There are some strange things going on right now within the world of precision agriculture. No, I’m not talking about things like zombie controlled tractors or drones that buzz the barnyard at midnight. I’m talking about major personality changes taking place among key players in the industry.
It’s happening right before our eyes. The question is does anyone — especially growers — know what this means for the future of agriculture and even the farm itself?
The most apparent and talked about precision personality shift comes from a company named Monsanto. Less than 2 years ago, it was perceived as a biosciences company that sold the world’s most popular weed killer and millions of bags of GMO seeds. It still does those things very well, but almost overnight it has transformed itself into one of the major forces within the precision ag industry.
That transformation first started with its purchase of an up-and-coming precision hardware company called Precision Planting in May of 2012. At the time, many scratched their heads wondering what in the world would a seed and crop protection company want to do with the headaches of hardware.
Those that dug into the story a little deeper knew immediately the purchase of Precision Planting had little, if anything to do with “wanting” to be in the precision hardware business. If there were questions about Monsanto’s intention or direction those were obviously answered in October of last year when it paid big money for a “Big Data” company called Climate Corp.
And by big money I mean nearly a billion dollars big. That’s how serious Monsanto is about data in the future of agriculture and the future of its company. That one transaction possibly sealed the deal as far as where precision agriculture is now headed. The road ahead is paved with 1’s and 0’s.
Agriculture is now officially a data-driven business and everyone from competing seed companies to iron manufacturers to precision hardware companies to even Silicon Valley is jumping on the “Big Data” bus.
For over 20-plus years, precision farming has been a hardware driven business. This stuff was cool straight out of the box. New bells and whistles constantly churned out by precision hardware vendors kept customers beating a path to dealers’ doors year after year.
Those lights in those GPS lightbars seemingly erased the real reason for precision agriculture in the first place — to collect data in order to manage the farm better. It’s like that neuralyzer/flashy thing device used by Tommy Lee Jones in the movie Men in Black. One push of that auto-steer button and we’re totally hypnotized and nothing else matters.
Whether it was Monsanto’s actions or some other cosmic event, the fact is more than one person and company got the data wake-up call and it has obviously sobered them up from their hardware hangover. John Deere, Pioneer, Trimble, Raven, Ag Leader, etc., all have major “data” initiatives going and that doesn’t include the hundreds and thousands of smaller companies that could be disruptors in the market as well.
The biggest question about this industry transformation is whether or not growers themselves have gotten their “Big Data” wakeup call yet? No would be the safest and most likely answer to the above questions. Why? Because frankly, growers are just now waking up from their own precision hardware hangover. They are confused and bleary eyed and not exactly sure what their role is in this whole “Big Data” thing.
But you don’t get big data if you don’t collect the little data that comes directly off the farm from all those precision hardware devices. Furthermore, if that data is not collected properly and consistently by the grower then this whole “Big Data” house of cards collapses.
To be fair to growers, the industry has done a lousy job of outlining and educating the why’s, what’s and how’s of data collection. There have been no precision data standards within the industry and most growers don’t even have a basic plan on how to name farms, fields and varieties when it comes to collecting data.
Growers are not without fault. They can no longer use the excuse that the dog ate my homework. Data management is no longer just for extra credit. It is a required course in modern farm management. Why? Very simple. We cannot manage what we cannot measure.
If we cannot measure, we have no benchmark in order to gauge improvement. And improvement at the farm level was the whole reason for precision farming in the first place. And we have to change in order to improve.