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Perspective: Curing What Ails Agronomic Efficiency

I recently returned from my first conference trip in a long time. After 18 months of what seemed like being overworked and under-socialized, The Tech Hub LIVE Conference in July in Des Moines felt like a homecoming event.

For all the challenges, isolation has provided an opportunity to gain perspective on long-standing issues in our company – and industry that I love. However, the complexity of difficulties ahead for agronomic service providers and ag retailers has increased both my anxiety and my motivation.

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For some, my fresh perspective may be old news. If this describes you, I hope you find some pearls of wisdom and tips here that will assist you in navigating your own world.

First, a bold statement about the future. I’ve become more convinced that agronomy is a profession that is vulnerable to technological advances – perhaps more vulnerable than you are currently thinking. While I am still a big advocate for creating technology tools that empower –  not displace – the agronomist, I am concerned.

Allow me lay out my case.

“Trusted adviser” is a common phrase we use to define a role that is the cornerstone of the agriculture industry. This suggests that we value recommendations that are verified and delivered by a “human.” For good reason, agronomists, retailers, and anybody who interacts directly with producers enjoy this personal touch. After all, the adviser’s reputation and credibility are all on the line with each recommendation and prescription. We all want to “put the grower first” or “put the grower at the center” of our operation.

However, we see technology playing a larger part in agriculture every day, whether it be innovative ideas from start-ups or new approaches and tools from basic manufacturers. Whatever the technology, and from wherever it comes, the same challenge arises – what role does technology play in an industry that centers on personal relationships and recommendations? This debate has virtually become a dogma for many people. Many of you, I suspect, believe that the best strategy is to have technology that empowers the advisors, who are ultimately responsible for this counsel and put their name on the line.

If we want to act in the best interest of the grower and increase their share of upside potential, we need to take another look at this proposition with a set of fresh, objective eyes. We should not let our preconceived notions about the role of the adviser prevent technology from serving the grower’s best interest. The current path can lead to bad case of “human-verified syndrome,” largely justified by a reputation protection bias. This epidemic must be treated if we are to advance this industry, together.

My theory was validated when a good friend and grower offered the following nugget of wisdom. “When any vendor sells you something to help you de-risk your farm operations, be extremely skeptical.  What this so-called expert is really trying to do is protect the downside with their service (or their reputation), which restricts the grower’s upside potential 99% of the time.” Successful farmers are always willing to take appropriate risks, especially when the payback of the risk is rewarded by realized upside potential.

This was an insightful lesson that orientated my thinking on how any advice is influenced by two drivers:  the adviser’s reputation and self-interest; and the grower’s best interest.  The issue with this proposition is that, even when all partners have the best of intentions, these drivers may not always align.

We all recognize the importance of technology, especially considering the growing shortage of human labor, the complexity of food production, and climate change. We have all witnessed how technology turns into “automation” as a unifying theme which has scaled production and efficiency across all aspects of agriculture for decades.

Ag retailers frequently assert that service is central to their competitive advantage, which is realized as prompt service, expert advice, and just overall resilience to get things done. However, all these differentiators (in their current state) have one thing in common:  the reliance on humans to deliver on them. I know this may come across as harsh, and maybe even callous. But in comparison to many of the technologies available to us today, humans are inefficient, inconsistent, unreliable, and have an inevitable focus towards self-interest.

Even the best agronomists and advisers out there today have an inherent bias that could impact the recommendation the farmer ultimately receives. With that in mind, wouldn’t it be cool if we could automate the way we collect data, glean insights, generate recommendations, and deliver more value to our growers? After all, we all agree that we have their best interest in mind!

Maybe some examples will help paint a better picture. Here’s my take on the current approach of several agronomic tasks.

EXAMPLE 1: A normal soil test currently takes 24-hours at best, and more typically 3-days to complete. Why? A human lab technician is still required to check or verify the equipment measurements, in addition to the actual field collection and physical logistics involved.

EXAMPLE 2: A human crop scout needs to ground truth or verify any remote sensing data from satellites, drones, ground robots, or field probes. Further, another human agronomist must sign-off on any prescription and/or input recommendation.

EXAMPLE 3: Retailers start with more than a dozen crop protection SKUs but then are forced to narrow this list down to just two or three SKUs based on margin, staff training, and inventory management. Their primary reason for this reduction is a lack of trained human capital and a focus on speed to execute, which many acknowledge may limit input mix and yield optimization.

The need for human-verified is a common denominator, and this is an impediment to scale and efficiency.

In contrast, input suppliers and ag tech digital providers know that this industry will not scale unless human verification is replaced by technology that does not require a “person in the middle.” Solving this conundrum needs an alignment of values, respect for unique approaches, and creativity to build a vision where we can enable trustworthy technology to empower everyone.

Our amazing history allows us to learn from the innovations of others across many other industries.

I am sure you recall the days before Google Maps, which debuted in 2005. We had to rely on manual reference to paper maps. Do you seek directions from any human today?

In 1949, the first speeding ticket was issued using a doppler radar gun for a 55-mph infraction in a 30-mph zone. For decades, in order to pursue speeding violations, the court required police attestation of any technological gadget measurement. Today, one penalty is issued every 12 seconds by Chicago speed cameras, resulting in approximately $95 million per year in income for the city. According to studies, not only does has move this increase overall revenues, but it also reduces overall injury crashes.

I could go on and on with more instances, but I think you get the idea.

We have a significant duty to lead and create instruments that will shape our future while taking advantage of our collective ingenuity. Innovation is not always easy, and not always accepted… at least in the beginning. There is always the concern about technology displacing humans and the ramifications if will have on the livelihoods of those in the industry.  But two centuries ago, 90% of Americans worked on farms. Today, only about 2% do. Yet, 90% of the population isn’t unemployed, they simply have new jobs. What new jobs will be created as a result of this transformation in agricultural technology?

So, here’s my advice to agriculture professionals and managers:

  • Re-engineer core competencies, and then invest in technology tools that optimize time and cost efficiency while maintaining highest quality of field insights and recommendations.
  • Re-invent the compensation structure to favor new value segments that leverage technology and infrastructure.
  • Incorporate automated recommendation engines and shift human capital to focus on less standard or unusual problems within your customer base.
  • Invest in the development and training of all staff, particularly beyond broad categories (i.e., fertilizer sales), and task-oriented workflows into more complex challenges related to crop, soil and biology.

My advice for technology service providers:

  • Build AI models and recommendation engines upon a solid science foundation and real farming practices that counter human bias.
  • Advocate and enforce open data interoperability standards across all data streams, and sources, allowing innovators to create unique solutions as plug-and-play, rather than building entire, albeit mediocre systems.
  • Enable tools that allow the full and transparent participation of all market stakeholders.

The efficiencies realized by eliminating the “human-in-the-middle” are undeniable. It takes courage to accept a transformational vision and the willingness to invest in technology that turns human assets into labor-free processes. However, those who take this path will gain a competitive advantage, scale to succeed and leave a legacy for generations.

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Hi Saez

Seems we have a common view of tech vs people.

I recently gave a presentation on Automation and the associated challenges.

The ‘man in the middle’ should be the farmer, not us, as the service provider. We should be providing the data and tools to give producers a clear picture for taking that risk. Let’s face it, there is ALWAYS a risk.

While I also identified that the lack of integration between systems is a problem, I have seen that the cost of adoption leads to minimalist deployments of tech.

Soil moisture probes are a perfect example.
In South Africa, we expect most online soil moisture probes at sell for $1000 each, excluding subscriptions and installation.

What this leads to is ‘representative data’ collection. That is one probe per citrus block or per x Hectares.
And we are testing under one tree..
My vision is that probes should be dirt cheap, so that 100’s or 1000’s are deployed to give better data.

Irrigation control systems are another example of interoperability. Why is it still near to impossible integrate weather, soil moisture data and irrigation into one data stream?
I am aware that this is being worked on, but I suspect money being pumped into rockets to Mars is far more than Ag Tech development.
Sure Elon’s minions can get a rocket to land itself, on a floating, moving barge, at sea, but we cannot offer a producer a simple one screen page that tells him ET vs soil moisture vs tree performance?
Let’s not start on the capabilities of social media metadata analysis..!

The Ag tech industry needs to make that leap forward as the mobile phone market did. From catering for a few, well off customers to connectivity for the masses.

Thank you for a great article.
Let’s hope the industries can get their act together!

Avatar for Iván Alvarez Viñas Iván Alvarez Viñas says:

Excellent article and Alan’s comments.

Alan – I appreciate your comments and agree with your perspective. A more general observation is that as human or technology continue to be expensive, growers are left with no choice but to rely on few or as-Gov observations to make decisions. And this does not always lead to good outcomes.