Opinion: Ag Data Sells, But Who’s Buying?
Indulge me and let’s beat a dead horse together. We all know that data is a huge deal these days. Companies that specialize in it are working overtime and companies that have no business in data are playing the game to the tilt. So what’s it all mean? Here’s my take.
Most growers in my area don’t use their data. Sure, they have yield maps and some even have variable rate (VR) prescriptions, but that’s about as far as it goes. The yield map book usually serves as a coaster more than a decision tool. VR maps look nice but most don’t find a correlation to the bottom line. They get soil tests and the fertilizer company tells them how much fertilizer they need (which I’ve often equated to asking a drug dealer if I need more drugs).
The farmer builds a plan, usually with Mr. (or Mrs.) banker at the beginning of the season, and pushes that rock so it starts rolling downhill. Once in motion the rest is up to Mother Nature.
The data revolution is promising many things: remote sensing nitrogen management, yield analytics, satellite imagery, and a quadraphonic Blaupunkt (not really, that’s just a shameless “Bull Durham” plug).
My point is this data revolution has struck a lot of growers in one of two ways.
The first one is how some folks look at electricity. You can’t see electricity and it can hurt you. That makes most people scared of it. Start talking to farmers about data and VR prescriptions and they say “What if it doesn’t rain?” or “What if I pull back population on the hill and we get a lot of rain and the hill would have done great?”. They don’t want to mess with something that they can’t see (data in a cloud) that can hurt them (missed yields because it did or didn’t rain).
The second reason is the same reason most grown men don’t go to the doctor. First off, why would you go to the doctor if you aren’t sick? Why would a farmer change the way he plants his crop when last year was one of the best years he has had in a while? Why would he take the time and money to invest in something that requires him to trust someone else to make sense of it? He would rather trust himself and keep things going good enough.
Second, if there is something wrong at the doctor they usually don’t want to know about it anyhow. It’s hard to get a farmer to sit down and really analyze his data and admit shortcomings. Or come to realize that he may need to spend some money to remedy something that will pay him back in the long run. If I don’t know I’m sick, I don’t need to pay for the medicine.
So what is a precision agriculture expert to do? By no means do I have all of the answers but we have found that an approach of boots on the ground and accountability is where it starts. Maybe a better word is being blunt, but both sides need to realize that there are in fact things out of our control but many things are. We want customers who don’t believe modern row crop agriculture is a total crapshoot. We want to keep asking why and work with growers who think the same.