Opinion: What the Heck! Now a Computer is Telling Me How to Farm?

Opinion: What the Heck! Now a Computer is Telling Me How to Farm?

From growing up on a farm, farming myself, working with farmers, and having some of my best friends, colleagues, and family member that are farmers or work in the industry providing services, what I see in ag tech is concerning me, as well as most of them. I’m not here to rip apart the ag tech/precision ag industry, since I’m very much a part of it. But when I see what many groups these days are touting as the next best thing and that some algorithm, machine learning, or Artificial Intelligence protocol is going to tell what is going on in the field, it somewhat baffles me. I’m not saying that these types of tools and processes are bad for agriculture. Eventually, I think they’ll be great for the industry and farmers, if done right and presented correctly. But I think for the most part they are not, in my opinion.

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What really grinds my gears is the pure lack of understanding from many on how farmers farm and what it means to them personally, their families, co-horts, and their well-being. Think about it this way: if an autonomous car company came up to Dale Earnhardt Jr. or Jimmy Johnson and said my car can race better than you and is faster and more efficient, they’d laugh at you and most likely threaten you with something (enter closed fist). This is the problem. Some think they are smarter just because technology can think at a larger scale and this equals that. What ag tech is missing is personality and emotion.

The one thing I’ve learned is that you never tell a farmer — no matter how great or bad they are — about how you can do it better or make better decisions. Now if they hire someone, a real person, to have them tell you what to do and why then that is great, it is called a service. Naturally, many are doing that and having success. The other thing you do is provide them with tools, data, and knowledge of experience and say here is what we’ve seen, maybe it could work for you. Basically, let them teach themselves through your experiences. You help them, they help you, you both help the community and have a good time (enter stories and/or alcohol). It’s called community and culture, another thing ag tech is missing.

Nowadays, some are trying to push that the software or algorithm is enough and it’s all you need. I’m sorry, that doesn’t work for how people feel about their place and job in agriculture. If you start saying that this intangible thing is telling you what to do, what it actually does is say to the farmer or service provider that they aren’t needed. It says they are just a tool like a tractor. Oh wait, we are going to automate that, too, so basically you have no place in the game. Some don’t see how it affects their small town, their neighbor, their family, their friends, their everything. (enter single tear)

I know this because I grew up on a farm and in a community of 500, and now live in a much bigger one at 1,700 (enter city slicker eye rolls). This potential of automation and undermining the farmer’s knowledge and others that make their livelihood on services supporting farmers is what really scares me, and I’m starting to see it in certain places. At the same time my family has been in the precision ag and ag tech industry since its inception, is still going and needs farmers and service providers to use our technology to survive. I’m caught in the middle, asking what is the best answer going forward?

To put it plainly, both can succeed together but we need to change some things (enter stern voice and maybe a gavel). The ag tech groups need to stop thinking they are invincible with their “users”, “acres”, “money raised”, and “algorithms”. They need to change their tone and look at their potential customers better or they’ll lose very quickly. At the same time, the ag industry (farmers, service providers, small communities, etc..) need to get off their butts and start utilizing and understanding these technologies more because if they don’t, a few things will happen. Others will get their way and start replacing things and they’ll be left behind by someone or something that does adopt the technology, and they will lose everything that they have worked so hard to keep.

The general ag industry isn’t adopting all of this ag tech like they should and I get why, it’s hard and complicated and new. Many have written about the current problems with this adoption issue, and to me they are all missing the point (enter dark and ominous tones). I saw what the 80’s did to my surrounding community, family, friends, and farms around our own. Now, those bad times are starting to creep back with lower commodity prices making things tough again for many. People are scared, the ag industry is scared, and when new things come in and say they can do this better than you, it puts another weight on the back that is not needed.

Farming and agriculture are not always about how this and that can make more yield, feed more, and make more money or be more efficient. Sometimes it’s about enjoying what you do, what you’ve done, where you’ve come from, what you learned, and where it all started. Unfortunately, technology can easily take that away it seems. And with this next ag revolution coming around the bend don’t forget that there are always winners and losers. Make everyone winners as best as you can, if you can. (enter a helping hand)

In the end, I don’t like to harp too hard about the industry that feeds me (literally), but for the groups pushing new great technology in ag, don’t stop. Instead, think about how you’d feel if you lost control of everything you are passionate about and care for. Think about the “what if” scenarios like outsiders constantly trying to tell you what to do and trying to replace you. Take that feeling and make your products and vision better for that sake, not just a better faster tool or way to replace some manual function.

This industry differs from most in that it’s family-oriented, small-town driven, and very passionate about what it does — meaning, it’s not just numbers and facts. For the farmers and service providers, stop living in the past and look to what is needed going forward, while keeping your morals and heart in the game. As for you ag tech people, if you want a taste of that passion and feeling, watch “So God Made a Farmer” and listen carefully since it’s at the heart of what I’m talking about, but also remember to keep pushing. Ag needs it. As for any others, I hope this will open up the conversation more since now you know the rest of the story (Enter Paul Harvey Quote: Good day!).

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amoverton says:

Unfortunately, growers, like so many other workers these days, are going to have to choose what part of the industry they want to operate in and adjust their expectations accordingly. The family farm model is most likely to persist in the niche markets, such as organic and specialty hybrid crops, where customers are willing to pay higher dollar for their products, but the bulk of food production will happen in an industrial farm atmosphere, where the push to maximize production and minimize expenses will continue to drive the adoption of new technologies. Most consumers don’t understand what they give up in flavor and experience eating a piece of fruit or cheese from a corporate farm, but with the current state of wages in this country, most of them can’t afford to develop a taste for anything besides mass produced foods. Shelf life, uniformity, and packing efficiency have become more important features than taste and texture to the WalMarts and Krogers, let alone to the Nabiscos and Kelloggs of the world, so growers are having to decide whether to pursue farming in an industrial, specialty, or hobby environment. It’s hard to ignore what we’ve lost in the process, but the changes will only continue, I far as I can see.

Paul Overby says:

I agree with much of what you say amoverton. But, I would point out that food processors ARE moving away from the industrial food model even for things like cereal. They are responding to the larger consumer movement for “sustainability.” As I have worked with precision ag for the past 12 years, I see the synergy possible between these two. I suggest that this is a fairly large niche, and one that family farmers can take ahold of! The technology is cheap enough and they farm small enough to deal with the segregation and quality issues that food processors desire.