Looking at Precision Agriculture Thru An Agricultural Economic Lens

Precision Farming
Last week I attended a precision agriculture conference in London Ontario.  The conference organizer had kindly extended an invitation to me and I gladly accepted. I look at everything through an agricultural economic lens meaning a return on investment is always the litmus test.  Precision agriculture is great stuff with a lot of sizzle, but I’m always looking toward the bottom line and sometimes I don’t see that.

Of course, I try to keep an open mind.  On my farm I don’t steer anything anymore.  I’ve got auto steer on my tractors as well as my combine and I think it is wonderful.  Those guidance modules can also do mapping and all kinds of other data collection functions, which are supposed to bring precision Ag into reality on my farm.  I’m getting there slowly, but of course questioning everything along the way.  Needless to say, after attending the conference last week in London Ontario precision Ag is very compelling.

Some of the most compelling precision Ag applications have to do with nitrogen and corn.  In fact, you could make argument most precision Ag applications in the row crops have to do with corn.  Productivity increases through genetics from corn over the last several years have been so much more than soybeans.  So it just stands to reason that precision Ag technology applied to the corn plant gives a better return. King corn seems to be getting a lot of attention.

I was intrigued at the conference because it wasn’t a total sales job with regard to precision agriculture.  In fact, several speakers talked about the challenges of getting precision agriculture off the ground and much of that had to do with the learning curve and the diverse hardware modules available.  There is a very large segment of farmers, more than half who find this type of thing too confusing and intimidating to try.  I can understand that.  I’ve always said I’d like to buy a tractor made by Apple.  It would work like my Mac computer.  Everything would work and it would be seamless.  The problem with precision Ag is it has always been the opposite, no seamless path of a great future.  That is increasingly changing.  At the end of the day when a data collection hardware device comes along to make it easy, every farmer will be doing it.

The problem is it’s really not designed to be that way.  I drive a tractor with a software system that is meant to be closed.  It is done that way because it is very profitable for the tractor company to keep it that way. Ditto for almost every other farm equipment manufacturer.  It is what it is and we need another leap of technology to get over that.

That is the ebb and flow of precision tag technology.  It is getting better.  Of course, with the advent of computers and mobile technology and the Internet, it has seemingly made all things possible.  Case in point is auto steer on all my equipment. However, our farm equipment operates in a grimy, dirty, dusty, sometimes wet, vibrating environment.  All of this computer technology tied together with wires embedded in our equipment will surely have some gremlins.  That goes without saying.

Of course the key to the future of any precision agricultural technology is a positive return on investment.  We also should not be limited by our own finite capability.  For instance, I cannot even imagine auto steer 15 years ago on my farm.  So in the next 15 years what type of new technology will come along to make some of these challenges I talk about now completely obsolete.  It will happen, I don’t think there’s any question about that.  It might have to do with electricity, it might have to do with fossil fuels or it might have something to do with the force being with you.

Of course, I would like to see precision agriculture be a little bit less about production and a bit more about precision marketing and cost control.  Yes, even after all this time I still see everything through an agricultural economic lens.  Y Drop and Nitrogen is all dollars to me.  The problem is if I proposed a “Precision Ag marketing plan” nobody would show up.  Basis values and basis determination doesn’t dazzle like dribbling nitrogen along the corn rows while a drone takes great pictures.

Despite that, the road ahead will surely be lined with more precision Ag technology.  Eventually the hurdles will be bridged and we’ll be on to the next big thing.  There will be a lot of winners and losers.  Ultimately, farmers will vote with their bank accounts.  That agricultural economic lens always wins in the end.