The Potholes Of Poor Digital Infrastructure

Precision agriculture suffers from its own crumbling infrastructure. ( MGN )

As autonomous car technology looks to push the driver out of the driver’s seat, plenty of obstacles must be overcome. The biggest problems may not come from these high-tech cars but from the infrastructure on which they must drive to get from point A to point B. 

After the winter we’ve had here in the Midwest, the roads and streets are peppered with potholes. Body shops and front-end alignment businesses are the only ones who have seen a silver lining. Meanwhile, this and just poor infrastructure in general mean autonomous automobile technology may work well on a test strip in Arizona but will likely be held up because the real world simply isn’t ready for a car out there on its own.

Precision agriculture suffers from its own crumbling infrastructure. In this case, though, the problem is digital potholes instead of the asphalt and concrete craters you experience while driving on the interstate. I would contend the No. 1 “precision pothole” holding back much of tomorrow’s ag tech is the lack of good “digital” field boundaries. Yes, the simple, boring but absolutely essential digital field boundary is still the kingpin for almost all precision operations whether it is making a variable-rate seeding map work in your planter or now telling your autonomous grain cart where to go. Everything from the imagery snapshots monitoring fields to the tried-and-true basic yield map needs a boundary to be relevant. 

The field boundary is the sacred cup or the container that holds or should hold all of the “digital water” that now flows in today’s agricultural environment. The central issue is there still isn’t a really good protocol for digitizing field boundaries. It is still the Wild West, and the problem is getting worse, not better. In fact, I would contend it’s much worse.

The first problem is a digital field boundary is treated almost as an afterthought as part of the whole dealing-with-data process, but it should be the first thought. It should be the single set of tracks on which the precision train runs, but as the number of digital agronomy and precision apps has exploded during the past few years, all of these tools have one thing in common. They need field boundaries. Fine. Then what happens? Most likely, instead of using some existing or common set of boundaries, new ones are created for each app. Think about it. You have applications such as MyJohnDeere, Climate FieldView, Farmers Business Network, Farmobile, FarmLogs and the list now goes on and on. If a grower is using more than one digital application, then the odds of his or her field boundaries in each application being the same across the board is probably slim to none. You’d have better odds sitting at the blackjack table in Vegas or being struck by lightning twice.

The government tried to “fix” this issue several years ago. USDA’s Farm Service Agency and Risk Management Agency settled on using a “standard” called the common land unit (CLU). The idea, spirit and intent of the CLU were good, but it certainly has not turned out to be the savior or standard for which the industry had hoped. From the start, CLUs were not the “best” boundaries because it became very clear early on that there was a stark difference between a CLU used for governmental reporting purposes and one needed for use in the real world as the basis for things like a spreader truck applying a variable-rate prescription. Then came the legal issues of whether CLUs could even be released and used publicly, which probably derailed any chance for the CLU to become the standard.

There are no easy answers, but the sobering truth is that someone must take ownership of making sure that there is a “template” that all parties work from instead of everyone making up one as they go. This means everyone, including the agronomist, seed dealer, input supplier, applicator, insurance agent and every adviser and every app, is singing from the same hymn book, and at the end of the day, the choir director in all of this is the grower farming those fields.

It is only logical that ownership and responsibility should land in the lap of the grower who farms those fields or the rightful landowner. In today’s digital world, the digital field boundary should in practice be treated with the same reverence as you would the deed to the land that it outlines. Just as in the real world where you wouldn’t have two deeds to a tract of land, you realistically should not have two or more digital boundaries.

Why is this important? Because if we truly are going to farm in a world that values data, then the container holding all of that data had better be right, and you’d better know who owns it. If data are going to flow and digital applications are going to work, then data must flow into the right containers. If industry and societal initiatives such as blockchain and sustainability are to work, it is all going to start with—you guessed it—the boundary. If not, then the future of digital agriculture is going to be a bumpy one for some time to come.