Opinion: Redefining the Ag Tech Revolution

Opinion: Redefining the Ag Tech Revolution

I was interviewing Roger DuMond, long-time precision agronomy specialist who’s been toiling at the technology grindstone for more than 20 years at Kova Fertilizer in Indiana. It was a pretty long-ranging discussion, mostly focused on programs and products, but with the occasional diversion into the state of technology.

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At some point, he went on a tear about the overpromising of technology in agriculture, and the endless, fruitless search for an agronomic easy button. We both got our shots in and had a good laugh, but at the end I started to feel a little uneasy.

“You know what’s really bothering me, Roger?” I said. “It’s the flippant use of the word ‘revolution.’ How is any of this revolutionizing agriculture?” As the words were coming out of my mouth, another part of my brain was pondering my own complicity in the use of the word “revolution” in describing the goings-on in ag tech.

Before I plead for forgiveness, though, I thought it would be instructive to look up the actual textbook definition of the word. Here are the top three:

  1. An overthrow or repudiation and the thorough replacement of an established government or political system by the people governed.
  2. Sociology. A radical and pervasive change in society and the social structure, especially one made suddenly and often accompanied by violence.
  3. A sudden, complete, or marked change in something.

So if the key words are overthrow, repudiation, radical, pervasive, sudden, and complete, I’m force to say that “revolution” is not an apt description for anything that’s happening in agriculture technology today.

One of the technologies DuMond and I discussed was automatic steering. In a sense, it revolutionized a very narrow aspect of field work by improving row accuracy, reducing fatigue for operators, and allowing for the potential of year-over-year repeatability of field activities. But “revolution” to me would require a significantly higher bar of achievement — like the field essentially planting itself. If you are not fundamentally changing one of the pillars of farming — planting, application, scouting, and harvest — calling it a “revolution” is just hyperbole.

Such talk also makes our work harder, by setting farmer expectations beyond what’s achievable, leaving us to bring those expectations back down to Earth. Or just as bad, creating disillusioned, mistrusting customers.

Back to our role in this. I did a quick search on our Website, and while I think we kept the revolution rhetoric under control, I found a few unfortunate uses in some story lines, in particular for drones.

This isn’t to say that ag technology is not delivering value, and that emerging “cool” products and practices are not going to make inroads in the years ahead. We’re just re-committed to demonstrating how these technologies will work within the traditional crop production system and deliver benefits to ag retailers.

The biggest takeaway from my chat with DuMond is how truly difficult it is to build reliable recommendations for growers and how important the agronomic expert is in the process. There’s no big revolutions, but lots of little revelations that, in the hands of the agronomist, can make a lasting and value-rich impact on crop production.