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Looking for the next “jump-shift” in agriculture

Amid all the predictions that agriculture in 2030 will look utterly different than today, a new, less dramatic future is emerging

Electronics have saved big combines so far, but there’s no guarantee for tomorrow.

Way back in 2009, Country Guide published a story on a new idea that was being called “jump-shift.” It’s the theory that the only real way to get ahead is to make sudden transitions or “jumps,” instead of trying to evolve smoothly and steadily. Shift quickly, jump whole-hog. Commit yourself to deciding which technologies to adopt, then buy your way in.

As phrases go, jump-shift is catchy. But is it just another way of saying you’re betting the farm on a hunch? Or does it capture something new and smart about farming in the 2020s?

Past and present

What’s generally considered the biggest jump-shift in farming in the 1900s, of course, is the transition from horse-and-plow to tractor.

But while Jared Rommens, digital effectiveness manager for Western Canada at Corteva Agriscience, acknowledges that the tractor replacing horse-and-plow was transformational, “we have to remember it took years for everyone to have tractors.”

Rommens also points out that another big jump in farming really wasn’t so much of a jump at all, at least in the early days. “Looking back, autosteer feels like a big jump, but in practice it was a slow evolution,” he says. “It started with a light bar that helped you stay on track and developed from there.”

Chris Corbett, senior business development manager at consulting firm Farm at Hand in Melfort, Sask., believes that farming will continue to evolve through multiple small steps as opposed to big jumps. “I’m not saying this precludes a major shift, but the number of people and amount of investment in the ag space suggests constant improvements in many areas,” he notes.

The small advances, in Corbett’s view, need to be focused in the area of data management and collaboration with industry service providers to enable higher efficiencies across the entire chain. “This may not be as ‘cool’ as the production-focused tech,” he says, “but I believe a farm in control of their own information, with the ability to share it seamlessly, will be a much more empowered and efficient operation.”

Bruce Dudley, senior vice-president of strategy and innovation at national sustainability consulting firm The Delphi Group, is in alignment with these views, believing that advances in crop management, for example, will be small as opposed to large. This has more to do, he says, with the capital available to producers as autonomous technology moves into farming, with big operators being favoured first. “We already have autosteer and the technology to make (cropping) fully automated, like self-hitching, but it’s just extremely expensive in the early stages,” he says. “I think that as autonomous farming advances, so will the capabilities of the equipment. Autonomous equipment will need to operate in all conditions, including at night to allow for 24-hour operation. And as equipment becomes more efficient, its size will likely shrink and costs will therefore come down for smaller farms, or those who are sharing equipment.”

It’s also the view of Ian Meier that advances in autonomous farming will be incremental, and the low-hanging fruit (certain easier-to-automate tasks such as grain handling, seeding and spraying) will be automated first, says the co-founder and CEO of Agrimatics precision ag firm in Saskatoon. “Combining is a more complex task,” he notes, “but sensors to detect toughness and grain loss will help in its total automation.”

Rommens is of a similar mind. He believes that specific activities related to field work may be automated rapidly, but automating everything to do it, from planting to harvest, will take time — and until it’s completely automated, the full potential will not be realized.

In addition to small advances in autonomous farming, Corbett also thinks there will be small jumps in using variable rate application, and not just in the area of fertility. “We are starting to see more investment in varying seeding rate, chem and fungicide application, based on the information provided via all kinds of input,” he says, “both on the ground and satellite/drone imagery combined.”

Other small jumps, in Meier’s view, will come with more streamlined and automated prescription maps, the standardization of all file formats by manufacturers and the movement of everything to do with precision ag to the “cloud,” so it’s more easily accessed and managed. Small advances in automation of data input will also come. Meier’s firm, for example, provides a system that automates collection of grain harvest and inventory management from sensors installed on grain carts, with information stored in the cloud, available for integration with other systems. Meier also foresees automatic input of results from measurement (also automated) of moisture, protein, etc., in grain samples.

There will be small jumps in capabilities related to remote field condition monitoring (field sensors, drones, satellite imagery), says Rommens, but at the same time, he notes that the numbers of field sensors required to measure moisture, pests, nutrients and more may have to be huge for it to make sense. Dudley adds that the real-time sensors that are already on the market to test for available N, P, K and other items are getting cheaper, but agrees it’s uncertain how many will be required for the investment to be worthwhile.

Ready for the jump

Being ready for the jump-shifts that are coming, small or larger, means that farmers should know their farm business finances inside and out, including how much investment capacity is available and from what sources. Farmers also must also do an analysis before they make the jump, of how new major tech advancements will change their operation. What skills will be needed to operate and manage the new technologies to their full capacities — and how can this best be addressed?

“Having a support team, or a specialist to get things set up and rolling could be very valuable and highly efficient,” says Corbett. “The current tech offering is so varied and potentially complex, many producers are not seeing any benefit, as they just don’t have the time and expertise to make it work correctly. And when it’s crunch time on the farm, there’s no extra time or patience for getting everything exactly right. This again is an example of where the industry needs to collaborate to make it simple to get the correct information put together.”

Meier agrees that some precision ag tech is very complex these days, but hopes that this will change and a tech support team or specialist won’t be required. “If it’s not easy to use, it’s not doing its job,” he says. “You need to be able to focus on the management of the farm, not dealing with technology and struggling to get benefits from it. In the case of personal computers, other than being much faster, they aren’t much different than 20 years ago, but software has developed to make them easier to use. Farming technology should be the same.”

Rommens shares the sentiment. The insights technology can bring to the surface are valuable, he says, but many producers are currently relying on the support of an outside expert to get the value. “There has been extremely powerful agronomy software available for years but it’s been focused on a very technical user, and what I’m seeing is that growers are more eager to adopt less-capable software as long it is easy to use and benefit from,” he says. “Equipment manufacturers and software developers both must understand that simplicity is essential.”

He notes that there are two camps in tech design, one based wholly on market research to build the tools users ask for, and another, to which Steve Jobs was often connected, which suggests that users don’t know what they need until it’s shown to them. “We need to work hard to strike a balance between these two,” he says. “It’s essential that developers build the solutions that producers are asking for today, but the truest innovation will surface when we bring forward technologies and solutions that do not yet exist.”

Inch by inch?

It’s not easy to speculate on how much farmers will be able to “inch in” to new expected jumps in technology. No one has a crystal ball.

Meier first notes that whether or not “inching in” is possible depends on how different the equipment is from what a farmer already has. “Farming is a complex operation, and in many cases you can get there with incremental steps but there may be things where you have to just go all in,” he observes. He adds that “farmers are all different, and range from early adopters to much more conservative,” and “you can’t afford extra risks as a farmer. The stakes are high and farmers need to be cautious to some extent.”

For his part, Corbett “sincerely hopes” that farmers will able to inch their way into new developments. “At the end of the day, it’s all about ROI (return on investment),” he says. “Most of the advancements we are witnessing are based on higher production, which is great, but that’s also capital intensive. I would like to see the ability to scale in as the numbers make sense on any given operation. And I also want the investment to be looked at holistically, around a profit-driven overall farming operation. We sometimes get lost in the production side, without paying attention to the business side of our operations.”

Taking full charge

One can imagine that new jump-shifts will lead to greater diversification of farm businesses, because they may save so much time. Robotic milking systems, for example, free up hours for dairy farmers on a daily basis.

But Corbett isn’t convinced. “My gut says most of our producers love producing, and any extra time will be reinvested in the production side of the business, always looking for a better solution,” he says.

Rommens, however, thinks that new technologies may lead to both greater diversification of farms — and empower producers to better manage larger operations.

“I think we’ll see producers willing to grow a greater variety of hybrids and crop types, because software will analyze risks and benefits of diversity across the operation and ‘surface’ these insights more effectively,” he explains. “It will unlock insights that were not readily available before.”

No one can tell the future, and what jump-shifts may be ahead. Capturing what many of his colleagues likely believe, as well gauging their likely excitement level, Rommens says “what we think of as the greatest ag tech changes are yet to come. What will these be? I can’t wait to find out.”

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