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Evaluating Ag Tech Opportunities

5 Steps to Evaluate Agriculture Technology Opportunities for Your Farm

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With Silicon Valley and technology development firms investing more time and dollars in agriculture than ever before, there are more options to adopt agriculture technology at all points of the farming cycle. However, just because a technology is out there does not mean it is right for every farming operation.

After reading a book about the topic of choosing the right innovation at the right time, I began thinking about how farms have to face the growing agricultural innovations revolution. Technology developers are giving more attention to food production and management, and it can be overwhelming to filter the good options from ill-fitting.

Using the book as inspiration, here are five steps I suggest using to evaluate technology opportunities for a farming operation.

Step #1: Zero in on Unique Value and Benefit
Watching late night infomercials (what, just me?) it is easy to see that, often, we’re inundated with advertisements for solutions to problems we didn’t know we had. Some of these solutions may be amazing, while others just aren’t integral to individual needs.

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In that same realm, some challenges are universal across agriculture and some are not. One grower’s strategic problem may not be another’s.

Before even considering a technology opportunity, ask the key question: What is my farm’s unique, biggest challenges?

Digging into the topic further, additional questions may help hone in the top challenges:
Would the operation benefit by reducing inputs usage?
Would the operation benefit with the increase of market timing?
Maybe just reducing labor hours and wear on equipment would be the biggest win?
What are the biggest challenges related to environmental protection concerns?

Closely related, consider the true cost/benefit associated with adding technology. Perhaps a new option may save 10% on fertilizer costs – but if the farm’s fertilizer process is already efficient, how much will actually be saved, especially when considering the cost of the technology?

Just as important as it is to identify areas of opportunity, it is equally crucial to get familiar with the landscape of possibilities, opportunities, and risks, as the farm may not benefit from or see return on investment because the efficiency is already there. The benefits of technology, “as seen on TV,” while appropriate for one operation, may not make sense for the operation next door.

Once we identify the key issues and weigh risks, the right solution(s) can be proactively sought out.

Step #2: Research Promising Options
For those who aren’t tech-savvy, it may feel like technology is chasing you down unnecessarily, rather than the user seeking it out. However, continuing with the list of key priorities, we can help set the comfort level with seeking out productive solutions and weeding out those that are not relevant.

That said, even with the priorities clearly defined, taking technology for a test drive still requires quite a bit of research.

Related Podcast: 10 Technologies for a Farming Operation

Technologies can work well in some business climates but not others and knowing how the technology collects and reports information can go a long way.

Allow me to share an example: I know of a great app that helps with balancing input cost with current markets. The issue is I work in the Pacific Northwest, while the app uses inputs and prices of the Midwest to determine cost and loss ratio. While this is a great app and works well, it may not work best for the crops and prices in my local area.

Which brings me to my next tip…

Step #3: Consider Alternatives
It may seem simple enough to jump in on the first innovation discovered to solve a particular challenge. There are many innovative apps on the market but not all fit every operation, case in point, my location-challenged app.

To find out what other solutions might work, ask a few questions:
How is the technology gathering information and what is its resources for information that it provides?
Will the technology require different equipment than I already have?
What are the annual fees or one-time fees?
Are there methods or equipment I already use that may have more advanced activations or add-ons?

It is a good idea to evaluate the versatility of a solution. There are some tools that have multi-functionality while others only do one, very specific job. Should you use the Swiss Army knife or the single-function tool?

While in Step #1 I made the case for not getting distracted by too many options, at times it is good to evaluate several options, with some multi-use tools in the bunch. If a multi-functional solution is chosen, one suggestion is to create a long-term plan to incorporate the various opportunities into the farm’s operation, so as not to feel overwhelmed to do too much with it right away.

And onto the next step to help further narrow down the choices.

Step #4 – Include Others
Ready to choose a solution and get to work – not so fast! Discussing a technology opportunity with other growers and experts is a good idea.

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First, consider the operator. Is it you or a hired employee? A technology solution that is not intuitive to the person using the machine or corresponding equipment will have a steep adoption curve from the start. I have personally seen farm operations choose great technology advancements only to have them hard for operations and partners to manage. Including operators in the decision-making process may help choosing an innovation that will see more immediate use and management integration.

Next, while a partner equipment dealership may have biases, it is not a bad idea to consult with its technology experts all the same. The choice between solutions could come down to which integrate with pre-existing equipment, farm software, and tech solutions already integrated on a machine. In addition, it may be a great solution but if it is redundant with something already in the tractor, it may just add more clutter and cost without producing great results.

Another consideration is consulting with local offices that might be willing to cost share on technologies that have environmental benefits (such as Conservation Districts and NRCS). These groups may also help advocate early for new technologies and have them be included in the future of programming considerations or at least may offer funding resources for adoption.

Lastly, we all know those early technology adopters – so use them as a resource. Users willing to share their stories may be the best help in finding the right solution. It may also be a way to avoid making the same mistakes they made.

Step #5: Set Expectations, Evaluate, Repeat
Congratulations! After finding the right solution, it’s time to move forward. In a few weeks or months, the big question is going to come: Did it work?

First, establish timeline expectations, potentially including an agronomist or other trusted advisor close to the operation in the process. Some tools may prove their worth (or not) early on, while others need at least a growing season or several to give the tool its fair shake.

Next, determine what warrants success. Do not feel pressured to measure success based on one outcome; there can be small levels or major wins. For example, the seemingly simple act of embracing and implementing a new solution into the daily operation can be a big win in itself.

Related article: How to Set Up Good Systems for Actionable Data

Finally, review the relevant data and outcomes to see if it supports those measures of success – or, if it points to failure. It is often a knee-jerk reaction to give up if something is not working right away but perhaps this analysis will reveal changes that could be made to increase chance of success next time.

That said, be willing to admit if something is not working for the operation and why. At that point, again, the analysis may reveal tweaks or adjustments needed to make the tool a winner.

A Final Thought – Educate and Inspire Others
If you went through all the steps and successfully implemented a new technology, high-fives – but don’t keep that success story to yourself. Having conversations with other growers and trusted advisors is a great way to share knowledge and find more opportunities that may be a good fit at some point.

Certainly the discovery of both successes and failures is important and sharing info is a two-way street. Do not expect to hear the latest-and-greatest from someone if you’re not willing to share your successes (or failures) as well. Remember those early adopters mentioned in Step #4? Someone may look to you as that resource and appreciate the insight.

In a world of continuously moving technology, we can all work together to reduce the fear and anxiety that come with adopting new opportunities. With any luck, these tips also help reduce the stress on your end and increase your confidence in successfully implementing and managing technology.

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About the Author
Erin Hightower has been working in farm planning and agronomy for 14 years. At RDO Equipment Co., she works with team members and growers in the Northwest region, focused on education and training, and conducting field trials. She’s a regular contributor to PrecisionAg.com and CropLife.com, a Certified Crop Advisor (CCA), and Certified USDA NRCS Nutrient Management Planner, Certified Conservation Planner, and Comprehensive Nutrient Management Planner. Connect with her on Twitter @RDOErinH.

Interested in more about precision agriculture? Check out the RDO Equipment Co. Agriculture Technology Podcast, browse past episodes, and find out more about everything from equipment to UAVs to specialty crop care.

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