The future of agriculture is cloudy, with a chance of big data #19 #cong16

By Declan Molloy.

The future of agriculture is cloudy….

So what will become of agriculture and our farmers? Well let's start with what we know :

  • We know that we have an aging farmer population where the average age of farmers globally is close to 60.  
  • We know that the average farm profitability has been reducing for many years now to the point where many farmers must work off farm in order to make ends meet. 
  • We know that the regulations around farming have increased exponentially in recent years and this has made it a lot more expensive to run a farm business. 
  • We know that there is a lot of competition between large retailers and this has led to food being sold at incredibly low prices, in many cases below the cost of production. We know these large retailers are making huge profits and therefore are not the ones taking the financial hit on the low food prices.
  • We know that the average farmer can not demand a price for their product, they are told how much they will be given for it even if that price means they make a loss.

So then is there a future for the majority of our farmers? should they simply declare their businesses bankrupt and start to wind them down? And if so what would this mean for the average consumer? Well it would mean lesser quality food being produced at scale, we can already see many examples of this today in the US and other places. 

The truth about farming today is that the average farmer does it because they love it, the long days, the little or no profit are minor details compared to the job satisfaction they get when working with nature.

But what does this all mean for the future of agriculture and the next generation of farmers? the next generation are better educated that the previous one, they have far more opportunities and their world is different!. Their world is small and easily accessible and they have an appetite for success that past generations could not even have dreamt of. They know that long hard days of physical labour generally do not lead to wealth and that if they educate themselves and keep improving their skills they can be very successful working in a comfortable office job. 

So this leads me to the conclusion that the future of agriculture is cloudy….

With a chance of big data….

So what do we know about this next generation of farmers, we know they are far more tech savvy that the previous generation. We know they are constantly learning and communicating with each other through the interactions on the devices they use regularly. We know that they are more interested in profit and less interested in physical labour. So how do we entice them into the farming profession? 

Well we modernize it and make it more efficient! We focus on AgTech, agriculture technology.

The term Agtech covers a whole range of hardware and software that is being developed to make farming more efficient, efficient both in terms of how much time and physical labour is required and also efficient in terms of how much output the farm produces. Already today we have self driving tractors, robotic milking machines, automatic feeders and a whole host of other technologies that all reduce the time and labour required on the farm. 

But when it comes to increasing output data is key!

Today we have equipment being developed with built in sensor technology that is used for tasks like auto calibration. For example we have spraying machines that can detect deficiencies in crops as the farmer is spraying the crop and can then auto calibrate in order to apply more or less spray to a particular area. Although this technology is great and does improve efficiency it is just the first step. The added advantage will come when this equipment evolves to send the data gathered back to the cloud for analysis. This is what we refer to as big data, lots and lots of data that needs to be analyzed in order to get value from it. The first step is to gather the data, the next step is to analyze it, and the final step is to use the new information to help make decisions going forward. 

So how can this data improve efficiency in our example above, well the crop information gathered over time can be analyzed and it may show areas of the crop that are not performing as expected, this can highlight a previously unknown underlying problem that needs corrective action. Additionally after the corrective action has taken place the data gathered from the next run of the equipment can again be analyzed to see if the corrective action had the desired effect. 

Sharing this data with other farmers in the cloud will then mean that instead of just helping one farmer it can be used to improve agriculture as a whole.

The farmer has always looked up to the clouds when making decisions, soon he will need to start looking at the new cloud because it will become every bit as important in the decision making process!

CongRegation © Eoin Kennedy 2017 eoin at congregation dot ie