• Shane Thomas

4 Reasons Agronomists Won't Go Extinct

There is never ending technology evolution everywhere we look. Robotics, artificial intelligence (AI), algorithms, sensors, modelling and more are changing the way we approach our every day lives and the way businesses run their day to day operations. Agriculture is no different. There is new tools being developed for farming and agriculture that are capable of doing many things; self driving tractors, algorithm driven soil testing, model driven fertilizer recommendations and sensors to assess what is happening in fields in real time. All of this technology will ultimately help farmers and the agriculture industry as a whole – not all of it will be relevant or serve a purpose long term, but many of the tools being developed will change the tasks of farmers and those that advise them moving forward.

But in my opinion, the short answer is no. I just want to get it out of the way without too much belaboring. One could argue I am biased, but I think there are some points to consider that support this thought.

Why will agronomists be required in the year 2040? Here are 4 reasons:

1. Need for Backward Assessing Diagnostics – Even with all of the sensors and tools that will be at the disposal of agronomists, farmers and everyone in the industry there will still need to be a way to tie all of these potential causes and issues together. If a field is beginning to move backwards based on NDVI imagery, yet between all of the sensors and tools there isn’t a definitive one thing causing the issue, we will need someone to ground truth the situation; observe, analyze the data, and dig into their knowledge base of plant physiology, soil etc and assess exactly what is happening and make a move forward recommendation from that. With the technology being developed there will be a lot of situations an algorithm and sensors can assess, but because of the complexity of agronomy, crop production and the creativity and problem solving skills needed to successfully diagnose problematic situations, the likelihood of algorithms always having all the answers is unlikely. Machine learning technology is advancing at a rapid pace, and the future capabilities to capture data and crunch it is and will be far superior to what the human mind can ever fathom. With that said, there is going to need to be the ability to look cross scope, innovate and identify what else to be looking for.

2. Digital Technologies Will Require Competent Professionals – There is going to be points of data collected in 2040 that we don’t even consider relevant today. We are going to be using tools that haven’t even been thought up yet to produce better crops. But, the one thing that is likely is that there is going to need to be logic and thought process behind deploying what technology, when and how to successfully implement it in conjunction with other technologies/practices. Sure, the technology may take away a component of the agronomists job from 2019, such as physically soil testing for example, but the interpretation is going to have qualitative components that at least in the next one to two decades will be ancillary to any type of machine learning or big picture artificial intelligence. To top this off, no matter the machine learning capabilities, there is going to be a need for ground truthing algorithms, analysis, recommendations etc. The final component is imagination – there will be a lot of insight that will be derived from smart technological system, but their ability to innovate is going to be limiting. This is something the agronomist and tech savvy science based consultants will be able to add to every acre globally.

3. Tools Make Agronomists Better – An agronomist with the right background knowledge, expertise, and ambition with the tools available will make them untouchable by a machine or algorithm. Taking the tools and applying them in a cohesive strategy with the right knowledge and other technology at their disposal will make the agronomist more effective. There will be sensors, algorithms, platforms, AI and more that all needs to be used in an integrative fashion to enhance yields and profitability for farmers. It’s not about one technology in a silo, it’s about all technology being used holistically to make better decisions and influence profitable outcomes. With the hoards of data that will be available an agronomist will be able to analyze it and use sound numbers vs. what tends to be more “gut feel” today. Interpretation of what the technology is saying, indicating or alerting of will be a core component of what an agronomist will need to do in the future.

4. Human Comfort – Now this one COULD change. There is just something about being able to talk to another human with the capability of true cognition; whether it’s empathy, the ability to do non-linear tasks, a fear of the unknown by us or something else, as humans we prefer to interact with humans. There is currently the technology to have entirely human free hotels readily available, however the technology has not taken off like one would think. In Japan the technology is being utilized today and has been for a few years. Why hasn’t it taken off even quicker? After all, the overhead costs of staff are one of the most significant of a hotels expenses. There isn’t true comfort in dealing solely with a robot. By 2040 there may be a cultural shift, but many of the 30 year olds today grew up with humans making decisions and the comfort level of not having a human to go to is a problem, I think, will take another generation to fully shift, if ever.

Looking across various other industries that are being impacted by technology, say the travel industry or financial services industry, there is the same discussion going on about whether there will be a future need for their professional services. For travel agents it’s been over a decade and for financial service professionals it’s been close to a decade. They’re still around, albeit there may be less in some cases. For example, travel agents have almost halved since the year 2000. Their jobs are evolving, but the key point is that the less effective ones are being cleared out of their professions. Technology allows professionals to specialize and scale their time. That means the ones who are effective and utilizing the resources at their disposal are the ones that are going to be around in an even more meaningful way – they can have a more positive impact on more people in less time. This is exactly what is happening and will continue to happen with agronomists. In 2010 I did irrigation management for customers – it required me to drive to every single field and assess by hand soil textures, crop stages, rooting depth, available moisture by depth then doing the water use calculations for the coming week. Time consuming to the say the least. Today, there is sensor tech and algorithms being utilized that analyzes all of this – you just simply have to check an app plus with the flick of the thumb one can turn specific pivots on. It could be argued that goes against my point of agronomists being around in the long term, but actually what it does is frees up time to spend those hours on some qualitative aspects of irrigation management, develop new algorithms to make the irrigation system even more effective, build out an tech irrigation management business or spend time on areas of farms that need more attention.

For the record, I am a fan of technology, and believe it WILL completely revamp our approach to crop production in the coming decades. New technology and concepts NEED to be used to push the envelope and exploit inefficiencies in production and approaches. It is simply that the agronomists role entails in the future will change.

So this begs the question: What skills will an agronomist of the future need? Check out my next post for 6 skills that will be required by the agronomist of the future.

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