Opinion: The Missing Link in Precision Agriculture
The agtech boom over the last two years is indeed astonishing. Farmers are becoming more open to new, emerging technologies and are more willing to adopt them.
Yield maps, VRA (Variable Rate Application), satellite imagery, and in-field sensors have been around for a while. Drone technology is a relatively new player that holds the potential to make a substantial transformation in the way in which data is being collected.
However, with so many new technologies and agtech companies that sprout up, there is still a missing link. Actually, there is more than one, but I would like to focus on one of the major missing links — decision making.
Many of the ag technologies today focus on precise application of fertilizer, pesticides, and water. Many others provide good solutions for obtaining real-time information from the field, such as growth status, water conditions, nitrogen status, stress caused by pest or disease, etc.
These can potentially help farmers make better decisions, by providing a higher quality or more accurate data. But in fact, the majority of today’s technologies provide only partial decision-making solutions and leave the decision to the farmer. Although this may sound very logical and straight forward, the end result of this situation is that the ability of such technologies to make a substantial impact on yield is limited.
For instance, growing in greenhouses is a well-established practice. The greenhouse is a controlled environment. Existing technologies allow for high precision in the application of water, fertilizers, and pesticides. Because of the small area, scouting and identifying problems in time is done easily and most growers scout the plants on a weekly basis. Moreover, growers have a wide range of flexibility in splitting the greenhouse area to smaller sections and control each section individually.
And yet, there is still so much room for mistakes. Very often, operating and calibration errors result in conditions that are far from optimal. Because of the vast number of parameters that must be taken into account when having to make a decision, growers tend to “go back to basics” and usually do not take full advantage of the technologies they already have at hand.
Furthermore, crop management decisions are complex and multi-dimensional, while most of the existing solutions only deal with one aspect of crop production.
To summarize, many good new ag technologies are becoming available today. The clear majority of them provide either sensing solutions or precise application of inputs. The missing link is what comes in between — decision-support tools — that can provide farmers and their advisers with both actionable and validated advice.
It seems that it will take some time and substantial research before such tools are developed and adopted by farmers.