Precision Ag Harmony May Be On The Horizon Or In The Clouds

“It may be because of the continued economic challenges of ag, or maybe, just maybe we’re finally realizing precision ag has been stuck in a rut for way too long, and it’s time for a change.” ( MGN )

You cannot have grown up in the 1970s and not have the “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing (In Perfect Harmony)” jingle rattling inside your head. Yes, it’s the Coca-Cola song, and it just gushes out positive messages of love and hope that can only be found in that ice-cold bottle of carbonated elixir.

The world of precision agriculture needs a Coca-Cola moment. For far too long, promises of data flowing freely from the farms and the skies and coming together for the good of the farmer have continued to hit sour notes. Proprietary software programs, multiple one-trick pony apps and hardware that doesn’t play nice have pretty much defined the cynical aspects of this industry to date.

At one big ag tech event this summer, there were signs of hope that the forces of precision ag may be starting to come together. There is a rare sense of urgency in the air. When you hear statements like “we want to connect directly to your software” or “we’d like to plug in and share data via your API” (application program interface), you realize the course of the discussion has changed. Simplified, it’s geek speak for “can’t we all just get along?”

From its beginnings, the world of ag tech was unique and certainly danced to the beat of its own drum. And just like in the Coca-Cola commercial, it was diverse in its ideas and scope. But now, there is increasing sobriety among those in the industry that in order to move forward, data must flow as freely as water on the Colorado River in springtime. Ironically, it looks increasingly likely it will be the industry “outsiders” who end up being the ones who bring this whole thing together, not the trailblazers who each forged separate paths from where we’ve been to where we are now.

For a case-in-point, it was the tech giant Microsoft that’s headlined two of last precision ag conferences I’ve attended. The firm’s elevator pitch talks about bringing real-time data in from the fields using TV white space frequency technology and its online cloud computer services. Meanwhile, several of the companies exhibiting at these conferences have touted that their platforms are now running on the AWS cloud—short for Amazon Web Services. It’s almost like a badge of honor because now being on AWS is the industry equivalent of having a seat at the cool kids’ table in junior high school. And don’t forget IBM’s super-smart supercomputer, called Watson, that’s into weather prediction and blockchain. And last but not least, don’t forget big tech’s heaviest heavyweight—Google. No explanation needed here as Google pretty much runs the world without most of us realizing it.

It may be because of the continued economic challenges of ag, or maybe, just maybe we’re finally realizing precision ag has been stuck in a rut for way too long, and it’s time for a change. Whatever it is, it seems more and more companies and the people leading them are waking up to the fact that the lone ranger approach doesn’t work the way it had. Instead, they’re realizing more than ever that cloud computing and wireless connectivity may be the elixir making data truly actionable in the real-time capacity that has been lacking. 

For far too long, we’ve been content with using data like we’re looking in a rearview mirror. Doing something about it “next year” based on “this year’s” data doesn’t help with making needed decisions in the heat of battle, and frankly, a lot of chips are being left on the table.

There was a time when I said that precision ag needed a Bill Gates or Steve Jobs to build a common “platform” that could “standardize” the industry around “common” operating platforms like Microsoft Windows or Mac OS. I may have been wrong in my original analysis but not the overall vision. You see, instead of moving closer and closer to a “common” precision ag platform to serve the industry, I think we’ve seen we actually are moving further and further away from such a reality. At first take, it may sound like a bad thing, but I think it is a very healthy thing. Here’s why.
A single platform—or farm management system as it is known in the industry—to service all growers and retail aspects of precision ag would be a bloated Titanic of a system. Instead of one or two complex “ships,” we will be much better off with scores of ships of all sizes that float on two or three precision oceans. Those “oceans” will be the data clouds like Amazon, Microsoft, IBM and others that provide the freedom for data to sail freely from port to port, system to system. Only then will you start to perform “holistic” analysis from multiple data sources and reap the full benefits of true “decision” agriculture. 

The cloud and related technologies can and will do just that.

They say a rising tide floats all boats. Isn’t it past time for the precision ag sector to unfurl its sails and see where this voyage takes us?