InfoAg 2017 Recap: Service Providers Take Center Stage

As I sit here and ponder just what it was that we all experienced last week, off the top of mind I’d say InfoAg 2017 seemed vastly different from the previous iteration — perhaps a bit subdued, or less crowded — from an attendee’s standpoint, but also, in a way, it just seemed more serious too.

A lot of the fluff stayed home this year, and that’s probably a good thing, not that I have anything against fluff or anything. It’s a sign of a maturing market — as last week’s oft-cited study from Purdue on the current standing of precision tech adoption also clearly demonstrates — and it’s nice to see various technologies like yield monitor analysis (55% adoption among dealerships) and satellite imagery (54%) being taken up with greater frequency.

Now, don’t get me wrong here, as that’s not to say InfoAg 2017 was dry or unexciting. In fact, I’d argue quite the opposite. Excitement was palpable all week.

Dr. Steve Sonka himself, who provided the opening keynote address of the conference, summed it up quite succinctly: “This is the most exciting time in precision agriculture. All of these new technologies are finally coming together, and we’re getting into the third wave of impact of information technology (on this market).”

And many of the faces I ran into in St. Louis echoed Dr. Sonka’s sentiment, that indeed this is a time of excitement and action in ag tech, and I couldn’t agree more, looking back on InfoAg 2017.

Anyways, let’s dive right into my observations on this year’s show, right or wrong. Of course, if there’s something I missed, or you disagree, feel free to leave it in the comments section below.

#1: Industry shift from product focus to service focus

Past InfoAgs featured all kinds of gadgets and gizmos that, no offense to those companies/innovators, but nobody really knew exactly where the hell they fit in the service provider-grower ecosystem.

This year one could feel a shift occur as leveraging precision ag services to increase grower revenue took on a higher level of precedence over finding the newest and hottest ag tech toys.

The “Business of Precision” speaker track was particularly insightful, with GreenPoint Ag’s Ben Carlisle breaking down how to successfully start a retail precision program from scratch (Internal buy-in from management + choosing the right partners + choosing software growers want to use + finding the right employees), as well as the always-interesting Steve Cubbage opining on new and old ways to make money in precision ag services (yield mapping + grid soil sampling reportedly make up about 65% of his precision program’s total annual profits). I mean, we do tend to look at the industry through service-provider colored glasses here at PrecisionAg Professional, but it seems the industry as a whole is moving in that direction as well. Take FarmLogs, for example. The Ann Arbor, MI-based ag tech company that had received a bit of criticism in service provider circles for being pretty much exclusively grower-focused over the past five years, announced at the show it was opening up it’s FMIS platform to better interface with service providers. And that’s not to mention all of the directed scouting platforms (Mavrx, Ceres, ScoutPro, etc.) that are lining up to help service providers manage fields more efficiently for growers.

If you’re not on the service provider train yet, might I inquire as to just WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU WAITING FOR?!

#2: Integrations Galore

You should never go it alone if you don’t have to.

As the market continues its maturation process outfits are quickly realizing they can often accomplish their various go-to-market strategies much more efficiently by finding like-minded partners that excel in an area that they perhaps themselves don’t. The biggest integration (or acquisition) announced at the show came on Wednesday, when AGCO announced it had won the Precision Planting sweepstakes (initial guesses are AGCO paid significantly less than the rumored $190 million Deere had pledged in prior talks). Deere and Granular, Trimble and CNH, and EFC systems and Geosys, all of these guys decided to get together and, in the words of Topcon’s Michael Gomes, “mix your chocolate with my peanut butter” to see together what they can make. It will be interesting to see just how tasty some of these new ag tech confections turn out.

#3: The Year of the Back Alley Meeting

Again likely the result of a maturing market (and feel free to write this off as complete speculation if you’d like) but there seemed to be a lot of closed door, stern “business of precision” meetings going on throughout the week in the upstairs conference rooms. This is perhaps different than in years past, where it seemed most (but not all!) business would take place out in the open on the show floor.

That trend reached a head on Wednesday morning, when after a series of closed-door meetings it came to light that Winnipeg-based FMIS giant Farmers Edge was rumored to be in discussions to be acquired by Canadian telecommunications titan Rogers Communications for $400 million.

Although that $400 million is a bit lower than I would have expected given Farmers Edges’ heightened standing in the Canadian ag tech marketplace (remember, Climate went for just under one billion back in 2013), a deal with Rogers just makes all kinds of sense; the cable giant’s revenues are hurting from the growing “cut the cord” trend in cable television, and in past meetings with shareholders it has expressed plans to shift a great deal of its focus to its burgeoning rural wireless and Internet of Things (IoT) business unit, a market segment that in Canada alone the company expects to reach a value of $13.5 billion by 2019 (!!!). Now factor in Farmers Edges’ strengths in agronomy, equipment dealer, and weather station networks, as well as its data telematics ISOBUS “dongle” and its overall position as basically the top-dog in Canadian digital farming, and it seems CEO Wade Barnes’ outfit is an ideal acquisition target to help Rogers diversify into the precision farming space. It will be worth following this development in the coming days and weeks to see if all of those InfoAg speculators were indeed correct.

UPDATE 07/31/2017 via Paul Schrimpf: 


#4: IoT Trending Up

Speaking of IoT, whereas years past saw a heavy focus on things like drones and FMIS launches, this year it seemed like the IoT companies really came out in force. Service providers especially are recognizing the vast potential of these increasingly less-expensive connected sensor networks to drive efficiencies and help them serve growers better. Senet, SigFox, and a few others like them that have targeted precision agriculture as an industry and have put in the early Yeoman’s work of finding the right partners to align with should have a significant leg up on their perhaps less enlightened IoT breatheren.

#5: Little Data > Big Data

In past years attendees heard a lot about the power of huge, aggregated data sets to help producers make more informed agronomic decisions. This year saw a reversal of that idea, as many panelists in the breakout sessions espoused embracing little, or more local, data sets.

It was our friend Jeremy Wilson who reminded me Wednesday evening over some fantastic BBQ at nearby Pappy’s Smokehouse (they ran out of ribs tho 🙁 ) that it was Topcon’s Joe Tevas who originally stated that “we can’t do Big Data right until we get Little Data right,” and that theme was clearly in play throughout the week. Then there was WinField United’s announced launch of its new R7 Field Forecasting Tool, which I’d describe as almost a happy medium between big (Answer Plot data from across the country) and little (in-season tissue sampling data + R7 imagery) data that WinField United claims “uses the plant as a sensor” to model out, or predict, four plant production metrics: water, nitrogen and potassium usage, and crop growth stage. Powered by machine learning algorithms developed by French analytics outfit ITK — which Joel Wipperfurth described as “maybe one of the world’s best kept secrets in ag tech” — the new in-season decision management tool makes for an intriguing planning tool for professional agronomists and service providers.

So that’s MY quick down-and-dirty view of what I took away from this year’s InfoAg (probably going to be slightly different from what you all experienced). Hoping many of you enjoyed the show as much as I did, and that you made it back to wherever you came from in short and safe order.

And, hopefully, we’ll see you again next year.

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