New farming technologies can be expensive, and for many up-and-coming tools, useful results are not guaranteed.
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The fear of investing in lackluster tools is a barrier to the adoption of precision technologies. According to ag-tech researchers, however, understanding the development trajectory of new technologies can help farmers determine what might work best for them, and which could use more development time.
Why it matters: Knowing where a given technology sits on the development curve can help determine effectiveness and risk. Investment still could be a good idea, though.
However, they also caution against not adopting — or at least trying — new tools in light of uncertainty, lest growers get left behind.
Five stages of development
Agricultural technology researchers John Sulik and Scott Shearer, professors from the University of Guelph and Ohio State University, respectively, describe technological development as occurring on a “hype curve” with five stages. It begins with an innovation trigger — the stage when a new technology is being conceived and then initially tested. This is followed by a hype phase, then a “trough of disillusionment” as farmers realize results don’t necessarily match the marketing hype. Most tools subsequently reach a “slope of enlightenment” stage, where kinks have been worked out and adoption rates climb to a plateau.
New tools can fail to live up to initial hype for any number of reasons, says Shearer, including not enough work being done in the development phase, or being too ahead of its time. Whether the tool in question supports profitability is, of course, critical, and it can sometimes take a while for research to prove whether something is or is not effective.
“(Required)” indicates required fields
Sulik says data latency in satellite imaging, for example, has been a historic problem when it comes to generating useful and timely field observations. This led many potential users to find other imaging solutions, but more frequent access to satellites, better infrastructure to move information, and other improvements have helped satellite imaging again gain traction in recent years.
“There are enough applications for it that I think it has earned its place on the slope of enlightenment now,” says Sulik.
Shearer says sectional control offers an example of a technology that moved from hype to near-universal adoption, at least on the part of equipment manufacturers, thanks to a straightforward return on investment.
“I think this is one of those technologies we look at today, and say every machine ought to have it, and by the way, I don’t know that there are many sprayers, or self-propelled sprayers, that are sold without this technology,” says Shearer.
“It’s one of those proven technologies. It returns money to the farmer. The farmer can basically recover the cost of that technology usually in under two years. It just one of those no brainers, if you will.”
Other technologies have not managed to climb out of the trough, though. In the case of plant sensors, for example, Sulik says the technology thus far does not work well despite lots of work being invested.
In the case of machine-to-machine communication, Shearer says the problem can stem from a lack of foundational technologies.
“Do farmers have that connectivity to take advantage of some of the new tools?” he says, referring to the ever-growing challenge of moving vast amounts of data across landscapes often devoid of internet connectivity.
Ian McDonald, crop innovations specialist with the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, adds that transferring farmer experience into algorithmic code remains a barrier, particularly in automation.
“We have to take our innate farmer knowledge and transcribe that onto paper that the engineers can then program into the brains of those autonomous units,” says McDonald, while hosting an Ontario Agricultural Conference session with Sulik and Shearer.
“Otherwise, they have no idea what to do and without good translation of farmer knowledge, they’re never going to perform to farmer expectations.”
No need to buy it all
There is a vast array of technologies making their way along the hype curve. Which one individual farmers should adopt depends on many factors. Sulik and Shearer encourage farmers to look for technologies which have a more straightforward path to return on investment for their unique circumstances.
In cases where someone is interested in a specific capability but purchasing it is not feasible, hiring service providers can be an effective means of accessing the technology without significant investment risk.
“The last thing I would want to buy and have to maintain for myself is a million-dollar robot that scans for weeds and applies herbicide, because I don’t want to have to fix that or deal with amortizing the cost,” says Sulik.
“Robotics as a service and different kind of service offerings, especially when it comes to technology that’s complex, looking at those service options are probably ways to try to enter.”
Shearer expresses a similar sentiment.
“One of the things that’s going to become more common is what we call farming as a service. [Businesses] are going to provide some of these tech-based services to farmers, obviously for a fee, but it’s going to be a way for all farmers to share in this technology revolution that’s ongoing today,” Shearer says.
Like it or not, he and Sulik add farmers should understand the pace of change does not slow — it accelerates. Farmers must try to get more comfortable with this reality.
“If you wait until all those technologies are on the far right of the curve, that’s when your competition is going to be ahead of you. I would encourage people to tinker around with whatever technologies you think might fit in your operation,” says Sulik.
“Part of the reason a lot of these large businesses in agriculture will buy start-ups, even if they don’t totally understand what they’re doing is because they realize they don’t want to get left behind.”