Emerging technology is arguably one of the most significant issues ahead for ag retailers. It is in that spirit that I present my top five technology trends, picked out as being the most important from the perspective of an information technology company.
1. Education. The first and probably the most important topic is education. With the rapid advances in computers and communication, it has become increasingly difficult for anyone in the agricultural community to keep pace with technical changes impacting field production. From understanding the genetics of seed relative to an environment, evaluating the best fertilizers, selecting the right combination of pesticides, or just understanding the day-to-day logistics of a farm operation, education is paramount for success.
In the near future, successful retailers will not be judged by price alone but also according to the materials they recommend in production and their support of sustainability practices on a farm. Consequently, retailers must develop a more “holistic” view of a farming operation. They must understand how each decision through a growing season impacts the next decision and how, collectively, decisions impact the environment and the final produce delivered to the food supply chain. Knowledge of production practices will be demanded not only by regulatory agencies but also be growing segment of the consuming public. The anticipated upstream pressure from the food supply chain can be met with on-farm operation that has accountability and traceability.
A subtler need in education is the modern understanding of integrated pest management (IPM) practices. With the rise of resistant pests, the choice of pest controls must be done more intelligently. Control decisions will require seasonal observations on the presence and movement of pests along with models predicting their future development. Visual observations will give way to diagnostic tests and written records will be replaced by electronic input using applications on smart mobile devices. Retailers that gravitate to these new tools and programs will save time and resources.
2. “Big Data.” Companies involved with the processing and storing of data refer to increasing amounts of computer-generated information as the “big data” challenge. As information becomes critical for good decision-making whether as part of the in-field support of a customer or between employees in a company, data must be collected, stored and interpreted in a timely manner. This data processing requires the maintenance of local computers and communication networks and their integration with systems over the Internet or “in the cloud.” Because of the overhead cost to maintain local computers and networks, many retailers will likely look to “cloud” solutions to process their data. That is, they will pay a fixed annual fee to remotely access computer and network services.
Remote access has the benefit of having a third-party hosting and maintaining the computer and communication infrastructure. However, one big negative is that retailer’s data, because it is stored offsite, will be at the mercy of the third-party’s security solutions. Consequently, a retailer must investigate the security track record of any third-party before signing on to their services.
Assuming a secure computer and communication infrastructure, whether local or remote, the processing of data, themselves, will continue to be a challenge. In order to use data in decision making, a retailer must ingest data, use formulas or models and visualization tools to convert them into usable products, integrate the various products, which can be in the form of text, graphs, tables, or maps, to create an operational “picture” of crop production in the field, and finally interpret this picture for the appropriate decisions during a growing season. Retailers would likely rely on information technology (IT) companies to assist in the processing of data for production decision making.
3. Robotics. Robotics is the use of robots or automated machines in place of humans to process information or to perform physical tasks. When you mention robots, most people think of an assembly line with robot arms constructing cars. But robotics is much more than that. It can be in the form voice recognition software that answers verbal questions from customers. It can be in the form of software that processes data and makes recommendations for production practices. In one sense, this software can be thought of as a “virtual” field manager. In the next few years, software mimicking the decision making of a manager will become increasingly important because of the “big data” challenge. No human can process the flood of data and other information in a timely manner to make a decision. Consequently, retailers will have to rely on software to ingest, convert, and integrate data into products and recommendations. Managers will still make the final decision but at a much higher, informed level by viewing products and recommendations. The same software for processing data can be used to send alerts to field managers about important events, such as severe weather.
The more classical role of robots will also become evident on the farm but at a much slower rate. Autonomous machines that are remotely directed using telematics will begin to appear in a limited role in the next few years. These machines will first be employed in repetitive, simple tasks, such as for the loading and unloading of materials. Eventually, these machines will take the form of autonomous tractors planting seed, spreading fertilizers, applying chemicals, and harvesting crops.