Technology and big data have changed nearly every facet of agriculture. My tractor performance is continually monitored, not only by the operator but by the manufacturer. If the operator slips the clutch or stalls the tractor while under load, I can expect an immediate notification on my cell phone. If it’s anything more serious, a notification is sent not only to me but to the service department of the local dealership.
The monitor on the combine continually collects and stores yield data and wirelessly sends that “big data” to the cloud where it can be accessed and analyzed by selected farm advisory services, and even shared or sold to industry and government.
We even have toaster-sized satellites offering daily mapping, forecasts and alerts, and they do it not only for my benefit, but to glean information for use by a wide range of agencies from Stats Canada and crop insurance to commodity trading houses.
It seems every day there are new and more sophisticated remote sensing tools that are monitoring my farm business.
But what happens when you turn it around?
The primary methods that government, industry and agricultural associations use to funnel information to farmers, even information about these new technologies, are the same that they’ve been for generations — meetings, trade shows and crop walks.
This issue really came to light for me last November as I was driving to the agri-trade show in Red Deer. I go every year to learn about new ag technology, products and services.
But circumstances worked against me this time. I was only halfway to Red Deer when the road turned icy. Traffic slowed to 60 kilometres per hour and I wondered why I was taking that risk to attend a trade show where likely 90 per cent or more of the displays and information would be a repeat of previous years.
Was this year’s show more important than the tough grain in the bins at home that I could be drying instead? Or more important than the other jobs waiting for me because of last year’s harvest from hell?
The economist in me wondered why I was spending my time and money on gas, food, transportation and even having to pay for parking at the show when current costs and commodity prices mean I’m not in the market for the shiny new equipment featured at the show.
And then it struck me. Are agricultural trade shows actually for farmers? Or are they primarily a sales tool for the trade show participants?
Are farmers being enticed with the promise of “new” the same way farmers use a pail of grain or a bale of hay to lead livestock into a corral?
I turned around and went home.
And I began to ask the same things about the meetings I attend each year. Are the time and cost of travelling to them going to be recaptured by my business?
This questioning led to a second “ah ha” moment. FarmTech bills itself as “Canada’s premier crop production and farm management conference.” It is a three-day annual event in Edmonton hosted by five agricultural commodity groups and associations during the last week of January.
There’s no question the event features top notch speakers and that it presents information that is valuable to many farmers. I would jump at the chance to hear some of those speakers, but unfortunately, I’ve always had other community commitments at the same time that have prevented me from attending.
Furthermore, the conference is not open to the public. You have to be a registered participant to attend even a single session or to visit the trade show. Yes, I could juggle my schedule and pay the $500 three-day early registration fee and attend the one or two sessions that I consider most important each day and then race back home for my other other commitments. Or, if everything I want to hear is on one day, I could pay $275 for a one-day pass and only miss one day of my community commitments.
The question is, why should I have to travel to Edmonton in the first place? Is it really necessary to travel to a distant urban setting to sit in neat rows on uncomfortable chairs listening to a large number of speakers on a variety of topics, many of which may not be applicable to my business? How much of that information being presented is truly new, and how much will I actually take in and be able to apply to my business after getting inundated with speaker after speaker over three days?
Then you have to add in the exposure to the ever-present, background sales message coming from the industry sponsors of the speakers, from the trade show booths, and the swag meant to implant their product names in your subconscious.
Do events like FarmTech truly focus on delivering information to farmers, or is the actual target of such conventions one of delivering farmers to industry?
Another question I have with respect to the trend in farm meetings relates to the offering of continuing education credits to crop advisors. I have been to farm meetings hosted by major industry players where I have been the only farmer at a table. Is the information these advisors get balanced, or is it a sales pitch they will end up delivering to their clients?
This is not to say all meetings and trade shows are bad or unnecessary. Education is good no matter how it is delivered, and there is no question there are advantages to in-person interaction at meetings and trade shows. There is also the entertainment factor, and the opportunity to socialize with fellow farmers. And most importantly, not all information and learning flows from the speakers. What you pick up in small group discussions or in after-hour socializing is often more valuable than what you learn at the meetings themselves.
However, not all farmers can afford either the time or money to physically attend every event that could improve their farm business. And people learn in different ways. A social setting is not always the best way of learning for all farmers.
My point is, technological advances have given the world a host of new ways to deliver information and these are being used every day by industry to gather information FROM farmers. So, why isn’t it being used more often to deliver information TO farmers?
I can conference call, watch how-to YouTube videos, and listen to some of the best speakers in the world via Ted Talks. I have libraries of information available online. I can Skype, FaceTime, or online chat with representatives from major input suppliers and researchers. And all of these activities I can do from the comfort of my favourite chair in my own home, office or even wirelessly when out in the field while GPS and monitors and auto-steer are controlling the tractor or combine.
Reading a Country Guide issue for new information is done on your own schedule and at the location of your choice. It can even be done while out in the field if you receive the magazine digitally. Yet farmers are still expected to leave home to attend industry-sponsored information sessions that promise to make us better farmers.
And as the number of farmers declines, the meetings get fewer and farther apart, and costs keep climbing. There is something wrong with our total reliance on this picture.
Winds of change
The good news is there seems to be some interest in exploring new ways of providing information to farmers. While I would not call it winds of change, there may be a gentle breeze, and Farm Management Canada is helping to show the way.
According to the Farm Management Canada website: “Through the Agriwebinar program, Farm Management Canada brings you the expertise of today’s agricultural leaders that will inform and inspire you from the comfort of your home or office. Farm Management Canada’s webinars are typically free for participants and anyone can participate as long as they have a computer and an internet connection.”
Mathieu Lipari, program manager with Farm Management Canada, reports that since 2004 his organization has produced and has archived more than 300 agriculturally themed webinars providing farm management information to farmers and ag professionals across Canada.
Lipari says webinars can work well for delivering information to farmers. They can also reduce costs, and are flexible enough to deliver information to large groups or where the participants are geographically widespread.
Agriwebinar is a tremendous resource for farmers, yet how many farmers are aware of the Farm Management Canada Agriwebinar programs or archives? How many readers of this column have actually participated in an Agriwebinar session?
Even more exciting is BASF’s decision to live stream one presentation from this year’s FarmTech conference. According to Courtney Stephenson, the company’s RetailConnect campaign manager, this was the first time BASF has done something like this and they felt the webinar was really successful.
According to Stephenson, BASF is revolutionizing canola seed packaging and planting through its InVigor RATE system and is utilizing all available channels to educate farmers about the system, how it works and how it will benefit growers. One of the ways of presenting this information to farmers was by a presentation at FarmTech 2020. But to reach even more farmers, they worked with FarmTech organizers to live stream the presentation to farmers who did not attend FarmTech. Stephenson estimated about 110 people attended the live session at FarmTech. However, the number of online viewers of this live presentation topped 500. If the goal is getting information to farmers, then the BASF live stream was much more successful than the in-person FarmTech presentation.
“Providing information is a big focus for us (BASF),” Stephenson says. “Our focus is getting in front of people and making it easy for our growers.”
Stephenson adds that BASF is also looking at offering growers the opportunity to participate in virtual crop walks in the future.
Even more exciting is the possibility that the ag trade show of tomorrow could be integrated for virtual access.
The technology for such changes already exists, and these approaches are already being used in other sectors.
The real question is why aren’t the other players in agriculture making the same progress as farmers?