On OptiGro And The State Of Imagery

Taking pictures of crop fields from high above, be it satellite or via aircraft, in order to gain insight into crop health and vitality and improve decision making has been around a long time. And for as long as it’s been around, companies have been trying to create a turnkey business model by which a critical mass of end users could utilize imagery in an effective and convenient way.

So it was no surprise that John Deere, given its deep investment in serving the agricultural dealership market in recent years, made a significant move into imagery when it created the OptiGro program in 2006. However, a year later Deere is stepping away from OptiGro, according to retailers and service providers who have been involved with the program.

Deere has not made a formal announcement about its intentions, so I’m not going to speculate on what will ultimately happen with the OptiGro program in particular. But I do have some thoughts about imagery after talking with folks in the field about the state of imagery use today:

1. Remote imagery, at least for now, works best in crop-centric programs. Companies supplying remote imagery successfully are serving tight niches that provide provable paybacks. Sugarbeets, high value veggies, and cotton each have solid success stories attached to use of imagery in season for very specific purposes.

2. Remote imagery can only be taken as far as the expertise that exists on the ground. Jeff Dearborn is precision agriculture manager for Jimmy Sanders Inc., a full service ag retailer based in Cleveland, MS, which has been active in precision agriculture for more than a decade. Jimmy Sanders has invested a lot of time and expertise developing its in-house precision agriculture program, which features use of remote imagery as part of a total package — including some utilization of OptiGro imagery. He noted that many of the service providers who picked up the OptiGro program didn’t have much prior expertise in remote imagery, which made it challenging for Deere to sustain momentum, even with training and Deere people in place. Based on its expertise, Sanders precision program will remain intact as it looks to alternative sources for imagery. But it remains to be seen whether less precision-focused service providers that picked up OptiGro will stick with imagery in the future.

3. Technology Continues to Evolve. Another consideration Dearborn pointed out to me is the rapid improvements occurring in imagery-capturing equipment. The equipment is always improving and it’s important to have the best equipment available, he said. The capital investment required to keep up with technology is significant.

Most of the folks I talked to about imagery said that no matter what happens, Deere’s investment in OptiGro did a lot to increase remote imagery’s profile. It was clearly an attempt to bring imagery to the masses, but in my estimation imagery isn’t a product ready for mass consumption, at least not now. Personally, I give Deere credit for the time and investment it made — perhaps the lessons learned can be applied to future imagery efforts, further extending the benefits it provides consultants, retailers, and growers today in specific programs and niches.

Hopefully, the experience will also “raise all boats” and increase interest in a technology that clearly delivers benefits in the right agronomic program. Only time will tell.

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