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What’s next for crop apps?

We’ve come a long way, but there’s a lot further we can go

“There’s an app for that!” They’re among the most often heard words in this data-driven world of mobile devices and services. Yet with the launch of app after app, not to mention all the buzz about the Cloud, new questions are cropping up, including several that we might never have thought we’d be asking.

Have we reached a saturation point with apps?

That’s one of the questions. Or, how am I ever going to sort out which are the best apps for me? Or even better, how much time am I going to spend learning about new apps instead of actually getting anything accomplished?

Yet if there are concerns, nobody is doing much complaining. By and large, farmers continue to embrace new apps, especially now that connectivity issues have been addressed in so many regions.

“First of all, you can’t get a smartphone without a bunch of apps,” says Karon Tracey-Cowan of AgTech GIS. “Anyone who has bothered to get a smartphone has probably explored a handful.”

Cowan is an advocate of the “buy it and try it” approach to using apps. Whether it’s a farm or general public app, if it’s branded with a logo, there’s a marketing component to that, and Cowan estimates the app’s function could be as high as 80 per cent marketing and 20 per cent utility. Every time a user opens that smartphone menu and scrolls past the logo, it’s still being seen. And that’s advertising and promotion.

Still, Cowan recommends giving apps a try. “You can’t tell if the shoes fit if you don’t try them on,” she says. “You’re not going to know if it’s a value unless you do try it. It can also start a conversation among other users, and that kind of referral gets away from the branding into the utility of an app. And that’s only going to come from a user’s experience of it.”

All of her favourite apps have come as referrals from someone else whose opinion she values. Now, she uses many of those apps every day.

Terms of use

Most farmers are now aware of the possibility that every click of a mouse and every Internet session is being aggregated somewhere. Yet people still give away information.

Cowan reads through the terms of use for every app or piece of software she’s considering downloading, but one of her favourite stories about “terms of use” deals with — of all things — a gardening magazine. For the price of a subscription, including the use of a mobile app, she would have had to agree to allow the magazine’s digital provider access to her smartphone’s contact list. Another app for a calculator wanted complete access to her phone.

But as the adage says, forewarned is forearmed, so while Cowan repeats that farmers should “buy it and try it,” she also adds that they “need to read” the terms of use before they download the app.

As director of management software for Farm Credit Canada, Glen Kroeker, echoes Cowan’s advice about understanding all that comes from — and with — the use of an app. Nothing is developed for free, he adds, noting that companies are developing apps as much for information retrieval and usage as they are as tools and resources.

Still, Kroeker is another advocate of the tremendous potential of mobile apps, and the information exchange that they enable. At the Outdoor Farm Show, FCC attracted a healthy stream of farmers intent on learning more about its Farm Manager PRO, a software package and mobile app platform that’s billed to help farmers with data storage which leads to improved decision-making and overall farm management. Some may view FCC as a relative newcomer to the app world, but Kroeker recognizes the strengths of the technology, namely its speed and its simplicity.

“We’re not looking to do on-farm recommendations,” Kroeker says, adding that he likes the late Steve Jobs’ adage, “You have to start with the customer experience and work back towards the technology.”

All things to all people

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As you migrate through the new apps, our experts say, you’ll still find that the only way to sort out which functions are best for your farm is to actually give them a try.
photo: File

Although the pace of development for a variety of apps is quite brisk, it also begs the question: Can one app be all things to all people?

“Not all in one app — it’d be too cumbersome,” says Kroeker, noting that in the app world, it really does come down more to a matter of connectivity and convenience rather than developing comprehensive content. “There will be, like anything else, some technology that we’ll find wasn’t as great as we thought it would be. But there will be some farmers who are really using it heavily, and some farmers who have no need for it. And it depends on what’s important in their management, but neither can be judged as a success or failure.”

So many apps, so much potential

For Andrew Campbell, the app world presents boundless opportunity. He’s eager to test new apps and incorporate them into his farm operation. But he also has an eye on where we started with this technology, how far we’ve advanced and whether there’s a limit going forward.

“When we were first talking about apps… in terms of getting the basic planter population apps, these were just ideas,” says Campbell, who runs a family dairy operation near Appin, Ont. “It was easy for a farmer to use and get a better understanding of their phone with some of these really simple things. Now through the evolution of both the farmer on a smartphone and their comfort with it, and then the evolution of what a farmer thinks they’re capable of doing with their smartphone, you get even more ideas coming out.”

Campbell echoes Cowan’s advice to “buy it and try it,” and he agrees that most farmers are using at least one mobile app.

“I would have a hard time believing that they don’t, because one of the simpler ones is a weather app — just looking up the weather counts as an app,” says Campbell, noting he also uses a flashlight app and one for a calculator. “If they have the technology in their hand, it may not be right away, but I have a hard time believing that they wouldn’t at least be using one app or a couple of apps, just for something really basic.”

In terms of using ag-specific apps, he believes that number is likely small, partly because growers can find it hard to know what apps exist, or how to find them.

It’s similar to the conversations five years ago, when growers doubted they had any need for a smartphone, Campbell says. Yet once the basic, good apps were available, more growers were find- ing the value, often sharing their likes and dislikes.

When talk turns to comprehensive apps — an all-in-one approach — Campbell agrees that it’s a big ask, but he also points to how fast so many of agriculture’s now-standard offerings have evolved to meet the demands of growers. In that sense, nothing is impossible.

“To me, it makes sense to offer a scaled-down version of software that smaller growers can use,” says Campbell, referring to one package from Dairy Herd Improvement (DHI). “That’s the most popular software for managing a herd and there are different levels for it. So if you’re a large herd, chances are you have the biggest version of it, at the largest cost. But for smaller producers, how about getting the trimmed-down version? It wouldn’t have as many features, but it doesn’t cost as much.”

Bigger not always better

From Denise Hockaday’s perspective, the app world is not only heading in the right direction, it’s also providing value at a pace that’s neither too fast nor too slow. And ag-specific apps are being developed in line with the growing aptitude for those who want to use them.

“It would really depend on the users because some are complete non-users and there are some who are just getting introduced to mobile technology and understanding the benefits,” says Hockaday, DeKalb business lead with Monsanto Canada. “Then you have someone like Andrew Campbell who’s saying, ‘This isn’t enough!’ There’s such a huge spectrum, so I’ll say, ‘Yes’ in general, we are meeting demand, and I think the biggest thing is that we’re providing tools and information for farmers to make better decisions.”

As for whether being connected is more important than the volume of content, Hockaday again says it depends on what the individual is looking for in an app. Can it be comprehensive and contain all of the cropping options available across the country? It’s possible, but there are some very large challenges in the way.

“It depends on the context,” Hockaday says. “Could there be one app that houses all of the soybean products in Canada, and could there be some way of determining that if this is where you live, these are the products for you? Yes — I mean — anything’s possible. But the maintenance of it would seem rather impossible, because there are so many moving parts, and each time you learn something new about a product, you’d have to be updating and maintaining it on a daily basis. Realistically, that would be difficult.”

Hockaday points to Monsanto’s purchase of Climate Corporation as an example of a comprehensive app being developed that’s capable of yielding several recommendations out of assessing data and running algorithms. At the end of the process, the goal is to provide better weather advice not for a wider geographic region, but for a specific location — maybe as pinpointed as an individual farm. The challenge is in maintaining such a complex amalgam of data and calculations. To achieve optimum quality, says Hockaday, algorithms and calculations must be accurate and updated constantly.

“That’s the stuff that may not happen overnight,” Hockaday says. “It’s not as simple as just posting something online.”

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