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Agriculture Technology Podcast: Precision Ag Adoption

Agriculture Technology Podcast: Precision Agriculture Adoption

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Dr. Bruce Erickson, Education Distance and Outreach Director at Purdue Agronomy, joins host Tony Kramer on another episode of the Agriculture Technology Podcast to discuss the Dealer Precision Survey.

But this week’s episode is focused on Precision Ag Adoption – not just here in the US, but globally. What is the research telling us? What is the data pointing to? And what are the experts saying?

Bruce and Tony dive in in Ep. #94 Precision Agriculture Adoption. Take a listen here:

Related podcast: Episode #93: Precision Dealer Survey 

Or, you can catch the entire transcript here:

Tony Kramer: Hey, this is Tony Kramer product specialist with RDO Equipment Company and you are listening to the Agriculture Technology Podcast.


Every day there are phenomenal advancements being made in the field of agriculture technology. RDO Equipment Company is a leader in agriculture equipment and precision agriculture technology and is here with industry experts bringing the latest news and information from RDO and John Deere. Thanks for joining us on the Agriculture Technology Podcast.

Welcome back to another episode of the podcast. This is Episode 94. Today we're going to be talking about precision agriculture adoption. Before we dive into the show, please take a moment to subscribe to this podcast. If you haven't already, you can subscribe to the show on the many podcasting apps that we're streaming this to such as Apple's podcasting app. We have it on Stitcher, Overcast, SoundCloud, as well as many others. While you're out there, drop us a review. We'd really like to hear what you think about the show. Lastly, make sure to follow RDO Equipment Company on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and catch all of our latest videos packed full of information on YouTube. You can also follow me on Twitter @RDOTonyK.

Now with that, let's get back to the show. I'm really excited to welcome back Dr. Bruce Erickson. I was lucky enough to get him for our last episode, episode number 93, where we talked about the precision dealer survey where Dr. Erickson is very involved in that. If you're interested, you want to hear a little bit more about that, I encourage you to go back to episode number 93. Listen to that episode in what we talked about there. Again, Dr. Erickson is back on the show for this next episode. Dr. Erickson is the education distance & outreach director at Purdue University. Thanks again for joining me on the show, again, for a second time, Dr. Erickson, to talk about the precision agriculture adoption. Before we get into that, why don't you give us another brief introduction on yourself and how you got involved in this industry?

Dr. Bruce Erickson : Tony, I'm glad you invited me back. That must not have been too bad on that previous one, I guess. It's what I'm reading into this. I'm an Iowa farm kid. Took my first position out of Iowa State as an agronomist for Pioneer Hi-Bred in Western Iowa. Then came to Purdue where I got my PhD, did consulting work in Indianapolis with a company. Then came back to Purdue, did Site-Specific Management Center and Top Farmer Workshop there. I had a stint as the education manager for the American Society of Agronomy, our professional society where I started doing online classes.

Then currently, what I do is I run an academy of three online classes. We're actually building more classes. There is a beginning agronomy class. These are each 12-week classes, all fully online. There's a precision agriculture class and a nutrient management class. We've had over 1,300 students that have taken these classes. It's been a been a very successful program. I'm really glad to be here talking to everyone today.

Tony: The last episode that we had you on, we talked about the precision dealer survey and how you are involved with that and getting those results and compiling those. Today, what we're going to talk about is the adoption of precision agriculture throughout the world. I believe you guys at Purdue University, you do a little bit of research and some studying on what that looks like in conjunction with that precision dealer survey. Let's talk a little bit about that. The first thing I want to ask and I love asking this question because I get a lot of the same answers, but a lot of different variations of that same answers.

What is the definition of precision agriculture?

Dr. Erickson: You asked me a question that's impossible to answer, I must say. Thanks a lot for that is what I'll tell you back. There's a lot of confusion about that. Some people call it precision farming. It's digital agriculture. It's smart farming. The International Society of Precision Agriculture actually sent out some candidate definitions to their membership. They settled on this. Precision agriculture is a management strategy that uses electronic information and other technologies to gather, process, and analyze spatial and temporal data for the purpose of guiding targeted actions to improve efficiency, productivity, and sustainability of agricultural operations.

That's quite a long statement there but you can find dozens of somewhat different definitions. I think that speaks to the complexity of precision agriculture too because it's not just one thing, it's not something that's easily defined. That's a set of related technologies. Some of them are GPS related. They all have electronics as part of them but we're trying to do the right thing in the field in the right place at the right time.

Let me tell you part of the reason why we wanted to do this particular article. Tony already mentioned the precision dealer survey that we do every couple of years and we've done for 20 years. That's our survey but we wanted, a colleague of mine and I, wanted to review all the surveys that-- Let me say all the surveys because I don't remember how many surveys we reviewed. I forgot to count them before talking to you here.

They're very difficult to find. You just don't type into a Google search precision agriculture survey and expect to find all these surveys because some of them are dealer surveys. Like ours was- many of them are farmer surveys. There are some that are in other languages. We report on an Italian survey. There's a German, Denmark. There's a little activity in Africa and Asia but not too much. There's quite a bit in Spanish and Portuguese in South America.

My co-author, thankfully, and I have- this has been our business for the last, I don't know, X years. We follow this. I guess my point is using standard review procedures like you would do with a lot of technologies just doesn't work very well with precision agriculture. Let me point out that my colleague with this was Jess Lowenberg-DeBoer. He and I are the co-authors. He's the lead author on this actually. He is the former dean of international programs at Purdue. He's now a professor at Harper Adams University in England right now.

He has a long history of writing in precision agricultural economics and, probably, the most published person in that particular area.

Tony: I have to ask you. You talked about the different sources that you were pulling information from and everything like that. Why did you and your co-author feel this research was necessary?

Dr. Erickson: We go to conferences and we try to get the pulse of the industry and what the government's thinking. We keep hearing that farmers and agro-businesses are not adopting precision agriculture as quickly as we think they would be adopting it, and why would that be. If this is the miracle technology, so that was sort of our hypothesis of this is that, let's see if we can explain some of these factors as to why are-- If I look at the Department of Agriculture information here, why are less than a quarter of farmers using variable rate technology on their corn, soybean and wheat fields?

When most people would say that that should be a really positive thing to do that would help the environment, would save the farmer money, the thing that we have to do though with a review article to get published. This is an article in agronomy journal, which is a refereed journal article that you have reviewers and they're very careful because they want to make sure that the science is sound on this. Everything that we have referenced here has been a published survey that has been peer reviewed. If Tom, Dick, and Harry did a survey and put it on an internet site or whatever, we really couldn't use that. We had to use refereed things to make sure that the quality was good.

Tony: Going into the research and getting started, what hypothesis was set on all of this research at the beginning?

Dr. Erickson: Our thought on this, and I talked about this in the previous interview, some is that, earlier I said, that precision agriculture is a complicated mixture of a lot of different technologies, guidance and sensors, and remote sensing drones, electrical conductivity, variable rate technology, telematics, and you can go on and on and on. You could lump all of those into a couple of major categories, what we call the automated technologies that a farmer can install. They're pretty much doing their thing independently of the farmer or the agro-dealer based on the location in the field and maybe some other parameters. There's that group.

Then, the other group would be, what we call, the more information-intensive technologies where we collect information via sensors, soil sampling, remote sensing, electrical conductivity, all those kind of things, we analyze it, and then we form a prescription that tells us how much, where, when, all of those things around the field. Our hypothesis was that the automated technologies had been more widely and rapidly adopted and the information-intensive technologies had been less widely and quickly adopted on farms. We reinforced our hypothesis, is what I'll say.

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Tony: Going through this research process, and you had talked about all the different sources of where your data was coming from, of different surveys throughout the world and involving different countries and regions, as you were studying this and bringing in that information, what did the results look like? What type of information was starting to flow in and what were you guys starting to compile?

Dr. Erickson: Well, I guess, what we found out on some of these surveys is that-- What you hope to be the case and that anytime you do a survey, it needs to be a random sample. You try to reduce the bias in a survey. One thing we quickly noticed, and of course, we knew some of this already on some of the surveys, is that, for instance, a number of surveys invited in farmers that were already doing precision agriculture on their farms, and ask them, "Are you using certain practices?" Of course, that's not a representative survey, you're already biasing it to the farmers that are already doing precision agriculture. That's one form of bias that we were really careful about and talked about in our survey results.

Another form of bias that happens all the time is that just the big farmers are surveyed. It's fine, of course, with a survey, if you identify that in the beginning, but in many cases, it's the bigger farmers that have the means to adopt some of these technologies. That can influence the data and the numbers. We've found that out in many cases. Those are just things to be careful about as you're doing a review article that happens all the time in research.

In general, what we found out looking around the world with various technologies, like with guidance, if I can just generalize, in the United States, in the Midwest, and other parts where the field sizes tend to be bigger and the fields are more open, the similar situation would be in Australia, and somewhat, also, true in the United Kingdom, at least, and more as you go to the north and east in England there, there are bigger fields and bigger areas there, there seems to be more adoption of guidance, and because there's more of the advantage potentially for doing that.

Also, I would say, add to that, South America, Brazil, and Argentina, there's relatively high adoption of those technologies. You got to know the situation and how farming is done in those areas, of course, Australia would be, in many cases, huge fields and very open fields. In the United States and Australia, it's the farmers themselves that are running the equipment, in many cases. If you go to South America, and most of our listeners probably know this, the farmers there are more like farm managers, and they hire equipment operators. In many cases, the equipment operators may have smaller equipment and may have smaller machines and more of them. That could be a possible reason why the adoption in Argentina and Brazil isn't always as high as we think it might be because of that particular situation. That's just one example.

Tony: With the results and what you compiled, did you encompass the entire precision agriculture spectrum or did you lump it into a few different categories that are most widely adopted?

Dr. Erickson: I'll just have to say we tried to do it all, which was a problem as we got going on this as the reviewers were all just like, "This is way, way too long. We're going to have to cut this back." We did have to leave out some sections, and we were looking at precision agriculture, especially farms, like vegetables and horticultural crops, vineyards, and those types of things, and we cut out those sections. Then, we had a section on sugar crops, like sugar cane, and sugar beets, and that type of thing. We greatly reduced that section too.

One thing that you've led me in here to talk about, though, is that-- I mentioned earlier that variable rate technology has not caught on as much as most people around the world would think it would, partially because of the complexity of putting the story together to understand the variability in the field. Interestingly enough, and I think may be of acute interest to your listeners because of where you're located or where some of your locations are, is that one very notable exception to that, that we noted in this paper, is with variable rate nitrogen on sugar beets in the Red River Valley. We don't have a lot of information on that, but it was our understanding that there's a high rate of adoption of variable nitrogen rate in that particular region on sugar beets on that crop.

Part of the reason we think that is, is that for sugar beets, you can be too low or you can be too high, and you're paid based on the quality of those beets, in addition to the amount of-- I'm not a sugar beet person, you can shoot holes in my discussion here. I don't completely understand this. Some other factors that we saw, that there was a lot of cooperation that appeared to be between the universities and the sugar cooperatives.

The parameters were well-defined as to the lower end of what needs to be for nitrogen to produce the correct percentage of sugar in those beats. There was money attached in order to-- The sugar beet farmers were paid a premium for the quality aspect. There's a relatively high adoption of variable rate technology for that.

Tony, maybe you can now correct all the mistakes I've made on this, but that was interesting that that turned out that way.

Tony: No, it's very interesting that you bring that up and it does hold true being here in the Red River Valley with a lot of sugar beets in this region. I, myself, growing up in South Central Minnesota, growing up with a family farm that raises sugar beets too, no, you do bring up a very good point in how it all plays into the crop production of sugar beets.

With all of the research, with the guidance, and the variable rate technology, one of the things that was very interesting about this research is that it was worldwide. You and your co-author did not just focus on North America. You wanted to understand world adoption when it comes to precision agriculture. Let's just go through and talk about down the different continents and what research you compiled, what are some of the most widely adopted technologies in each of the regions?

Dr. Erickson: Well, that's a perfect introduction here that I can cite several examples of things that are going on. One thing that I guess I can say broadly, first of all, is that most of the world is still not using precision agriculture because most of the world is smallholder farmers. If you think of China, and India, and many parts of Africa, and other parts of the world, you know that the typical farmer around the world does not have several thousand acres and a John Deere tractor. I can say that because you guys are-- They are farming a hectare or two and they're subsistence farming, so many people are trying very hard to figure out how we work with precision agriculture.

Precision is relative. What's precise to me is different than being precise to, say, an ant or whatever. They have a whole different relative scale of the world that they see. Just some things I've already talked about the difference between the automated technologies and their relatively high adoption compared to the variable rate technologies.

Let's just go back to South America that we mentioned before. Again, the difference in their farmers and that even before I go there, I should say that we often think in the United States that everything started here but auto guidance, from the research that we've done, actually started a couple of years prior to us getting it here in Australia because, again, of the application there of their huge fields and their need for a technology like that. South America yield monitor use started out-- They were leading with yield monitor use in South America, probably before we were. Again, that's partially because if you're a South American farmer, you're not necessarily on that combine like the North American farmer is.

North American farmer, you're in the field, you can see the drowned out spot. You can see on the edge of the field, where maybe the deer came in and took part of the crop. You can see those obvious things. With South American farmers, they're more interested in that type of thing, and so a relatively high adoption of that technology. A few years ago, I was in Brazil on sugarcane farms and I was on a 250,000 acre. People throw out numbers and I'm not meaning to brag about this but this was a very big farm that had its own railroad actually and everything for moving stuff around. They were doing very little variable rate technology on that particular farm but they were really on top of guidance.

Again, this is an example of a crop-specific thing. If you're familiar with sugarcane, you know that it is planted and then cut multiple times. It's bad to drive over the rows because you hurt the plants. You don't want to be doing that. They have a struggle with variable rate technology because whereas I believe there is a yield monitor available on sugarcane, it's not as widely used as our monitors that we have for grain. Without a yield monitor, they don't know how the various things that they've done in different parts of the field are ending up in that situation.

In Europe, another example here, variable rate technology and many of the precision technologies are used to verify that from an environmental standpoint, that they're not getting too close to water, and that they're applying the correct rate because environmental considerations are a lot more important. From a European standpoint, there's more regulations and that type of thing compared to what we have in North America and some other parts of the world.

I don't know if you want me to keep going on. We can probably talk about some other scenarios. We talked about the smallholder farmers. In many of the parts of the world, even in Europe, you have farmers with very small fields. It just sort of depends on the situation. They're probably less likely to have guidance and section controllers on their fields because just of the field size and the way that they're set up.

Tony: It's really cool to hear all of the different reasons we use precision agriculture. You talk about in Europe, the environmental effects are a big factor. We too in the United States, in North America, have some of that that we see. We talked about the four Rs of nutrient management and all of that stuff. It's really unique to see how each region, how each country is more so using precision agriculture. One of the things that I want to ask is, what can be done for those regions, and this is maybe an opinion more so, what can be done in those regions where adoption has traditionally been slow for certain technologies?

Dr. Erickson: I know a lot of smart people have worked on this. What kind of technology, if you have a person that's farming a hectare or two-and-a-half acres of land in a developing country, it's really a struggle to figure out how to help them to any electronic technology. Some things that we have thought of, some aspects of precision farming that might help them. I know many of our people that are listening have traveled around the world. You know that most, even though they're subsistence farmers, they probably have a cell phone. We maybe could provide information like extension type of information to those people.

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There are, maybe, apps that could be used to help them, say, with the weather and to anticipate something. There's a great need in some of those developing countries for them to do understand the nutrient situation in their fields. Maybe there's some type of an inexpensive soil testing device that can be used. The current state of soil testing is, typically, we take sub-samples, blend them into a sample and take them to a soil testing lab. Is there something that we could do that way? All those things, I'm sure, are being tested around the world.

I think the bigger question on, say, variable rate technology why in the United States, for example, the minority of farmers are still doing that? I think part of the reason is that, like I said, in the other interview is that fields are more complicated than we thought they were. You drive by a wheat field or a cornfield and it's a green field. Then it looks the same all along the highway. You think, "What in the heck could be complicated about that?" You have different soils, you've done maybe variable rate on there before, you have different nutrient levels, you have different water patterns and drainage and water flowing in different parts of that field.

We really need to do a lot more work in terms of understanding fields and their variability.

Just this past week, we interviewed a couple of people and we've actually extended an offer. We're looking at crop modeling. We need to have people that put these puzzle pieces together to understand, if my crop was planted on this state and I've had this rain on these dates and I put on this amount of nutrients, what is that going to be in the end? If you think about the number of factors that affect the end result of- whether it's a sugar beet field or a wheat field or a cornfield or soybean field or whatever, you can make a list a mile long as to all of those factors that affect the end result. Those factors also interact. If it's dry, the plants will act differently compared to-- They'll adapt to that. This becomes a really complicated thing.

I guess my point is, with this long discussion here, is that there needs to be more work done to understand all of those innuendos that are happening in fields. As you know, there's been huge investments in the data side of precision agriculture in order to understand those things. We know from a private standpoint, there are dozens of companies, that are data service providers, that help farmers to collect their information and to help them understand what's going on in their fields. We're still really in the infancy of that. It's just very interesting that we so underestimated how complicated these fields are. We're eventually going to figure this out but it's going to take some time.

Tony: You bring up a really good point there that not only is the adoption of precision agriculture a focus throughout the world, but also that the continual adapting of precision agriculture and the growth of what it is. You hit it right on the head with the research and figuring out exactly what it takes and what needs to be done. That leads me into my last question, Dr. Erickson. This research study that you and your co-author were a part of, where can people go and who can they talk to- maybe this research study they want to learn more about or read or maybe there's other published research articles out there from you or some colleagues. Where can people go to find this information?

Dr. Erickson: This is going to be published in Agronomy Journal, which is-- I've gone ahead and paid the fees so it's open access. I believe that most anyone then will be able to access this particular study. A lot of the information, of course, in Agronomy Journal, you have to pay the subscription because they have cost to publish and run the organization and those types of things. I don't know, I think I would direct people back to what I said in the previous interview that you go to your university sites and many of them, whether it's University of Minnesota, like you mentioned, Nebraska, Iowa state, Purdue, I can't mention them all today, but most of them have information on precision agriculture.

A farmer or even an agro-dealer, I'd say, networking and having other people that you work with, is one of the best ways to learn about things because we all know that it's hard to work in a vacuum.

Tony: Yes, that is exactly it. Networking, that's one thing that I have found to be very valuable. We were talking previous or prior to recording this episode how I have utilized Twitter to connect with different people throughout the agriculture industry. Yes, networking and talking to different people within the industry, definitely, helps you find this information.

Dr. Erickson: I'll just add, if I can butt in here, again, at the end, is that my brother in law farms in Illinois and he belongs to a peer group and those are becoming more popular. I know that they talk a lot about their finances. They're one of these peer groups that actually shares their confidential financial information amongst each other and they make decisions of what do they think the grain markets are going to do? Are they going to adopt certain technologies? I think that's really helpful to have a group of people that you test your ideas from.

Tony: Yes, that's a really neat theory there to actually be comfortable enough with the peers, whether it's neighbors or people from different areas to be able to share that information and learn from each other. There's definitely something to be said about learning from other's mistakes and, also, other's successes.

Dr. Erickson: We know that farmers in many areas, the Midwest, the Plains are part of this and that they may not share with their near neighbors because they compete with their neighbors for land resources, for rental rates, and those kind of things. Many of these peer groups, they are from farmers that are spread out geographically. The one that my brother in law works with has Iowa, Illinois, Kentucky, and Indiana members as I recall.

Tony: That's really neat too because it gives them a much broader spectrum of the ag industry, not just in their county or in their state. It gives another perspective across the United States.

I just want to thank you, Dr. Erickson, for sitting down with me again for a second episode to share the wealth of knowledge that you have in your extensive background in agriculture and education and all of the research that you do there at Purdue University. Thank you again for doing this.

Dr. Erickson: Well, it's been my pleasure. Thanks a lot.


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