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Getting that farm data working in the field

Some big ag players and Silicon Valley investors are convinced that precision agriculture and ‘big data’ are the next big things. Convincing farmers is another matter

The problem with any new ag technology is that the engineers can design it, the manufacturers can make it and the marketers can sell it, but it’s left to the farmers out in the field to figure out exactly how to make it work.

That’s the dynamic today for precision agriculture, according to one specialist. Mike Duncan, a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) research chair at Ontario’s Niagara College, says the possibilities of precision agriculture are tantalizingly close, but no one has fully captured them yet.

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Man at work on laptop lying in grassy field.

Analysts often speak of an “adoption curve” for new technology. First, a few innovators test drive the technology. Then a slightly larger group of “early adopters” jump on board and work the bugs out of the system. They’re followed by the “early majority,” then the “late majority,” which typically make up two-thirds or more of the potential uses. The “laggards” finally bring up the rear.

Duncan says precision agriculture in Canada has barely started down this path.

“There’s a curve?” the outspoken Duncan asked rhetorically in an interview with Country Guide. “At the moment I would say there are some early adopters in the game. The hardware people are forcing the issue by selling machines that no one knows how to use effectively yet.”

That’s not to say there aren’t uses for it — there is a solid group of growers who has done the early spadework of breaking their fields up into production zones and using variable-rate technology to make more efficient input applications. It’s in the area of taking it one step further and generating data that can paint a clearer picture of what works and doesn’t that many lag behind, Duncan said.

“The only people with data are the people with the new technology — and most of them use it as a really accurate clock and overwrite or ignore the data,” Duncan said. “Of those who collect data, most have no data discipline and can’t remember which field did what — so there are a small few with some really good data, a bigger bunch that have the capability but need to learn some data discipline. The rest are following the argument, but not moving yet.”

Incentive needed

Karon Tracey-Cowan is a precision agriculture specialist with 20 years’ experience through her company AgTech GIS, which works with agronomists and growers throughout Ontario.

This perspective has given her a clear view of what’s happening on the ground, and she says growers are ahead of industry on this one.

“I don’t think farmers are getting the credit they deserve for the work they’ve done,” Tracey-Cowan said. “The truth is the vast majority of growers in Ontario has used precision agriculture on their operation in some form.”

She said those applications can take every form from a full effort to collect and use all available data, to more casual observations that the local agri-retailer can use to make a variable-rate fertility application. Most of the top growers are really starting to take advantage of the more practical applications available.

“Variable-rate (fertility) applications have been around for a while, and we’re starting to see a move towards variable-rate planting applications,” Tracey-Cowan said. “That uses the technology to plant different, and better-adapted, varieties to different zones in the field.”

Tracey-Cowan says the key to adoption of this technology is for farmers to see a distinct and undeniable benefit. While there’s plenty of interest in so-called “big data” throughout the industry, growers are skeptical how much it will benefit them.

That boils down to exactly what farmers are getting in return for the data. Right now they can submit it to third-party service providers and in exchange get data-management services and field maps that detail the information and perhaps provide management recommendations. The information is interesting, but the real value is accruing behind the scenes, Tracey-Cowan says.

That’s because the available data is getting bigger and bigger each year, and harder and harder to manage. Companies are rushing to fill this gap, hoping to gather as much data as possible, including seeding and yield maps, as-applied maps for in-season applications, and so forth. Most of them are clearly hoping to use the data for their own commercial purposes, Tracey-Cowan said.

“If I look at the current situation, I would have to say that the majority of benefits is going to be for the companies, not the growers. I think farmers understand that, and have therefore been a bit reluctant to get involved.”

Value proposition

One player on the leading edge of digital farming says he’s not concerned that growers won’t be willing to share their data, because there are plenty of examples of models that work.

Chris Paterson cut his digital teeth with Agri-Trend and its later spinoff, Agri-Data Solution. Since last spring he’s been with Bayer Canada as its digital farming lead. He points out the Internet is full of examples of people who will willingly share their information with a web service — if they’re convinced they’re getting enough in exchange.

“People decide every day to share their data — if you use Facebook, for example, you’re sharing your data,” Paterson said. “I don’t think farmers are all that different — if they’re given a proposition that looks like it returns enough value to them to make it worth their while, I think they’ll share their data.”

It’s exactly what that value proposition will look like that people like Paterson are currently puzzling out, and if history is any guide, it will likely be a bit of a work in progress over the next few years. Perhaps the best analogy is the Internet, and particularly social media. One of the earliest attempts was a site called Myspace, which in many ways was an early version of Facebook. It was really popular for a time, but eventually it lost out to Facebook and these days it’s barely a blip on the map. Precision agriculture could see a similar pattern, with some companies falling by the wayside before one takes a dominant position.

The business is attracting some big players, including large ag companies like Bayer and Monsanto. But precision ag is also attracting big bucks from outside the sector.

The Wall Street Journal recently reported venture capital firms more accustomed to digital plays are funnelling funds into innovative high-tech agricultural ventures to the tune of nearly half a billion dollars in 2014 alone. One lawyer-investor with a long track record of success describes agriculture as “(T)he last frontier for a lot of different technologies.”

Silicon Valley has looked at agriculture and thinks precision agriculture and data collection is an untapped resource to drive efficiency and innovation as it has in other sectors. What remains to be seen is whether it’s going to be a game changer on the scale these investors think it will — and if farmers will sign on and start sharing.

Local touch

While there’s little doubt Silicon Valley players bring big data-management skills to the table, it’s less certain they truly understand the business they’re setting out to transform. That might work against them and in favour of another group that’s getting overlooked — the local agronomist, says Tracey-Cowan.

This group knows the business, knows the local customer base, and can custom tailor solutions that work for local growers, based on their intimate understanding of how crops are produced in the field under local conditions.

“The truth is, you can hire data management and analysis almost anywhere — it’s becoming increasingly commonplace,” Tracey-Cowan said. “What is much harder to find is the understanding of agronomics and agriculture as an industry. In Ontario, it’s at this level that I’m seeing some of the most interesting work.”

In many cases the retailers are collecting the data and managing it for growers, and building a deeper understanding of crop production in their own local areas, she said. They’re able to perform some of the benchmarking comparisons among growers to find the optimal combination of, say, fungicide applications and timing in the wet climate of the Red River Valley or the ideal ground speed for a sprayer rig when applying that fungicide.

“I really do see this as the most likely spot that real workable advances are going to come out of,” Tracey-Cowan said. “It will be local retailers and agronomists, in partnership with their customers.”

Tracey-Cowan also added that the value of the established relationship between farmer and supplier is likely going to mean something. In a local market, suppliers very quickly develop reputations, both good and bad. The good ones stick around, few of the bad ones survive for long, and it doesn’t take long for everyone farming in an area to hear about it.

This article was originally published as “Data, data everywhere, but…” in the January 2016 issue of Country Guide

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