For all the hype and money poured into agriculture technology research and development over the past few years, the 2020 PrecisionAg VISION Conference was notable because conference speakers admitted that the task is much harder than they thought it would be. Replacing even the most unskilled agricultural workers with robotics or automation is an incredibly complex job that hasn’t been successfully accomplished yet. Replacing the experience and decision making of row crop growers, consultants, and agronomists is even more daunting.
At the same time, these companies and individuals are dogged in their vision of farming improved by artificial intelligence, machine learning and sensing technology. More importantly, they continually stressed the importance of listening to the farmer’s actual needs, and seeking simplicity and ease of use in the solution. “You can’t make a farmer do anything,” said AMVAC COO Bob Trogele. “You have to provide value that they are willing to buy.”
Attendees checking the farmer box were generally technology managers for large commercial operations, making them among the rarest of U.S. operations. They were looking for a myriad of solutions: from basic logistics, such as making sure there is enough trucks to transport the harvest, basic record keeping for field operations, to predictive analytics that can compute yield from observations conducted early in the season.
“We just bought some new land and trees, and we want a way to ensure we provide consistent care to our trees across the state,” says James Sampel, CIO, Alico. “We need to coordinate tree care, harvest logistics, and repairable assets into one system that also reports financially to management. My job is to design the system that will do this in a cost-effective way and that the teams will actually use.”
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“For example, we are examining the in-field tractor driving patterns of each of our drivers. Why are some drivers more efficient? Can we understand that and train the other drivers to improve efficiency?”
Other farm operations had even more practical questions, “How can technology help me continue to farm next to the suburban development that has grown around my orchards?” asked Matthew Borman, vice president, Orchards, Harry & David.
Speakers shared a variety of projects in the works, such as Taranis, which is working on drone application as a service. CEO and founder Ofir Schlam painted a future picture of drone swarms, each applying product to only the plants that need it, easily and quickly in conditions that are not workable today because of the heavy application equipment.
Others reported on the progress of such programs as Fieldview from Climate Corp., and Xarvio from BASF. Teddy Bekele, SVP and Chief Technology Officer, Land O’ Lakes Inc., took attendees through the precision journey of the company, and the trials along the way. Today the company is testing an Outcome-Based Pricing model, where the company shares in the risk and reward of its customers’ crop decisions.
The Conference would not be complete without a look at the venture capital world, in which a dizzying array of start-ups vie for investment dollars.
Seana Day, Partner, Better Food Ventures, a venture capital firm that tracks more than 1,600 companies in just ag tech, pointed out that food brands are making bigger promises to the consumer, and turning around and demanding more from their farmers, generally in climate and sustainability areas. “Blackrock just came out and said sustainability is one of their investment pillars.”
And thus the talk turned to sustainability, a topic of great interest to everyone surrounding agriculture, and of little interest to farmers, who consider sustainability “making enough money to farm again next year.”
And that really was the message of the conference, that in the end, the ideas and products that are adopted provide a benefit to the grower in ways that they can easily use to become more efficient, effective and profitable.