Agtech Sounds Good For Some, Not All

In the wake of “next big thing” concepts like the Internet of things (IoT) and big data, even analog farmers cannot escape the onslaught of aggressive salespersons trying to hook them on related products. On paper and in theory, the plethora of sensors, software, and embedded interface systems offered under the banner of agriculture technology, agtech for short, all seem logical extensions of current farming practices. However, farmers may not be very interested.

In a July 2016 article in Fortune magazine titled “The E-Harvest”, editor Jennifer Alsever points out that investment in agtech is escalating, but asks are the farmers buying it. She points out certain examples where many of the new technologies are not viable on the farm.

One example is a system of sensors and software that would track a lot of the farmer’s necessary data such as fuel usage, pesticide and fertilizing schedules, yield data, etc. The system would cost the user about $25K per machine and the farmer would not own the collected data. How that works out about the data is a mystery, but be that as it may.

Other stories involve large investments in systems that work for a while before sensors planted in the fields start to fail. Horror stories involving startup companies that sell costly systems then either fold or change directions, leaving the farmer with a tone of useless “next big things”.

Then there are the simplest reasons why some farmers are not in a hurry to embrace emerging technologies. First, the technology in question may be far more than is necessary and/or more complex than the farmer’s needs. Second, farmers are skeptical because they cannot afford to experiment on a harvest that fails, causing a year or more’s loss of income.

It all makes sense, and erring on the side of caution is not always a bad thing. However, the outlook for agtech innovation and sales is quite bright. There are numerous success stories out there, one of them being Libelium’s Waspmote system. The low-power system includes sensors for temperature, humidity, pH, and other parameters, sensor boards, software for cloud computing and data collection, and a wireless interface for remote programming, monitoring, and data collection.

Libelium’s Waspmote system

One other aspect that’s sort of glanced over is how a lot of farmers are more “hands-on” involved with agriculture and tend to stick with methods they know that work. Some are not as tech savvy as those in other disciplines and arts and tend to shy away from any undue complexities. They know all too well that computers and software work great until you really need them to.

Farmers like to stick with methods known to work.

In a lot of cases, as per Ms. Alsever’s article, a growing number of farm workers speak little or no English, making it difficult to train them in the use of complex technologies. Also, that training can be quite costly on a number of levels.

Migrant farm workers are slow in learning new tech due to language barriers.

But investments still accelerate in the agtech market. Some think that there may be a bubble forming that may likely burst depending on acceptance or whichever way the economy goes impingent on upcoming elections, another “big thing” we can’t escape from. Either way, we’ll have to wait and see. In the meanwhile, we can fantasize about IoT-enabled rutabagas. ~MD

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