Daunting Challenges – Soil Sensors
September 20, 2018
According to the United Nations, 9.6 billion people will live on planet Earth by 2050. Feeding these mouths will require Read More
Soil-Hand
Data ManagementAre You Using Your Soil to Its Full Potential?
September 14, 2018
Harvest is progressing across most parts of the U.S. and those growers who aren’t already harvesting are gearing up to Read More
Grower-Retailer
Imagery/SensingAgtech: 10 Things I Hate About You!
September 4, 2018
Before you get bent out of shape from the title, remember if you’ve read my articles before you know I Read More
Kansas State University
Industry NewsKansas State University, Topcon Form Precision Ag Research Partnership
August 30, 2018
Kansas State University and Topcon Agriculture are collaborating to develop tools and systems to advance precision agriculture and support farmers. Read More
Latest News
Pix4Dfields_usecase_prunes_farm
DronesEnhance Your Agriculture Workflow in Less Than 30 Minut…
October 15, 2018
Prunes are European plums with a high sugar content that allows them to dry without fermenting around the pit and Read More
Winfield
PrecisionAg InstitutePartner Profile with Winfield United
October 15, 2018
Joel Wipperfurth of Winfield United discusses ag technology trends and topics during the 2018 InfoAg Conference. Read More
Fetters
PrecisionAg InstitutePartner Profile with Simplot Grower Solutions
October 15, 2018
Allan Fetters of Simplot Grower Solutions discusses ag technology trends and topics across the industry, and within the company, during Read More
Chappell
PrecisionAg InstituteEncouraging Employees to Think Into the Future is Winni…
October 15, 2018
EFC Systems CEO Ernie Chappell says his company is always looking ahead to understand growers’ future needs. “It’s not just Read More
Raven-SDSU
PrecisionAg InstitutePartnership with SDSU is One Way Raven Industries Advan…
October 15, 2018
Raven Industries’ partnership with South Dakota State University allows the company to work closely with students and staff to advance Read More
Proagrica
PrecisionAg InstituteOne on One with Kirk Appleford, Proagrica
October 15, 2018
Kirk Appleford joins Paul Schrimpf at the 2018 InfoAg Conference to talk about current ag trends, and Proagrica’s recent acquisition Read More
ESRI
PrecisionAg InstituteOne on One with Charlie Magruder, ESRI
October 15, 2018
Charlie Magruder joins Paul Schrimpf for a discussion of current trends in technology that are impacting ESRI, including news from Read More
Shane-Swedlund
PrecisionAg InstituteOne on One with Shane Swedlund, Raven Industries
October 15, 2018
Shane Swedlund of Raven Industries joins Paul Schrimpf at the 2018 InfoAg Conference to share some key learnings from the Read More
Mike-Gomes
PrecisionAg InstituteOne on One with Mike Gomes, Topcon
October 15, 2018
Mike Gomes of Topcon Precision Agriculture joins Paul Schrimpf, Group Editor of PrecisionAg Professional magazine, for a discussion of key Read More
Ernie-Chappell-and-Paul
PrecisionAg InstituteOne on One with Ernie Chappell, EFC Systems
October 15, 2018
Ernie Chappell of EFC Systems joins Paul Schrimpf, Group Editor of PrecisionAg Professional magazine, to talk about topics and trends Read More
Auto-Thinner
Robotics/Labor SaversPrecision Agriculture in Specialty Crops: Labor, Cost S…
October 9, 2018
Agriculture is going through an equivalent of what the computer industry went through in the 1970s and 1980s. That’s when Read More
Growing-Innovations-logo
EventsA Crazy 2018 is Why We Need Growing Innovations
October 8, 2018
If you’re here you likely have received a special Meister Media Worldwide code to get $100 off your registration to Read More
AmericasConBAP 2018 Highlights Precision Agriculture in Brazil
October 8, 2018
The Brazilian Congress of Precision Agriculture 2018 (ConBAP 2018) was held October 2-4 in Curitiba, Paraná. Held every two years, Read More
GAR-Tootelian-Sensor
Service ProvidersGar Tootelian: Putting Ag Technology to the Test
October 8, 2018
In California’s Central Valley, a diverse crop market in which Pest Control Advisors (PCAs) are the dominant players when it Read More
Spray Drift
Decision Support SoftwareHow Technology Can Help You Prevent Spray Drift
October 8, 2018
Spray drift. News articles about damage caused by spray drift seem to pop up regularly, almost as daily reminders, during Read More
UncategorizedTopcon, Kansas State Make it Official: Establish Resear…
October 4, 2018
Today, Topcon Agriculture and Kansas State University announced a comprehensive partnership, according to a news release issued by the University. Read More
AmericasIvy Tech Students, Helena Collaborate on ‘The Fie…
October 4, 2018
Students in Ivy Tech Community College’s Agriculture and Precision Agriculture programs have had an interesting opportunity this growing season to Read More
Industry NewsSDSU to Host Precision Ag Bowl, Raven Facility Grand Op…
October 3, 2018
South Dakota State is the first university in the nation to offer a four-year degree in precision agriculture. This Saturday, Read More