Smart farmers

Background last update:20 May 2020

‘COVID-19 pandemic will push digitisation of farms’

Future Farming asked Wade Barnes, CEO of Farmers Edge, 5 questions about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on farming.

Wade Barnes is the co-founder and CEO of Farmers Edge. His company develops data-driven technologies to help farmers run efficient operations. Farmers Edge collects data from on-farm weather stations, telematics devices satellite imagery and soil sampling. Data from across farms is integrated, analysed and made available in the FarmCommand platform.

Future Farming talked to Wade Barnes about the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on farming. Farmers Edge raises concerns over the fact that the outbreak of the coronavirus could for instance leads to shortages in fertiliser and pesticides.

Why does Farmers Edge think that the coronavirus pandemic may cause local shortages in fertilisers and pesticides?

“By some estimates, 80 percent of crop protection products have at least one ingredient from China, where COVID-19 has caused a slowdown in production. At the start of the growing season, a primary concern was the possibility of a fertiliser and phosphorus shortage, but I understand that the availability of these products isn’t something farmers need to be concerned about.”

“Fungicide applications are still a while away, but know that the active ingredients in fungicide, and the products themselves, need to be formulated and shipped now; any slowdown in production could have a ripple effect and result in a product shortage.”

What can new technology really do to prevent those impending shortages?

“Technology can help you better plan for shortages. If nitrogen is affected by a production slowdown in China, growers can adjust the rate of application. Our Advanced Benchmarking Analytics, for example, can provide growers with data to back up any last-minute crop change decisions, such as assessing how much nitrogen can be applied based on the supply that is available to them.”

“Although it’s not a new technology, we‘re also starting to see more uptake in Variable Rate (VR) Technology. Phosphorus can be reduced in areas that have the lowest response potential and instead applied where the opportunity for a better response is highest, such as areas with low organic matter and low PPM (parts per million).”

Text continues underneath image

Wade Barnes: "Farmers will embrace more digital solutions to scout their fields, to work with agronomists, to digitally connect with their insurance agents and banks." - Photo: Farmers Edge
Wade Barnes: "Farmers will embrace more digital solutions to scout their fields, to work with agronomists, to digitally connect with their insurance agents and banks." - Photo: Farmers Edge

Representatives of suppliers and advisers such as agronomists can now find it more difficult to enter the farmyard. How can technology help farmers to stay in touch with their advisors?

“The COVID-19 pandemic will push the digitisation of farms. Planting season brings about a lot of interaction. Laborers are back on the farm. Seed companies, agronomists, bankers, insurance agents all start coming on the farm, and most service dozens of other farms, so the risk is increased exponentially. Shoulder-to-shoulder was the standard way to do business, but not anymore. First, growers should develop their own plans to ensure visitors to their farms are taking precautionary measures.”

“Our commitment has always been to foster a digital connection between growers and the trusted advisors they do business with, whether that be seed supplier, equipment dealers, or insurance agent, etc.”

A connected farm has the digital tools to make better informed, long-lasting decisions during this time

“Growers have the option of sharing all required as-planted, as-applied, and as-harvested data for acreage and production reporting to one of the many insurance providers we‘ve partnered with, without the agent needing to visit the farm. They can choose to share imagery-derived Scouting Maps with their agronomist to identify the location of variabilities in the field and enable precise, directed scouting; review, and prioritise issues that may limit yield potential, and record observations to access later in the season.”

“As a leader in digital agriculture, connectivity is our guiding principle. We were already equipped with the technology to conduct our business remotely. We‘ve had to make some adjustments along the way to ensure there are no interruptions to the service our customers expect from us.”

“We instituted very stringent “Safe Work Procedures” to protect our employees, our growers, and partners early on. We developed an authorisation process that both our employees and growers must agree upon before any visits are made to their farm, and it has been well-received by our growers.”

In Europe, farmers are mainly affected by a sudden drop in prices of milk, potatoes and flowers. The demand has in some cases completely disappeared. Does new technology have an answer to this?

“Nothing upsets a farmer more than dumping milk or produce. Grain can be stored – but perishable items like raw milk can’t be put away. We are hearing that contracts for potatoes are being cut back in North America because restaurants aren’t open. The reality is you can’t change the supply chain so quickly. One moment food is being dumped; a few months later, there could be a shortage.”

“The real wild card is if China enters the global market and starts buying lots of grains. Commodity prices may be low in the fall or they may be high. That’s hard to predict.”

Do you think the way of farming will change permanently after the coronavirus pandemic? If so, in which areas?

“Well, I do find some comfort in the story of an older farmer who had his first-ever Zoom video call and replied, “Wow, that wasn’t so difficult!” I believe this pandemic will have some broad impacts. Farmers will embrace more digital solutions to scout their fields, to work with agronomists, to digitally connect with their insurance agents and banks. A connected farm has the digital tools to make better informed, long-lasting decisions during this time. This will bring to light that the suppliers, retailers, and dealers farmers choose to do business with will have to adopt digital solutions too.”

“This is the first time in my career that people not involved in agriculture have come to me asking, “Will the farmers be planting this year?” People are now worried about agriculture – and in some ways that’s a good thing as people used to take it for granted. Farming is an essential service – people need to eat.”

Or register to be able to comment.