Henry Ford once said, “Whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you are right.”
When it comes to precision agriculture and technology, I think it is safe to say we all work with plenty of growers in the “can’t” camp. Those who think they cannot find ways to integrate technology into their operation, unfortunately, are right. Their mindset creates challenges, mental barriers that are difficult to overcome.
As precision agriculture has advanced, I have witnessed these mental barriers stop good farms from becoming great farms because growers feel the technology will let them down or will not fit in their current farm view.
These are five of the most common reasons I see growers not step up to the next level of precision agriculture adoption and my advice to “auto” steer them (ha, see what I did there?) in the right direction.
“Barrier” #1: My Equipment Is Too Old
With many newer machines, precision agriculture technology is often integrated into the machine so it is easy to understand why this makes growers believe that older machines are not eligible for technology updates.
While some machines may be tougher to work with than others, most can be outfitted with the latest technology. This does not mean they may not need some creative managing and an add-on or two. But having the knowledge on what is possible to retrofit and what is not can go a long way to building a stronger fleet, without the grower feeling any pressure to upgrade to a newer machine.
I recommend one-on-one time showing how brackets, harnesses, and simple updates can be added to older machinery. I have even gone so far as to share extreme examples to highlight the untapped potential of older equipment – like that time our team successfully put a form of GPS device on a ‘68 potato truck for anti-theft purposes.
Beyond the age of the tractors, sprayers, or combines, some growers think the technology those machines already have is outdated. Similar to upgrading older machines, older technology can still work well and bring a ton of value to a grower. It may only require an extra step or two and is a great way to bring the efficiency of precision farming to late adopters.
“Barrier” #2: My Operators Cannot Use It Correctly
The level of knowledge and tech savvy among operators can be extremely varied. However, by encouraging growers to make an investment and give their operators grace, trusted advisors can help them create a shift in how things are done.
First, the grower or top level of management needs to see and understand the big picture, what they are getting by investing in technology and how it will change the operation. I will remind them of the end game by showing a finished report before we start in on how to make one. I also like to highlight the expectations of what could be achieved in one-, three-, and five-year increments. Doing so allows decision makers to feel like they do not have to understand and achieve everything in one big chunk, but instead in bite-size pieces.
Once the leaders understand where we are headed, it is time to communicate the transition to staff. My first recommendation is that the grower establishes an open-door policy for questions from the team as they are learning and adapting. I have found another key to successful technology adoption is explaining to all operators the “why” behind it. Partner with the grower to ensure all operators are given a full picture of what good data can do and why it matters – to the operation but also to them, personally.
And that brings me to, what I believe is the biggest factor growers must understand when overcoming this barrier: cultural change takes time.
Learning takes time. Developing skills takes time. Asking operators to change how they do their job is not an overnight process, it is not even something that will happen after a day or more of training. It is not uncommon to take an entire growing season or even multiple seasons before the data begins to flow. Setting this expectation helps prevent an operation from throwing in the towel too soon.
Think you cannot teach an old dog new tricks? Certainly, an older dog will need a bit more time and patience to be trained. But I have witnessed many farms’ operators come to appreciate technology and acknowledge how it can help them manage their time and do their job well.
“Barrier” #3: My Operation Is Too Small
Two years ago, I was at a farm expo where I found myself introducing newer concepts of precision agriculture technology to a grower. Not long into the conversation, I was met with a line I had heard several times before: “We are not interested in this because we are a small operation.”
This perspective fails to appreciate the advantages of precision agriculture adoption that are exclusive to small farms. First, smaller operations often have a greater opportunity to unlock the benefits of precision technology because they can make changes faster and impacts can be realized sooner.
But more importantly, smaller farms have greater risk that technology can help minimize. Think about a large farm, hundreds upon hundreds of acres. If a few of those acres do not produce as expected, it will not be detrimental to the operation. This scenario would be devastating to a small farm, where every acre must perform at its best. Presenting it through a risk management lens, it is easier to make the case that a precision technology and data-driven strategy is crucial for small farms.
“Barrier” #4: I Don’t Have Time to Deal with All the Data
When introducing a data management platform to growers, I have seen many overwhelmed by all the options that are available to them. That is why the best way to manage data – and curb data anxiety – is to start small.
I have a grower I recently introduced to the John Deere Operations Center. He had not yet worked in Operations Center but was interested because he bought a new sprayer and realized the opportunity for the reports and spray management details. Rather than jump in with every machine and opportunity available to him, we decided to start with just the sprayer. We focused and refined that effort. Not only was he able to save money as a result of reducing inputs and proper reporting, the effort gave him the energy and confidence to take the next step and start managing seeding. A win-win!
Connecting machines and analyzing data does not have to be an all-at-once effort. In fact, starting small, one step at a time, is a great way to keep the overwhelm in check and still reap the rewards of implementing precision technology.
“Barrier” #5: This Is How We Have Always Done It
Anyone in any professional industry can identify with those eight, damning words: “This is how we have always done it.” Admittedly, this is probably the most difficult barrier to break down. But this grower can also be the most fun to work with because this barrier is the one where we have the greatest opportunity to solve a challenge.
Technology, genetic management, and soil sciences have changed drastically in the last century but also, important changes have come in very simple, yet effective ways. And sometimes, it is those small, simple technologies, not the big, grandioso ones, that present the greatest opportunity to help growers see the potential.
I recently found a letter my great grandpa Orin wrote to my grandpa Bill in 1932. He was wishing there were headlights on his John Deere E Series so he could farm later in the day. When headlights did come out, that was an exciting new technology feature, yet many growers probably felt they could do without it. But can you imagine now, a grower buying a tractor without headlights? That advancement, those headlights, solved a simple pain point for my great grandpa and that was all he needed to make the choice to upgrade.
My advice with growers who are stubborn to change their ways is first to listen. What is their pain point, a challenge they’d like to solve? There is always at least one frustration every grower secretly wants fixed. Show that solution, both how it will fix their problem and improve the operation on top of that.
And, I have said this before, but it is worth repeating: remind them that it is okay to start small. Adopting even one simple piece of technology – ahem, headlights anyone? – can make a big impact.
It is true that something that has worked in the past may work now and in the near future. But it will not work forever. It is only becoming more challenging to manage a farm. Factors like drought and extreme temperatures, rising input costs, and resilient pests prove that technology and data must be a now-or-never adoption.
Sometimes we can be our own biggest barrier and growers are no exception. As advisors, we can help them break through their existing preconceived ideas by listening and starting small, while keeping the big picture in mind.