MILWAUKEE — Digital connectivity is the key to agriculture’s future. Without ubiquitous connectivity, ag cannot fully embrace the new tools and technologies that will enable it to meet the productivity and sustainability demands of tomorrow.
“We’ve done a number of studies and spent a lot of time with farmers to gather insights on the sustainable practices they are using,” said Nate Birt, vice president of Trust In Food, AEM member Farm Journal’s sustainable agriculture division. “Unless farmers are able to capture data to quantify the things they are doing, it will be very difficult for them to qualify for new programs and markets in the more digitized economy that is developing.”
Capturing and sharing data requires connectivity, both on the farm and in the field. That requires more than just a myopic approach to closing the connectivity gap.
“The GPS satellite part of connectivity is pretty good, so farmers are generally able to get the positioning information they need,” said Andy Theisen, senior application engineer at AEM member company Kondex Corporation. “But farmers also need constant machine connectivity, yield map data, and other real-time data from things like weather and soil sensors. For a good portion of the country, the capabilities aren’t very good right now.”
As presented in AEM’s Future of Food Production whitepaper, just 25% of U.S. farms currently use connected equipment or devices to access data. Lack of adequate broadband coverage has been a big reason why. But that gap is already beginning to narrow. Tens of billions of dollars of state and federal funding have poured into rural broadband infrastructure, largely the installation of fiber optic cable. In many areas around the country, even the smallest of farms in the smallest of communities now have access to high-speed internet.
In late July, the USDA announced several new projects as part of its ReConnect Program, which furnishes loans and grants for the construction, improvement, or acquisition of facilities and equipment needed to provide broadband service in eligible rural areas. One project is in a rural area of Nevada where a $27 million grant will help deploy a fiber-to-the-premises network for 4,884 people and 22 farms. Through another project in Arkansas, a $12 million grant will help establish a network connecting 966 people and 145 farms.
There are many facets related to connectivity
While fiber optic is an important aspect of closing the connectivity gap, it is not a silver bullet. “Being connected” in a rural agricultural environment means several things. Equipment and sensors out in a remote field need their own connectivity solution. Expansion of existing systems including 5G towers and LEOs (low earth orbit satellites) can play a role in closing that gap. In the longer term, however, new solutions could come to the forefront.
Agricultural connectivity also encompasses more than the technologies and infrastructure that enable digital connections. As Birt pointed out, being connected is about having the right equipment and technology tools that can capture and share data, along with a stable of experts who can help farmers troubleshoot, analyze and make it all work. Most of all, agricultural connectivity requires an open mind and willingness to embrace change.
According to Birt, Trust In Food’s research shows that farmers who are already finding success with data have a passion for it and are willing to endure some trial and error.
“I would describe this group as the early adopters,” Birt said. “On the other hand, there is a large segment of farmers who won’t necessarily be the first in line to get a new smartphone that just came out. They are curious, passionate and see the opportunities, but don’t have time to deal with the hassle of chasing data that is frequently stored in multiple places. So, integrating data is another challenge the industry must overcome in coming years.
“Carbon markets are a great example,” Birt continued. “According to our research, 90% of farmers are simply waiting to see if something like this is right for them, or they are waiting for improvements such as a reduction in the amount of paperwork required or the streamlining of data capture. One of our core pursuits at Trust In Food is raising visibility of these connectivity gaps that exist. We’re also identifying ways to create programming and resources to help farmers begin closing their own data gaps by making it easier and more cost-effective.”
Theisen agrees that connectivity gaps currently exist on many levels. Over the next 10 years, gaps will begin closing one by one, creating additional momentum each step along the way.
“When it comes to farmers’ adoption of some of these new technologies, there are a lot of factors that play into it,” Theisen said. “I hate to say it, but one simply has to do with age. The age of the average farmer is pretty high. When I’m in the field with dealers and farmers, it’s clear that the younger generation wants to utilize a lot of this technology. It’s also clear to see what the major equipment manufacturers are doing. A lot of the more recent equipment changes haven’t been on the hardware side. The investment and changes have been on the software side of things with sensors and the ability for more automation. From that standpoint, we’re already heading down a path where connectivity is going to be required.
“So, I think a lot of big changes will happen all around the same time,” Theisen continued. “A lot of infrastructure gaps will continue to close on their own over the next several years. The age of farm equipment operators will continue getting younger. Then you will see a fairly rapid adoption of this technology over the next 10 years.”
Obstacles create opportunities
According to Thiesen, it’s important to understand that “over the next 10 years” might not sound like a lot of time. But with as fast as technology changes, significant advancements can take place over that timeframe.
Regardless of which connectivity solutions are developed and utilized, funding will continue to be a critical piece of closing the gap.
Another piece to consider is how connectivity-enabled data can actually help farmers. As Birt pointed out, historical data in and of itself is not always the most useful.
“What is important is being able to take all of that historical data into perspective in order to project future trends,” Birt said. How can the farmer use data to make decisions on purchasing, planting or applications? There are many facets of a farming operation, creating a tremendous opportunity for farmers to use data to better manage their operations.
To capitalize on that opportunity, it’s important for agriculture industry stakeholders to think holistically about the connectivity needs of the countryside. Connectivity is needed at farmers’ homes and offices, as well as in the field to upload data from equipment and sensors to the cloud.
“Connectivity is also about connecting that real-time data with advisors who can make recommendations to farmers,” Birt said. “It’s a complicated opportunity, but an opportunity nonetheless to make sure farmers have the access, bandwidth and knowledge needed to continue doing their jobs.”
About the Association of Equipment Manufacturers (AEM)
AEM is the North America-based international trade group representing off-road equipment manufacturers and suppliers with more than 1,000 companies and more than 200 product lines in the agriculture and construction-related industry sectors worldwide. The equipment manufacturing industry in the United States supports 2.8 million jobs and contributes roughly $288 billion to the economy every year.
— Association of Equipment Manufacturers