The full impact of smartphone use is yet to occur in ag. Here, a crop advisor checks info from electronic insect traps.
The full impact of smartphone use is yet to occur in ag. Here, a crop advisor checks info from electronic insect traps.

It took the telephone and electricity industries more than 25 years to achieve 10 percent market penetration in the United States. Smart phones took about four years to go from five percent to 40 percent market penetration of U.S. households.

Although it’s difficult to assess adoption of precision agriculture tools and technology, there is evidence we’ve finally entered the “late majority” stage of adoption.

As 2015 appears through our windshield, let’s take a wide-angle look at other facts and facets of precision ag progress.

1. ROI is Clear

“Show me the money” has been the refrain of growers for years, but a boatload of research suggests we can lay that concern to rest. We still must say, like the car companies, “your mileage may vary,” but the variance these days trends upward.

“Generally, farmers—even smaller operations—are finding a very quick tangible benefit to using precision technology,” said John Fulton, associate professor at Ohio State University. “An important part of this is that the
equipment cost has come down—in some cases it’s a third of the cost it was before.”

Fulton says his research with growers has shown savings from 2 percent to 34 percent associated with guidance and section control. An effort was made to isolate the direct benefits of section control, assuming
the past adoption of guidance.

“The average was around 12 to 15 percent—from regular-shaped and irregular-shaped fields.” Recent research shared by the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF), where 2,654 active farmers responded, indicates that about 60 percent were using precision technologies on their farms. This group responded that use of precision technologies reduced their input costs by an average of 15 percent and increased their crop yields by 13 percent. Their answers about precision ag technology:

  • 76 percent: Reduces skips and overlaps within my field
  • 75 percent: Increases my operational efficiency
  • 69 percent: Lowers my fertilizer and chemical costs.

2. Data Privacy Progress

AFBF also quizzed members on subjects related to data privacy. When asked about their key concerns regarding data, respondents listed liability, usage and privacy as key components. AFBF reported it as follows:

  • Liability: In the case of a data breach, who is liable for my farm data? Can misuse of my data be used against me if not obtained legally?
  • Usage: How is my data being used by each company and who is it being shared with?
  • Privacy: Is my data anonymous so it cannot be traced back to my site-specific operation?

Farm Bureau has now outlined its research and principles for data privacy recently for AgGateway’s committee considering these issues. This sort of grower involvement seems likely to answer increasing grower concern.

3. Precision Ag: A Sustainable Advantage

Those marketing U.S. soybeans abroad see precision agriculture as a competitive advantage that speaks to the sustainable nature of U.S. soybean production.

“Certain parts of the world are more interested in this topic than others,” explained Randy Olsen, on the frontlines of marketing U.S. soybeans worldwide for the U.S. Soybean Export Council. “Certainly Europe is most concerned about how beans are produced globally.”

That interest seems to have originally started, says Olsen, with aggressive media coverage of the degradation of the Amazon. Because soybeans are a global crop, U.S. practices are being compared with those of other sources.

“On average, we are growing more on each acre and with fewer inputs every year,” he said, “and in my opinion, there is no more practical definition of sustainability than that.”

In the U.S., as heightened interest in food production continues, precision ag is part of the solution and the message.

“Walmart has targeted about 10 or 15 of its top suppliers on sustainability issues,” explained Lara Moody, director of stewardship for The Fertilizer Institute. When you talk to General Mills, they say 40 to 50 percent of everything we sell is on a Walmart shelf. So, when they say “jump,” we’re there.

Because critics see fertilizer rate reduction as an easy fix for the issues of sustainability, nutrient stewardship is high on the fertilizer industry’s priority list. If the industry is to maintain flexibility for all in the crop input value chain, stewardship must be the watchword and precision ag is a stewardship answer.

4. Precision Improves Policy Defense

“Precision ag is a nexus where nutrient management, targeted pest control, stewardship, productivity optimization and efficiency all intersect,” explained Darren Coppock, president of the Agricultural Retailers Association.

Coppock says that makes it a message that can be “successfully conveyed” on Capitol Hill, particularly as we can point to reducing things like nutrient runoff or spray drift because of precision techniques. As an example, Coppock points to the issue of algae bloom in Lake Erie resulting in Toledo’s water being shut off. He says it’s in everyone’s interest to have the plants use the nutrients that are applied rather than have them run off into
Lake Erie, the Mississippi River, Chesapeake Bay or anywhere else.

“We’re seeing some regulatory over-reaction in some cases on these issues,” said Coppock. “Precision agriculture can provide an alternative to impractical or unscientific proposals.”

ARA with CropLife America, The Fertilizer Institute and other organizations helped initiate the Coalition for the Advancement of Precision Agriculture (CAPA) to demonstrate what’s really going on in agriculture to Inside-the-Beltway audiences who may not know.

“If we don’t tell the story, someone else will tell a story for us and spin it in a way that will be harmful to our freedom to operate,” Coppock explained, “and ultimately, our ability to produce.”

5. More Players Mean More Data

FieldScripts, Encirca, ClimateCorp, and other new brands have come onto the precision landscape bringing angst and opportunity within the distribution channel.

“We all should be able to use this data and weather data to do a better job of fine-tuning nitrogen management and other issues of plant health,” said John Fulton. He encourages retailers to see the opportunity associated with this information and their unique local role.

“Retailers are supplying the inputs and they are the face to the farmer,” he said. “You have the advantage of expertise on the ground. You are a key piece to making integrated precision agriculture work.”

6. Precision Ag Takes Talent

In the midst of this move toward more information and greater accountability in the food value chain is the generational transfer of in-field “know-how” and a shortfall of talented people for these newer, data-driven crop production systems. A quick search at AgCareers.com with the phrase “precision agriculture” turns up more than 200 job openings in the U.S. But the technology component is just one part of what retailers are looking for.

“We have a lot of agronomists that understand nutrient management and have done that for many years,” said Dean Walker, director of precision services for The McGregor Company. “They are all in their 60s. And then we also have a lot of guys that are in their 20s.”

The challenge, he says, is being able to take some of those 60-year-olds who are planning to retire in two or three years and transfer their knowledge to the new guys. “The new guys are very good at technology, but agronomy is kind of ‘ahh, that’s boring, I don’t want to do that.’ It’s going to be a challenge,” Walker said.

He is not alone in this challenge.

“I hate to say it but our critical limiting factor is people,” said David Swain, corporate manager of precision ag for Southern States Co-op. “It’s because the crop season is shrinking all the time.” He says this year it was weather and getting product in time—not just for planting, but plow down and fertilizer application. “It’s difficult to get all of the work done in the time we have to do it.”

7. Precision Ag Takes Work

Work ethic is another variable that may be more important than one’s ability with technology or agronomy when dealing with these kinds of increasing pressures. For many, precision agriculture requires a level of interaction some retail personnel are not accustomed to having with growers. It’s a level of service that can take more time, and some—no matter their age—are not up to it.

“I blame it on laziness. I’ve worked with 25 salesmen and some of them I could strangle,” said one Midwest retailer. “And some I can’t pat on the back enough.”

With precision ag equipment now more reliable, and return on investment becoming more clear, pushing precision agriculture toward its potential for retailers is likely to be more about developing the people and process to serve growers intent on making better decisions.

“It will turn in to a group sell … everyone is involved to help that grower succeed,” said Swain. “We can’t do this the same way we did this even five years ago.”

8. Innovate Quickly, But Carefully

“Experience: that most brutal of teachers. But you learn, my God do you learn.”

This quote from author C. S. Lewis may be a good one to apply to the path forward for retailers as they seek to apply the technology that can seem to be snowballing toward them.

Most of upper management across retail operations today lived through the adoption of many aspects of precision agriculture in the past two decades and will still have scars from “that most brutal of teachers.” But this learning will be helpful as new technology is assessed.

An example is the adoption of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV). The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) claims to have rules for commercial UAV use in the wings. As this opportunity becomes legal, the important question of business value will surface.

Aerial scouting can save time, yield and offer a way of providing a unique localized normalized difference vegetative index (NDVI) service more valuable than can be obtained with satellite imagery or aircraft flyovers. Use of UAVs will offer full-service retailers in some cropping areas another component to wrap their business around growers’ needs.

Still, one must proceed with caution. One retail manager suggests remembering Gartner’s “Hype Cycle,” (see graph on page 23) when it comes to UAVs.

“We may be in that peak of [inflated] expectations,” he said. And, of course, for many, that peak will be followed by the “trough of disillusionment” as the bugs continue to be worked out of the practical application.

9. Precision Ag Is Global Stewardship

Norman Borlaug, the hero of the Green Revolution, wrote in 1994: “The only way for agriculture to produce sufficient food to keep pace with population and to alleviate the hunger of the world’s poor, and impending social and political chaos, is to increase the intensity of production in those ecosystems that lend themselves to sustainable intensification while avoiding the use of or decreasing the intensity of production in the more fragile ecologies.”

Crop production that is high-yield and intense will be crop production that will continually improve a whole-farm, databased and integrated system. It is precision agriculture.