Too much information
By Ken Root
You may be able to remember when you were first overwhelmed by data. It may have been in college or when considering the purchase of a new machine. Maybe it was the output from a lab experiment or a yield monitor on a combine. I believe everyone engaged in operation or management of a farm or business has felt like they were being submerged in a sinkhole of meaningless numbers. Well, you can now surface and relax because some of America's biggest agricultural companies are going to help you manage that data, direct your actions and allow you to translate it into output, for a fee.
If your first reaction is denial that you have a problem, then you have a problem. No one is handling all their farming information with finesse and grace. You can ignore it, but it is still there. From government data on soils, crops and weather, to university trials on crops and livestock, to industry data on hybrids and varieties, the string of numbers is endless. In the Midwest, there are a hundred test plots within ten miles of every farmer.
Standing back from the problem, it seems that the key is taking only the relevant information and utilizing it to increase yields while being efficient and keeping out of trouble with regulatory agencies. Most farmers can't stand back that far. The tendency is to go with the gut or repeat past practices hoping for different results. The latter is defined as insanity.
Monsanto stepped out first with a program designed to manage information with the goal of increasing output. It is called "Field Scripts." As explained to me, with a focus on corn, it will take public and proprietary data on soils, fertility and hybrids and mate it with planting technology to result in higher yields. Farmers who are studying adoption, say it requires a big investment in equipment that has yet to be proven. However, the attractiveness of merging a high level of corporate firepower with your machinery with the simple interface of an iPad, looks too good to pass up.
John Deere is promoting moisture sensors that send data to the farmer's computer about water needs of the soil or controlling and holding moisture to gain the most from natural and irrigated inputs. The program is called "Field Connect" and said to have been around for several years as a means to make irrigation more efficient. There is expense of the sensor, seasonal insertion and removal, plus the data transmission. To be most effective, it needs to be correlated with a variable rate irrigation system or with gated tile lines that can influence the water level in the field.
DuPont-Pioneer is a bit more low key with a new program called "Field 360," which implies that you need to look around to see what is going on and write it down. That data can be shared with agronomists, ag retailers, seed representatives or no one. That brings up proprietary data that you generate. Is it yours any longer if you let others view and process it? "There is nothing anonymous about GPS data," says an owner of a crop consulting company. "You can take your name off of it but the fact that it is GPS linked, tells where it came from."
Each of these programs implies that there needs to be more management of agricultural enterprises. That seems to be the real joy of farming. A grower shows his skill by stepping into a field to determine if it is ready to plant or examining a growing crop to determine its need for fertilization or protection. Information can come in many forms, from muddy boots to yellow leaves. Some will argue that it is not all objective and that there is art and science in the final outcome. Does the farmer want to gain more information to make better decisions, or relinquish control to sensors and logarithms that say what the next action should be?
What we are seeing is not just a means to assist farmers in making management decisions but a full-scale battle between the major players in the industry. Seed and biotech giants can still feel vulnerable and may throw millions of dollars at initiating a program that checks their competitor. Having a seed company move into precision planting equipment is a new adventure with an uncertain outcome. Very little of this is about the farmer but about industry dominance and survival.
"Nothing is simple, once you get into it," is a truism that I cannot dispute. I thought growing a giant pumpkin was all about the seed until I met Don Young, who lives his life to break a world record. He focuses on agronomic practices--genetics, fertility and cultivation--but he takes each element and kicks it up to a level that borders on ridiculous. His soil is 30 percent organic matter, his fertility report has a water pollution warning and his wife sets blocks of ice around each bloom for two days after it is cross pollinated so the pumpkin will stick and begin to grow. That is basically what farmers would like to do on every field. It is an overwhelming task and is unsustainable for most growers.
No matter how high we go, there is still a way to go higher. The increase in crop production over the past century has been the most impressive in history. Farmers, who rejected new technology or expansion, were eliminated. Those who farm today are educated and experienced at a level that was only dreamed of a generation ago. Farmers and agricultural technology companies still feel uncertain about the future and are clamoring for more information, not less. The goal is to hold the high ground and maintain a competitive edge, whether it is in technology, efficiency, or a thousand other pieces, that form the giant mosaic of farming.
Editor's note: Ken Root has been an agricultural reporter for 37 years. Root now does daily radio and television programming and is a columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.