Precision Agriculture, Decision Ag—What’s in Your Cloud?

Update–May 2015:

** Precision Ag is already yesterday’s news–now it’s “Decision Ag.”  This article looks at merging and using all that Big Data.

** Silicon Valley wants in on the Ag Data ride. Google pumped $15 million into a farming-focused technology startup, the latest in a surge of investments, applying Internet innovations to growing food.

December 2014: In this video/article, a seventh-generation family farmer says, “I’m hooked on a drug of information and productivity.” But he and most farmers know that the new tech-driven agriculture has plenty of positives and possible drawbacks.

As one expert says, “We are in an era of using data to make decisions.” He suggests this will lead to a wave of connectivity, information sharing, and consultations with “decision-makers.” Precision ag is rolling in faster than you can say Big Data.
What’s in Your Cloud? “Blurred Vision” Ag?

I’m all for tech that makes life more efficient, safer, and maybe even more fun. After all, who wants to plant corn like my grandpa did, with clunky two-row planters and flatulent horses. Data feedback then was learning that your planter box wasn’t dropping seed or your cantankerous mule had decided to lie down for a spell. Data feedback now concerns planting depth, GPS adjustments, and split screens that feature the football scores along with the latest grain markets.

Another ag expert says farmers need to learn how to play well with others, because this precision ag movement will connect them to a trusted network of advisers. I assume that means all the numbers a farmer gathers—cost, input, seeds planted, fertilizer used, soil quality, etc.—will be crunched by the group that is in the cloud, and they will give advice so farming can be more efficient and profitable. No doubt they will also try to sell upgrades, enhancements, and even more digital devices, but there is no free lunch–unless you head to our small town on the days the local gas station is providing a chili and pie lunch for customer appreciation day.
That one-stoplight town is where Grandpa’s cloud used to be. The technical advisers and research analysts were known then as the old boys who gathered at the hardware store, the grain elevator, or maybe at Henry’s tavern. The cloud was not only virtual—it had a concrete fog of cigarette smoke and a few empty coffee cans to collect tobacco juice. And the advice then might have been less technical. “Frank, your boots still have hog manure on ‘em. Reckon you could hose ‘em off next time ya come in or are you just tryin’ to improve the ambience in here?”
The members of Grandpa’s cloud were also a bit less cordial when they interfaced with fellow farmers about data they’d gathered while driving the country roads. “When ya gonna ship those horses of yours off to the glue factory, Berry?” or “Dan’s still got some harvesting to do before he can plant a new crop. Maybe he thinks corn is nature’s snow fence.”
Grandpa’s analog type of cloud connectivity was slower than today’s satellite-driven info, but it could be crucial to a farmer’s success. An analyst in bib overalls might explain to a young farmer how to set the cultivator gangs so the shovels would tear out weeds and not corn. And it might take a growing season or two, but eventually the group would convert from “I sure as hell ain’t payin’ $5 a bag for this new hybrid corn stuff” to “I hear the new corn stands taller and the yield is much higher—guess it’s time to switch over.”
These precision ag systems will have plenty of benefits, and few would want to farm using the old ways. But the analog cloud had several positives: it was cheaper—usually the cost of a cup of coffee and a donut or two; it was more social—a bit of good-natured sarcasm from a friend sippin’ coffee at Pooch’s gas station is preferable to a Siri-type voice suggesting that you adjust the chemical flow in your sprayer; and it was less intrusive—you didn’t have a screen mounted in front of you, a smartphone in hand, and a cab overhead. For better or worse, Grandpa could watch an eagle swooping low along the creek, and he could tell which way the wind was blowing by feeling it on his face.  
by dan gogerty (top graphic from, bottom one from blog.myspace.jpg)

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