Digital farming tools

Will digital tools replace the field work of agronomists

For my fellow agronomists and myself, not too long ago, a field visit was everything: the beginning, the middle and the end of every recommendation delivered to the farmer. If you wanted to give any advice you hopped into the car, train or a plane arrived at the farm, looked at the crop, felt the soil, asked questions, looked at the irrigation controller outputs, took samples and wrote recommendations.

Then came the communications revolution. We were bombarded by smartphones and their digital cameras, WhatsApp groups, online data and real-time analysis.  Just as no one believes today that robots and computers will replace doctors, I don’t think smartphones will replace agronomists and the classic field visit. Agronomists will keep going on field visits, but the weight is slowly shifting from 100% field visit, to remote recommendation. This allows for greater efficiency and two other important benefits - attending to more farmers and giving better recommendations.

Will digital tools replace the field work of agronomists?

What has made hybrid- agronomy possible?

Whether you’re a 70-year-old farmer with lifelong experience who’s not too tech- savvy, or his 30-year-old son who wants to take the farm to the next level, and sees technology as a driver rather than a challenge, change is already here. In every pocket and in every home.

Change is evident is three areas:

  1. Communication – In any field, better communication leads to enhanced results. Digital tools without a doubt take the ease of communication between the farmer and the agronomist a notch higher. Farmers can now use platforms like WhatsApp to share pictures of their crops, and use digital software to document farming processes. The agronomist in turn can easily review these and come to sharper and faster conclusions, leading to less leg work.
  2. Self-service digital tools – Soil fertility calculators, irrigation schedulers, weather data, remote sensing, you name it. Farmers now have access to an array of digital tools that make their lives easier. They can calculate field-specific water consumption in a click of a mouse, choose the spacing and flow rate for sprinklers in a new field, predicting crop development based on weather forecast or analyzing historical weather data in your own field before selecting the crop you're going to grow there.
  3. Decision Support Platforms - More complex solutions that usually work with data inputs (manual, sensors or cameras) that are processed by algorithm to deliver clear recommendations about planting, inputs purchase, pest and disease management, and also optimizing harvests. Once data is shared with your agronomist this is no longer a bunch of graphs and data that you need to crunch alone.

The promise of technology

Needless to say AgTech is booming. Many new tools and platforms have been developed over the past few years that include both hardware and software. Can you imagine an intelligence network for trees? Well, it exists. Many companies have come up with solutions for analyzing signs of crop threats, identifying causes for poor crop health and tracking the progress of crops.

In 2019, the AgTech industry managed to bag investment worth $16.9 billion, across 1,450 individual investments.  But technology is tricky, and overused big buzz words like artificial intelligence and machine learning tend to over promise and under deliver. Change takes time and works best when it is done together, farmer and agronomist, hand in hand.

Is there one magic innovative tool for all agricultural concerns?

Probably not. Farming and farmers are such a complex ecosystem. Tools have to be customer centric, bring value and have a good fit for the individual farmer, his needs, his wallet size and his technological capabilities.

The key to success with technology in agriculture is not by focusing all resources on one technology to solve every need – this will not work, nor is it going to happen. The way forward is by creating technological platforms that are open to many integrations and collaborations.

Are we there yet? We’re not, but we are getting there.  We need to collect data and be able to organize it in layers; satellite images, irrigation and fertilization data, yield maps.  Once we have enough data and we can start seeing patterns -  artificial intelligence will prevail. 

Artificial intelligence will bring value to the farmers; It's easy to understand the value it can bring, easy to imagine it. Whether it will be value for money is a different question, but luckily for farmers, they probably won’t have to finance the technology.  They will mostly benefit from it.

When technology delivers on its promise - what’s in it for the farmer? A lot!

Farmers will be able to predict and plan and as a result, improve their profitability by saving on farm inputs and earning more on their produce. They will have direct connection to distribution channels. They will also improve and control better their work-life balance and eliminate some of the tedious chores farming demands, while also cutting labor costs.

Most farmers I know don’t have the time to deal with technology and they rely on their agronomist, tech supplier or team. I believe the responsibility lies with us, the advisors that come from the technology development companies. We need to mitigate and implement and make sure that farmers use only what really creates value for them, and do the hand holding when necessary until the magic happens.

So what will an agronomist field visit look like 10 years from now?

Field visit frequency will be reduced to critical times in the season. I also believe that online communication will increase and that different platforms will allow us to run the show together much better and with far better results.

An agronomist will probably spend his first hour of each day looking at data from his customer's farms, sending some alerts and reports. Then he will spend time analyzing the near future by looking into the hyper-local weather forecasts, reviewing GPS soil sampling and crop recording, and drone-driven soil analysis, and adjusting some of the irrigation, nutrition or crop protection plans. And only then, going out to the field.

Bottom line, the agronomist will not be replaced by digital tools in the future. The farmer will now need him not just to make recommendations but to make recommendations based on the advanced technology that they are using together.  Technology that relies on the experience and knowledge of tens of thousands of farmers, accumulated information from hundreds of countries, and smart analysis of dozens of variables. All this will achieve more predictable results, higher yields and better quality crops.

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