Computers And Farmers: Friends Or Foes?

I recently had an opportunity to experience the red carpet treatment at an agricultural machinery dealership (The salesperson should have known better than to spend time on me), and I must say that I’m amazed at the rate of technology advancement in agriculture. I got to sit on a brand new sugarcane harvester equipped with yield monitors for precision agriculture, maps generation and an auto steering system controlled by GPS with RTK correction. Needless to say, this machine looked like something Captain Kirk would enjoy operating.

After the frenzy of looking and playing with all the bells and whistles that the dealers proudly display in showrooms, I started to wonder why tractors usually have more powerful computers and systems than what you would typically find in an agronomist’s office. I found it a bit ironic that today’s tractors can drive themselves, yet a large percentage of growers mange their field operations using nothing more than Microsoft Excel. Throughout the developed world farmers abandoned the cart and buggy a long time ago, yet, the same cannot be said for the management tools in many agricultural operations.

One could feel tempted to conclude that farmers and IT based agricultural management platforms are adversaries in an imaginary game of poker, where the element in question is for how long the farmer can avoid coming back to the office to sit in front of a computer screen for hours on end. The longer the farmer avoids going back to the office the more actual field work he gets done, but at the same time the more he postpones going back to the office and registering his work on the system, the more time he spends being tactical in an industry that’s becoming more strategic.

What’s in it for me?

A year ago I visited a multinational grower in Indonesia with a large Oil Palm plantation. These kinds of visits are usually protocolary, but I tend to enjoy them significantly since it’s the only real opportunity as a Product Manager where I get to relate directly with the people that grow food and raw materials that provide many of the modern comforts that we typically take for granted. I tend to learn a lot from these people, not just from what they teach me, but more often from the questions they ask me.

During this visit after we had finished going through the fields and oil processing facilities, the head of the plantation proudly took me to a giant office with over 30 people that seemed very busy at all times. He proudly showed me their state of the art, highly customized ERP based system which managed their agricultural operations; “We are using Best Practices from all over the world”, he said proudly. Apparently upper management was very happy since it provided them real-time performance data of their Financials and Operations. It was the same as the oil processing people since they had new tools that significantly helped in controlling the Manufacturing operation. People in charge of plant maintenance and inventory management apparently were very happy as well, having at their disposal countless tools to help them do their job better. However, a respectful question arose from an industry veteran. “This is all very nice but the big benefits are always directed to someone different than the agronomists and field managers, when are you people going to build something that actually helps us do our job easier for a change?”

That question struck me right to the core because he was so right. So far the main reason agro-industrial companies and software vendors have had to build agricultural management software platforms has been to satisfy the need for information by management while doing nothing for actual farmers. Which is why it’s common for a systems to be capable of displaying in real-time the quantities and exact cost of the products used to fertilize a field, yet incapable of generating a recommendation as to what product combination is more practical for the farmer to utilize.

A simple realization that should have been obvious before, suddenly came to me, farmers are getting the short end of the stick with these platforms and they know it. It’s not that they hate technology, they actually crave it, but only if it helps them do their job better and more efficiently. It’s no secret that a farmer will drool over completely automated GPS guided machinery with big computer screens that help them obtain perfect results every time they spray or furrow. And I bet they’re open minded to new technologies that can help them to do their jobs more efficiently and make their businesses more profitable.

Tools for the farmer that help others

The good thing about this situation is that there’s no reason why things cannot improve significantly in a very short period of time. The solution will not come from neglecting the managers who already benefit from information platforms, but from making sure that farmers are also getting value out of it. When those in the field stop feeling like all the information they spend hours inputting into the system is going into a black whole, then we will be moving in the right direction. Below are some examples of how this can be accomplished:

  • Provide the farmer with a unified database of terrains that can be accesed by drilling down on digital maps. Terrains need to be understood within the context of where they are located, their shape and size. This is very difficult to do from a grid.
  • Create better planning tools that not only take care of generating a budget and planning costs, but also help to graphically schedule the elements and resources to be deployed for the execution of activities. Capacity planning, localization, and real availability need to be taken into account.
  • Use mathematical optimization and statistical techniques to provide recommendations for fertilization of terrains and chemical application.
  • Use mobility applications to not only capture data from the field but to actually bring valuable information and analysis back to the people working there. For example, provide Agronomists with full historics of activities, measurements and productivity of terrains that can be used for making important decisions on the spot.

Conclusion

In a summary, we could say that although computers and farmers may not be foes, some basic appreciation still needs to be established. As more and more software developers realize that the only way to gain farmer’s loyalty is by providing tangible benefits for their day to day work, we will expect to see farmers embrace what IT technology has to offer. This newly created relationship should be welcomed in a world with ever growing demand and limited resources. Those who adapt the fastest will reap the greatest rewards.

Featured images:
  • License: Image author owned

Industrial engineer with over 8 years of work experience providing IT platforms and solutions to global agro-industrial enterprises in five continents. Having a background in agro-industrial operations’ software solutions, specifically in design and process mapping, Juan Pablo is an important contributor in the development of the myAgri platform.