I am struck by the amount of doubts I hear about the benefits that data-driven arable farming will eventually bring to farmers.
The older generation of farmers and farm managers – by far the biggest group – want their farming to be profitable right away. If no extra profit is guaranteed, then it’s no smart farming for them. They are sceptics, so to speak.
Last year in the Netherlands, there was only minimal uptake of – in my view – a very appealing offer to become acquainted with smart farming.
Via their (cooperative) supplier, arable farmers were offered the opportunity to get drone images of their winter wheat. So for a fee of €17.50/ha, an expert would discuss with the farmer what the footage of their crops revealed.
Practically no one made use of the offer. Their argument: who guarantees me that spending €17.50 per hectare will pay off through an increase in yield or lower costs?
But there are also arable farmers who have embraced smart farming and have been collecting data for several years. When asked about the benefits, they will sign, before admitting that they have not succeeded in drawing conclusions from all this data that is supposed to lead to superior quality, higher yields and/or lower costs.
I spoke with an arable farmer on sandy soil in the north-east of the Netherlands and another in the south-west on clay soil. Both were fanatics when it came to data-driven arable farming. And both concluded that collecting data is one thing, but benefitting from it was another thing.
These two enthusiasts may not have serious doubts, but I think I heard some disappointment in their voices. One comfort is that they are not alone in that.
Earlier this month, Robert Berendes of the Swiss consultancy A-Connect spoke at the Crop, Business & Innovation conference in Amsterdam. He had high expectations of the benefits smart farming would bring the agri and food chain, but admitted that data-driven arable farming would be very difficult for the individual farmer.
He said: “It is a misconception, a hype, that acquiring a great deal of data has value. Arable farming is very complex.”
But even if it is beneficial in the long term, according to Robert, it remains questionable whether farmers will benefit from it. Smart farming does not necessarily go hand in hand with redistribution of the margins to result in more profit for the farmer.
“Smart farming does not change economic patterns. Profits go to the concentration points in the food chain and these are not the farms.”
This is a bitter message. However, I do believe that farmers should still embrace smart farming. I recommend that farmers at least get acquainted with smart farming, know what is going on and take part in trials when they are offered to them.
Avoiding smart farming is the wrong strategy for those who plan to stay in farming. Be part of it.