For such a forward-looking group, the leaders of the precision agriculture industry waxed awfully nostalgic last week in St. Louis. InfoAg, a conference devoted to showcasing precision ag technology, was celebrating its 20th birthday, and industry leaders indulged in a little reminiscing.
Paul Fixen, senior vice president of the International Plant Nutrition Institute (IPNI), kicked off the conference with a PowerPoint slide filled with highlights from 1995: an AOL start-up screen, Amazon and EBay’s first websites, and a picture of Monica Lewinsky.
The images (minus the latter) were meant to celebrate how far technology — and precision agriculture — has come in 20 years, but the message wasn’t always on point. When Paul Schrimpf, group editor for the CropLife Media Group, later tried to introduce a precision ag award winner via a YouTube video, the towering projection screen crashed. A frowning icon appeared, along with the dreaded message: “An error has occurred. Please try again later.”
“Let’s move on,” Schrimpf declared hurriedly, as the audience chuckled.
It was a telling moment. For as far as precision agriculture has advanced, it was often equally clear during the three-day conference how much further the industry has to go to meet the soaring expectations and promises of its proponents.
From slow-moving regulation on drones to technological hiccups in new equipment, delays in precision ag’s advancement are to be expected. However, the industry’s largest obstacle remains the attitudes of the most important players in the game: farmers themselves.
Farmers are increasingly tech-savvy; smartphones and GPS are second nature to many. Yet precision ag’s growing sophistication and its use of personal farmer data still intimidates and discourages the majority of farmers, said Matt Darr, an engineering professor at Iowa State University.
In 2014, an agribusiness association called Iowa AgState produced a sweeping report on the status of “big data” in agriculture. As part of the report, the researchers conducted a survey of 384 Iowa farmers, who gave a helpful window into farmers’ perspective on the rise of precision ag technology, from variable-rate application tools, to data-driven weather and climate forecasts, and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones.
Some precision ag tools were highly adopted — 94% of the respondents used yield monitors and 74% used auto steer. Yet despite most tractors being equipped to do variable-rate planting, only 36% of the farmers reported ever using it, and Darr said the researchers suspect that percentage is far lower across the nation. Likewise, only 34% of the farmers surveyed used field-specific weather data, even as companies roll out more and more options for just this technology, Darr said.
So why are farmers holding back? The complexity of the tools involved in precision ag definitely plays a role, Darr said.
The majority of farmers reported being frustrated by the technology involved — 61% said they had trouble getting their equipment and computers to “talk to each other.” More than a third were confused by manufacturer directions and close to half couldn’t get troubleshooting help when they needed it.
Overall, the need for IT skills and expertise on farms was among the top challenges reported, Darr said.
The ballooning pool of precision ag tools and company offerings also flummoxed many, he added.
“We got a lot of feedback from a grower’s perspective on an inability to really decipher differences between products and offerings within the space and know which one is the right choice for them,” he said.
However, the most prominent attitude holding back farmer adoption was anxiety about the misuse of farmer data and the future of a digitally driven ag industry, Darr said.
Of the farmers surveyed, 65% reporting being “skeptical” and “fearful” of the new technology. Their fears centered on the vulnerability of their data to companies, activists, the government, hackers and even grain traders.
They also worried that precision agriculture will favor big farms and industry consolidation, and that any “prescriptions” they get for their farm will be biased toward certain products. Only 16% of those surveyed reported “embracing” the new technology and 19% said they were neutral on it, Darr said.
“We were surprised that they came back at 65% skeptical,” he said of a group that he considers to be progressive growers. “But I think that’s a reality of how early we are in this industry.”
The industry needs to re-focus on training farmers how to navigate data-user agreements and evaluate the different companies and tools out there, Darr concluded.
To that end, the American Farm Bureau Federation has drafted a list of 13 principles for acceptable data management by companies, such as how they collect data, who owns it, and whom it’s disclosed to. So far 34 companies have signed on, affirming that their privacy and data policies adhere to these rules, said Mary Kay Thatcher, the senior director of congressional relations for AFBF.
The AFBF is also working on a seal-of-approval system — not unlike the Good Housekeeping seal — that will help farmers quickly evaluate whether a company meets industry standards for data use and privacy, Thatcher said.
In the meantime, the precision ag industry needs to back up and remember just who will determine its success, Darr said.
He closed his presentation with a call for a “farmer-centric strategy” to accelerate adoption of new technology. “We have to have a grassroots effort to help growers understand the role that big data can play for them,” Darr concluded.
You can find Darr’s presentation here.