Have you ventured into the world of ag tech for your orchard, hoping to gain efficiency in your operations, and found that you only lost valuable time and money in the process? Have you decided not to renew a farm software license because it simply did not fit how you work? If so, please know that you are not alone. The digital ag revolution is here, but difficulties in managing the data can make it feel like a losing battle.
“Digital agriculture” is a broad term used to describe an approach to farming that leverages digital tools to improve the efficiency and sustainability of crop production. It encompasses basic practices like digital field mapping and record-keeping, to advanced tools like high resolution imagery, robotics and machine learning. It is often described as the fourth “revolution” in agriculture, and hailed as one of the most promising opportunities for the industry to meet the challenge of feeding a growing global population.
For millions of acres of commodity crops like wheat, corn and soybean in the Midwest, some of these tools have been used by farmers for decades. Precision ag tools enable growers to track their crop growth through satellite imagery, make variable rate fertilizer applications, collect yield data at harvest, and establish management zones based on the data for the next season. Data analytics are employed to select the hybrid seed and planting rates, tailored to the climate, soils and pests of specific fields.
However, in our world of orchards and vineyards, these same tools have not garnered the same level of adoption. Our crops, production cycles, field sizes, irrigation systems, spraying and harvesting equipment, pests and inputs have made adapting some of these digital tools difficult. It makes sense that software, imagery, and equipment companies have focused on regions and crops with significantly greater acreage and lesser complexity. Our digital tools in the orchard have historically focused on weather, regulatory compliance (pesticide recommendations), and irrigation management.
Fortunately, many digital tools tailored to orchard crops have recently been developed. From sprayer tracking to fully automated sprayers, remote irrigation controls, multi-depth soil moisture probes for deep-rooted crops, and satellite/aerial imagery designed specifically for tree canopies, there are many new tools commercially available.
It is becoming more common to see sensors and controls deployed in the field, and the data is flowing. In fact, there is now so much data available from the field, that growers, ranch managers and agronomists are starting to experience “data fatigue.” The problem is not only that the volume of data is so large; it is that the grower may not have the means to make use of the data efficiently. Unlike our colleagues in the Midwest, who have accumulated years of remote sensing, application and yield data for fine-tuning their digital tools, we are still in our digital infancy. This data fatigue, which you may be encountering now on your farm, often results from the following problems:
- Limited integrations – users may view imagery and scout fields in one app, write pesticide recommendations in another, monitor soil moisture and control irrigation systems in yet another, and still track costs and generate reports elsewhere.
- Redundant data management – because each tool is not integrated with others, the user may be required to set up their farms, fields, sensors and activities in multiple platforms, increasing time spent on manual data entry.
- Rigid licensing – not every farming entity is structured the same, and the ability to share data and coordinate activities between the grower, employees, commercial applicators, or outside agronomists does not conform to the available licensing options.
- Inflexible user interfaces – the inability of users to control what data they want to enter, view or send to others, and how they want to do it. One grower may want to view each soil moisture probe reading, while another would like to view a prioritized list of readings at a particular moisture threshold.
- Reduced mobile capabilities – users may find that mobile tools have limited functionality, and they still have to go back to the office to complete set up or reporting tasks in the desktop portal.
- Roadmaps to nowhere – when the tool does not function as needed, the customer may find their requests for added features or improvements at the end of a long list, with little hope for a resolution.
While equipment costs and performance in the field can have a limiting effect on adoption by growers, many of the greatest barriers to technology adoption are related to the actual software necessary to manage the technology. If a grower wanted to digitally track a pest control activity in a field, from scouting to recommendation, sprayer tracking to use reporting with weather conditions, and finally to accounting with all activity costs for the application, they might use six different software platforms to accomplish it. Consider the costs associated with each software platform and the time required to complete this common workflow. Is it any surprise that few growers have this digital capability? And, if one or more of the steps in this workflow must be completed manually – perhaps on paper – how much less valuable are the remaining digital tools? A complete digital workflow is greater than the sum of its parts.
Growers manage very diverse and demanding operations. They must be able to manage equipment and employees, respond to pests and weather at a moment's notice, comply with a host of regulatory agencies, and nurture their crop to harvest with little guarantee that the market will return prices to cover their costs invested. For many growers, this is accomplished with limited support staff. If the digital ag revolution is to take root in orchard production systems, growers will need software that connects all the field data in one place, and provides the tools to leverage that data how they see fit.
The good news is that software companies are responding to this need. Some are working building out comprehensive field data platforms, while others are focusing on integrating with multiple technology providers for easier sharing of field data. A few technology providers may need to adjust their business model, which often includes software licensing fees to access the data, in addition to the hardware sales. Growers that desire to access their data through another system may be unwilling to pay full price for the data license. However, increased hardware sales may be realized when their technology is compatible with other software platforms.
Growers will need to make adjustments in their operations also, such as building their technology capabilities. This may include investing in mobile devices, and training staff to use the software. The grower transition to greater technology adoption can be facilitated by the technology provider or agronomists who already provide field services to the grower and have experience with these tools. At minimum, growers should be identifying 1) their greatest pain points around field data, and 2) a software provider that can meet these specific needs, and is focused on future improvements for orchard growers.
Digital agriculture is certainly an industry buzzword right now, but it is also more than that. It is a movement to develop and deploy amazing tools in orchard production systems, and hopefully overcome some of the greatest challenges facing our industry. It is time to unlock the potential of these digital tools by equipping the growers and agronomist who use them to access their data and leverage it in their own unique operations.