Promoting Precision Agricultural Innovation in a Risk Averse Marketplace

As precision agriculture consultants we constantly are being asked our opinions on where to invest, and how to strategically invest in innovation. Stereotypically, farm operations are constantly in search of stability. Conversely, technology is in a constant and rapid state of evolution. An ongoing tug-of-war exists between these two very different mindsets. But how is it possible for farm operations to innovate when their focus is on stability? Here are three ways that can help make this happen:

1. Look Outside for Tools and Ideas

Farmers have been looking externally for new ideas for many years, but mainly through coffee shop conversations. This type of interaction does provide value in some form through sharing of ideas and potentially benchmarking. However, this type of interaction may create an ‘echo chamber’ of sorts, in which we as humans tend to gravitate to relationships where we interact with like-minded people. Twitter can be a great source of information and a way to connect to the outside world to discover new ideas. However, in the world of Twitter, users often create a similar ‘echo-chamber’ type of interaction, writes Wray Herbert on HuffingtonPost.com. It is important that we as precision agriculture professionals promote and make a conscious effort to engage and search for new ideas outside of our circle. Often there are similarities between other industries and agriculture, and there are products and ideas which can be applied to our industry. Another, perhaps crucial component that the agriculture industry could improve on is attracting external talent. There are many careers in which similar skill sets are developed to what is needed for agriculture. In precision agriculture, specifically those trained in Geographic Information Systems, computer programming, and software engineering can potentially be invaluable to a farm operation.

2. Share Risk

Farm operations are generally risk averse. Failure can be a waste of resources, cause financial loss, and potentially cause extended future harm. Generally, new initiatives are tested until there is very little uncertainty on their outcomes. This experimentation provides confidence to decision makers that they are in fact making the correct decision. Innovation usually does not happen like this, through many years of experimentation, but instead through running many experiments at once in parallel. This approach is only possible in agriculture by sharing the risk and having many partners in a research network run the experiments together. This type of strategy requires a culture in which duplication and failures are tolerated. This type of culture also needs to drive cooperation, and data sharing. Operations need to buy into things such as data sharing and aggregation. It is likely that as this culture continues to evolve in agriculture, more companies with this type of service will emerge (e.g., Farmers Business Network).

3. Win the Small Battles

Farm operations are unlikely to jump in head first to new solutions. Progress will be incremental, and resistance may be strong. Persistence is essential. Many operations trust their experience, and feel security in stability. Big data and analytics give us the power to analyze and interpret very complex data sets. This mind-set can greatly over complicate trials, and make it difficult for farm operators to interpret, and feel confidence in the research. In most cases simpler is better, and it is best to break things down into smaller pieces, and simpler trials. Many are skeptical that a computer may be able to help them to do their jobs. It is imperative that we as precision agriculture consultants start simple, and generate ‘proof of concept’ research. As these results roll in operators will recognize that data analytics provide a new and powerful tool to improve operations. At this point, operators will feel confidence in more complex results and trust these interpretations.

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