• Shane Thomas

Part 2: Navigating the Next Decade of AgTech

As I started writing about the next decade in farming it became apparent this was going to be long, so instead of an incredibly long post, I decided to break it up into several posts. Below is Part 2. To read the Introduction, Trend Assumptions and Jobs-to-be-done application to ag, please click here


Ag Becomes Increasingly Tech Savvy

The ag industry has many great grain marketers, agronomists, equipment engineers and more, but there has been a definitive gap in the understanding of the tech space to help farmers effectively use and benefit from various technologies: this includes the practical application of technology, to the business models surrounding tech and the soft skills required to communicate and drive the successful uses of technology in a more prosperous ag industry.

Agtech and precision technology isn’t new and there are many experts in the space, they just are much more sparse than those with expertise in soil science or plant physiology for example. But now these select experts have many more platforms to be able to reach farmers as well as the younger generation of ag industry professionals and others in the industry that are interested in learning more, as I have talked about before in “AgTech: Why It Matters Now More Than Ever”. Whether this is through the internet at large, social media or more specialized information distributing tools like AGVisorPRO there will be an ability to take the ubiquity of information/knowledge and ensure that that information is getting to where it can be used most effectively. This is one component that will help to increase the expertise of the industry at large.

Increased diffusion of information will help increase the effective utilization of technology, benefiting farmers and the industry as a whole.

The educational institutions are also catching up and attempting to get ahead of the demand for “tech-spertise”, in cases where we see significant emphasis and investment from institutions like Olds College as well as other Alberta College groups like Lethbridge College.

There is significant emphasis on the agronomy and technology components, but what I think will have a big impact as well is the focus around “soft skills”. These skills are exceptionally important within agriculture, but haven’t necessarily been emphasized as much as I believe they should have been at educational institutions in the past, as I’ve discussed here. Soft skills like the ability to communicate, collaborate, learn continuously and lead change will be the real benefit to the industry in the coming decade. With something as dynamic as technology in a space as complex as agriculture, the soft skills are just as important as the hard skills in understanding and deploying the technology.

We don’t hear about it in ag as often as we should, but augmented reality will also significantly enhance how effective an agronomist is, a company tech person or mechanic or even a sales rep is on a day to day basis, whether it be to better identify weeds, or to more effectively scout a field or to get a better idea of how to fix a piece of equipment, the tech savvy ag industry of 2030 will be constantly amplified by augmented reality.

Thanks to this better education and more passion for agtech we will soon come to better understand data by the mid 2020’s. Today we still see a lot of confusion among many in the industry as to “how valuable” data is, “why” it’s valuable, “when” it is most valuable and how to extract the most out of the data for farmers. Data on it’s own has little value. Data when used in aggregate AND when it is Clean (processed), Contextualized (relevantly tagged) and Connected (to results or outcomes) is when it has power. Whether it be to make better decisions, have access to better products (digital or physical), de-risk an operation or even enhance customer experience, then there is value. The farmers and ag professionals in the next decade will understand this more in depth and intricately than those of us working in the industry over the past decade.

To top this off one quote that I think epitomizes this is from William Gibson:

“The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.”

The technology is here, everyone has the capacity to leverage it, but it hasn’t been taken up clear across North America. In the next 10 years we will see this change and expertise will help drive it.

Traditional Soil Testing Will Become Obsolete

Soil testing is a labour intensive job. However, the resulting information and insight is instrumental to growing a profitable crop (and environmentally friendly crop). This won’t change, but the dynamics of soil testing will. Today it is labour intensive, frustrating and expensive to soil test. An individual has to physically drive to the field, take the required amount of soil cores, bag it, take it back to their office, package and fill out a form, and then send it away via some shipping method. After this, there is a waiting period while the lab does essentially every test/extraction method separately, then sending the data back to the farmer/agronomist, often by email, to finally go through and assess the requirements for the next year. To top it off, because of the time intensity this requires, it typically is done anywhere from 4-7 months prior to when the crop goes in the ground! As of 2020, this method works. Moving forward? There are better ways, and we will rapidly see those methods take over on farms across North America, leaving soil testing labs scrambling.

The holy grail of any sort of data collection is accuracy, instantaneous and passive. At best with soil testing via labs we get one of those three. Moving forward with technology that is on the market today, we can obtain all three.

NIR (near infra-red) Spectroscopy has been around in soil testing for a number of years, but hadn’t been taken out of the lab. Now there are options that can be utilized in the field, in real time. One option is the SoilReader. This disk with a spectroscopy sensor within it can mount right onto pieces of machinery taking many reading every second, giving a precise, real time soil reading as you go across the field with virtually any piece of machinery. Let’s take it up one more notch: imagine not getting blends of fertilizer in the future, but having separate tanks of single product fertilizers change rate as you are seeding based on the reading coming in from the SoilReader that’s attached to the tractor.

SoilReader has the capability to deliver on all 3 components of successful data collection, making it a product to watch (and products like it) in the coming decade as I see this type of soil information collector increasing rapidly. We have went from farm fertility management, to field fertility management, to zone fertility management, and now we will be able to manage at a sub acre level in the coming decade.

There is also new products from AgroCares that use similar spectroscopy technology that can be brought right out to specific spots within the field that gets an almost instantaneous reading of soil nutrient levels right to your smart phone, or your ag platform of choice. Similar technology is also available from AGXtend, plus some sensor fusion tech. With hand held products like those from AgroCares there is also the potential for in season tissue testing analysis giving real time insights into the physiological happenings of the plants without the wait (maybe even via drone!). That’s huge for in season foliar feeding and high value decisions.

Machine learning (ML) will also change the dynamics of soil testing over the coming decade. ML algorithms, with the right data feeding them, can decrease costs associated with soil testing. It is already being done effectively today by Farmers Edge. There is the potential to use these types of predictive models on top of the more passive, real time technologies to gain a better understanding of what is happening in a fields soil in season, with in season alerts of deficiencies based on yield predictions and real time conditions. There will begin to be an emphasis on applying predictive algorithms to in season applications beyond nitrogen and looking more at predicting shortages of other macro’s and secondary nutrients as well as micro nutrient deficiencies.

Thanks to the tighter feedback loop to obtain the soil information, decreases in cost and the ease at which to obtain the information, we will see traditional soil testing methods decrease, while increasing the total acres of soil assessed, moving it up from below 50% of acres sampled annually to well above. This will increase production and profitability at the farm gate, and satiating consumer demands.

The farms in 2030 that are the most successful will need to be data driven, and it will start soil. This won't be limited to the physical and chemical make up of the soil either, but the biological soil health. We will see farms with a much deeper understanding of the biological make up of their soil towards the end of the decade. Stay tuned for more!

Part 3 will address the future of seed on the farm and autonomy!

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