The speed of change can be frightening and frustrating for farmers trying to understand how new technology can benefit their businesses.
This was recently exemplified in a small community event hosted by Farm Credit Canada – our national agricultural loan and finance crown corporation.
Grain, livestock, and horticultural growers from my corner of Southwestern Ontario gathered for a discussion and advice on how they can keep-up with the cycle of agricultural technology without being overwhelmed.
Presenter Peter Gredig – a well-known Ontario journalist, farmer, and ag-tech authority – also tried to impart methods of discerning useful products from those which are overhyped and less relevant.
The speed with which new tech is produced and marketed is a major problem, according to Gredig. He contextualizes this with the example of no-till, which absorbed constant attention for 12 to 15 years. That same mass of attention is now given to new technologies, though in a period of months.
How then, Gredig asks, can farmers determine which products are valuable tools, and which are a waste of time?
The answer lies in critical thinking and perspective shift. More specifically, that means identifying specific problems, looking for specific solutions, and not getting caught up in using products that only serve to complicate.
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For example, Gredig describes his use of an operational settings program in his combine. The product, he says, allowed him to pre-set all operation specifications so any other driver can quickly climb into the cab, hit the set button, and continue harvesting in the same way.
Except Gredig is the only operator for his combine. The program and the frustration it caused – setting and maintaining it was not a quick process – made the effort irrelevant and a waste of valuable time.
Drones, he says, are another example of a much-hyped technology with a wide-range of agricultural applications. However, it’s also one not practical for many farmers – particularly given the availability of satellite-based technologies that offer much the same analytical agronomic services. Such satellite services can often be substantially cheaper than buying a drone of useful size, and can be used without having to worry about legal issues like no-fly zones, licensing, and so on.
“Often it’s not the first product that turns out to be the winner, it’s often the second or third one,” says Gredig. “Don’t get caught up in the hype-cycle.”
He went on to say new tech is most effective when adopted incrementally. This sentiment received positive reinforcement from several attending farmers who expressed feeling overwhelmed with the amount of tech available on new equipment.
A great way to do this, says Gredig, is by experimenting with and “being fearless” with your phone. This includes experimenting with apps to find those which best support your business, staying connected through twitter, using programs like face-time to help diagnose machinery problems from a distance, and so on.
These ideas might not be revolutionary, but they are examples of practical and inexpensive ways farmers can get their feet wet while making technology work.
Just know how to use your phone to help solve problems
“I’m challenging you to think about what we can do with this technology, because the people [developing it] are not thinking about your farm,” says Gredig. “Just know how to use your phone to help solve problems.”
To that end, Gredig says another issue is the difficulty of measuring clear benefits, and encouraged said farmers to individualy consider the potential cost reduction, as well as cost avoidance, of each.
Things like GPS, he says, have clear and very tangible money-saving benefits (it pays to drive in straight lines). The “soft benefits” of something like a milking robot, however, are much harder to quantify.
Perhaps, says Gredig, they make more sense on smaller farms where labour pressure is high, as opposed to a large operation where there are always employees available to milk cows. Either way, the producer using it must be able to account for reductions and avoidance in cost and capital that they value.
That is to say, does the milking robot save you enough time – assuming time is what you’re after – to make the investment worth it? If not, you either need different tech, or a different metric.
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The connectivity of new tech can be a good thing, but as most modern folks likely know, it raises substantial security concerns as well. With this in mind, Gredig ended his presentation by reinforcing the need to take extra security steps when using or looking for new tech.
This includes developing habits as basic as regularly changing passwords – something which many of us don’t do enough in our personal lives, let alone in our businesses – and not giving away information just because someone asks for it. Using password manager programs that regularly spur the user into action, for example, can help.
“If you take one thing away today, it’s you need to change the password on your router. it’s the gateway to everything […] change it once a year” Gredig says. “Data is like money. Pick the best bank, the best data storage, and the best manager.”
Also read: Data ownership questions – and why they’re important