Technology In Agriculture: The Other 80%

This summer, myself and a group of editorial types attended a technology event hosted by John Deere. Getting invited to an event like this is not a big deal. In fact, this summer has been one of the busiest “special invitation” periods we’ve ever had, and speaks to the remarkably long bull market we’ve been riding in agriculture.

By Deere standards though, this was a particularly special meeting in that it was the first time that such an event ever focused strictly on technology efforts. The company’s vision of the future is clear, even if the actual path getting there is still pretty murky.

The meeting started out with an impressive video “window into the future” Deere produced called “Farm Forward.” You can find it on YouTube. It was a sneak preview, as even the company’s dealers had not yet seen it.

A number of things impressed me about the video, which I encourage you to watch whatever ag “color” you fly. First, the imagery mixes the correct demographics and setting — a farmer in his mid-50s in a farmhouse and what we assume is the next generation riding in the cab of the tractor — with depictions of technology that are inobtrusive and intuitively functional.

A high-tech coffee pot, which brews a single cup of Joe for the farmer as he approaches the counter, is your first hint that something interesting is going on. Then, in a house that looks like any of a million farmhouses in rural America, he touches a wall and it displays a screen featuring — what else? — satellite weather and markets information.

A touch turns off the screen, and as he contemplates the day walking to his office, a touch of the desktop launches another virtual screen where he reviews weather alerts. The only real conversation in the entire video is between the farmer and the Deere dealer, initiated not by phone but via the display.

Look, I’ve been saying that depictions of “family farmers” featuring pitchforks and guys riding 50-year old tractors have got to go for a long time — that we need to embrace our progress in technology and efficiency and show the world what we can do. But in an honest and realistic setting. This nails it.

But it also serves as a reminder to me that the next wave of technology that brings us closer to wireless connectivity, to full and robust access to our data, to the ability to really use our data to its fullest advantage, will have to be very, very simple and highly integrated.

In the cover story, Amy Asmus notes that only about 20% of Asmus Farm Supply customers could be described as “progressive,” or willing to try what she recommends to improve their operations. The other 80% are happy to sit back and wait for more progressive farmers to give things a try before they buy, or just ignore new stuff altogether.

I believe the sticking point for so many is, and frankly has been for years, that farmers simply want to farm. If something they’re being sold doesn’t translate clearly to the operation and lead to some improvement in the practices of farming, it won’t go anywhere.

Over the next few years, there will be a number of technology solutions that will more fully roll out and ask growers to buy in. These solutions need to facilitate farming, or they will disappoint the way precision adoption disappointed for nearly 20 years.

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