Agricultre Technology Podcast: Precision Dealer Survey

Agriculture Technology Podcast: Precision Dealer Survey

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

Purdue University, in partnership with CropLife magazine, surveys crop input dealers regarding their use of precision ag services. It is the longest-running, continuous survey of precision agriculture practices in the U.S.

Dr. Erickson’s extensive background in agriculture, agronomy, and precision ag practices help shed light on the survey itself, and how those in agribusiness are using survey results to see where the industry is headed.

Tune in to Episode #93 here:

You can read through the entire episode’s transcript, here:

Tony: Welcome back to another episode of the podcast, this is episode number 93. Today, we're going to be talking about the precision dealers survey. 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 different podcasting apps that we're streaming this to such as Apple's podcast app. It's on Stitcher, Overcast, SoundCloud as well as many others. While you're out there, drop us a review, we'd really love to hear what you think about the show.

I am really excited to welcome Dr. Bruce Erickson, who is the Education Distance and Outreach Director at Purdue University. Thanks for joining us on the show today, Dr. Erickson. To get started, I'd really like to hear a little bit more about you and your background and how you got to where you are today.

Dr. Bruce Erickson: Tony, it's a pleasure to be with you here today. I have a really extensive background. I'm an Iowa farm kid. I went to Iowa State for my bachelor's and master's degrees. Spent 10 years as an agronomist with Pioneer Hybrid at the time, of course, it's now Corteva. Then I came to Purdue University to work on the certified crop adviser program and where I was responsible for the international certified crop adviser exam and the tri-state exam. It just goes on from there, I worked for several years as a consultant in Indianapolis for a company called Agribusiness Group.

Came back to Purdue where I ran the site-specific management center and was the assistant director for the center for commercial agriculture. Left Purdue again, which they eventually hired me back, but I left to be the agronomic education manager for the American Society of Agronomy. Of course, all those experiences helped a lot to build my level of expertise across a broad spectrum of knowledge. For the last four years, I've been in the department of agronomy at Purdue building online courses. We have a beginning agronomy course, we have a precision agriculture course, these are all 12-week courses all fully online.

Then our third course is the nutrient management course. We've had over a thousand students around the world take our courses, and so we're pretty proud of what we've been able to put together here.

Tony: That is awesome to hear what you've done. Like you said, the extensive background you have in both agriculture as well as the education side of things, that's really neat to hear how all of that wraps into what we're going to talk about today. Purdue University and the research and study that you guys do there, you've done something that is referred to as the precision dealers survey. Tell us a little bit about what this precision dealers survey really is.

Dr. Erickson: Those listeners that are old enough to remember, our current era of precision agriculture started in the mid-1990s. We started with yield monitors and combines, we were doing some yield mapping, we were doing grade sampling with nutrients and some variable rate of lime, and nitrogen, and phosphorus, and potassium. About that same time in the mid-1990s, this precision agriculture dealership survey was started by a colleague of mine at Purdue. Back in that time period with everything being relatively new, people were wondering what are other people doing? What technologies are they using? Why are they using these technologies?

Like with anything new, there's a lot of curiosity involved in that. We've kept this going for more than 20 years, later here, it's still going. Part of the reason that people are interested in this is that we have the longest running continuous measure of precision agriculture adoption in the United States.

Podcast Precision Dealer Survey

Tony: You talked about this being 20 years ago when precision agriculture first started going and it's really grown since then. How did you go about developing this survey? How did it all start back 20 years ago when you decided this was necessary?

Dr. Erickson: Some really smart people put the first survey together. Of course, the person that first developed it is now at the provost of Purdue University. You know his level of intellect. The reason that it was a dealers survey was because at that time, it was difficult to get contact information for farmers. We worked with CropLife and we still work with CropLife because they have a very extensive and nearly complete mailing list at the time, everything was mailed back then and not email, internet stuff. They had a really complete mailing list of dealers and it felt like that was the best route to collect, and so every time that we offer it, they administer the survey, we write the survey.

I want to make sure that people realize too that it is a dealership survey, not a farmers survey. If you know precision agriculture, of course, you know that the early precision agriculture and a lot of technology is initiated by a dealer or someone that the farmer works with in order to help them to get started in it. We asked questions in the survey about, not at the very beginning of the survey because it wasn't in existence then but later came guidance. Of course, at the beginning, it was are your rigs set up to do variable rate of fertilizers? Then later, of course, we did guidance types of technologies.

Then in recent years with the survey, we've been adding a lot more data types of questions; are you using this data to analyze information on the farm and those types of things.

Tony: I think you mentioned it back when you were talking about the development of the survey, but how exactly is this survey administered?

Dr. Erickson: It was done all by paper up until about two surveys ago, and then we started administering it by an online survey where we reached a person via email. Of course, if anyone that is listening to this has ever done a survey, it's really a lot harder than you might first suspect. The way you ask a question and how you administer the survey is very important and the information that you get back.

Tony: Yes, I completely agree with that. We've done a couple of internal surveys here with audio equipment, and you definitely have to ask the question in the right manner to get valuable information back.

Dr. Erickson: Right, and you want to make sure you get the correct information back. You don't want your information skewed one way or the other or to be an under representative sample. You don't only want the big dealers to answer, you don't only want the dealers in certain regions to answer. One thing that might affect the results too is that you don't want the dealers that are just doing precision agriculture, you want the full spectrum of dealers out there to get the most valid results.

Tony: That brings me perfectly right into my next question that I wanted to ask you. Let's talk a little bit about the results. Some of the results that you're getting back, you had talked about all the different levels of questions that you're asking, but let's just, with the first one, what are some of the most popular products and services that are being offered that come back in the survey results?

Dr. Erickson: Yes, and I just thought of something, Tony, that I should have mentioned earlier too. It's really hard to get people to respond to a survey too, especially one that takes about 15 minutes to complete. We all get survey information and look at the email and think, "I don't have 15 minutes to fill out their survey." To get to your question in terms of what are some of the results, let me just talk at a high level first, and then we can drill down to some of the specifics here. At a high level, a high percentage of dealerships are offering precision services of one kind or another.

That's one of the things that makes it difficult with precision agriculture is it's not just one thing and that's something that people that aren't involved in precision agriculture on a day-to-day basis maybe it's sometimes hard for them to understand. It's a collection of related technologies that are used differently depending on the dealership, depending if you're a farmer, depending on the size of the farm and the type of the crops that you're raising, where your farm is the economic considerations and the environmental considerations, which we'll hopefully have time to talk about those a little bit.

The big picture story, I guess, of this survey is that when precision agriculture started with great excitement, and that's part of the reason why I left my job with Pioneer at the time is because back in the middle-1990s, there was so much excitement surrounding precision agriculture that we felt like farming would go into a whole new era. It's sort of dead, but it's sort of sputtered then too also in that, especially the Variable Rate Technologies are the things where there's a lot of labor and effort involved in collecting data, and analyzing that data, and then deciding to do with that.

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We've had a fairly long period of, I guess, indecision with some of this. The initial yield monitoring and soil testing by grids or zones that would lead to some decisions about fertilizing or seeding rates or those kinds of things on a variable rate basis, those types of technologies started out fairly fast, but then we reached a period of disillusionment with them because we found out it was much harder to understand what was causing those variations in nutrients across the field or yield results across the field. The decisions were much more complicated than we would have ever guessed.

After the mid-1990s and the late 1990s is when we started getting into guidance technologies. Then shortly following that, we had other technologies that were related to guidance such as section controllers on planters and sprayers. It was those technologies that caught on very quickly and were very rapidly adopted by dealers and also by farmers. The big picture story is that the automated technologies, the guidance, and those related to guidance have caught on quickly and are highly adopted now. The Variable Rate Technologies and the sensing technologies, those have been slower to be adopted.

Tony: Why do you think that is? The types of technologies, and we'll talk a little bit about this just down the road here, but it just really surprises me that certain technologies are adopted so much quicker than others. I'll try not to go too fast too far, but we'll go back, we'll talk about that in a little bit here. The adoption of that technology, you talked about how each one is different than everything, what does that adoption look like, and what is holding it back?

Dr. Erickson: I'll just contrast. Manual guidance or lightbar guidance, and then we quickly, within a couple of years, got to auto guidance on a lot of our tractors, and sprayers, and implements going through the field. Those technologies, they're complicated but compared to data-driven technologies, they're relatively simple. If you would have asked a farmer back in the mid-1990s, "Do you need help steering your tractor or combine?", they would have said, "Heck no. Why would I ever want something like this?" If you asked a farmer today, "Would it be okay if we took your guidance out of your tractor?", they would say, "Over my dead body."

My point is is that the guidance and the other technologies related are relatively simple. A farmer can put them in and with guidance, the results are immediate and quite apparent. You're driving straighter with your sprayer turning on and off where it needs to, you're saving fertilizers or pesticides or whatever product that you're putting on. You might be saving 3% or 5% or whatever, but you noticed that with section controllers on planters, you're using a palette less of seed perhaps than you were a few years before that depending on your farming operation. That in comparison to all of the sensing and the Variable Rate Technologies go hand in hand.

In order for us to fulfill the dream, and, of course, that was the great thing that was so exciting back in the middle-1990s is that when you think about a field, you can down the road, and it's more apparent in some parts of the country than others. You can see the light areas in the field and the dark areas, and you would think, "For God sake, certainly that area need a little different fertilizer or a little different planting rate or something or more lime or less lime" or whatever input is you're putting on. In order to quantify and delineate those areas, you need to do graders on soil sampling, you need to potentially do remote sensing, to look at the crop and see how it's responding.

There's a number of sensing technologies that need to be understood. We need to understand the relationship between those, and then we need to decide, well, how much PMK are going to put on these parts of the field in order to optimize what's going on in any particular part of the field? Or what should be our population or whatever variable rate that we're doing? Whereas the guidance and controllers and all that were relatively simple, and we thought all of this variable rate will be relatively simple too. There are a few things that are somewhat simple. If you've got a wet spot in the field, that shows on the yield map and that's pretty understandable.

Some of these more subtle things where you have, for some reason, the yield in part of the field is, say, with corn or whatever, part of the field is yielding 225 and the other part of the field is yielding 180 perhaps, why is that? There seems to be no reason for that. We can't quite figure that out. That I think is part of the reason why with Variable Rate Technologies with various surveys that we've done, they've been coming up in recent years. I'm looking through the survey here that many dealers offer them, but they have lagged. For many years, they were running it like- maybe 40% to 50% of dealers offering these Variable Rate Technologies to farmers.

Those have come up to like, in recent years, 70 or 80%. I'm giving you a long-winded answer here, but the key thing is is that doing the right thing at the right time and at the right rate in the field is more complicated than we ever dreamed.

Tony: That's one thing I know that comes up a lot and one thing that we get asked on the equipment side of things is when we talk precision agriculture and different components of precision ag, guys, the farmers, the growers always want to see the return on their investment. They want to know exactly what it's going to cost, what their profitability is going to look like, and in the end, how is it going to help their farm. One last quick question on the roadblocks to adopting this technology. Do you think there are some pressures out there? Are guys refusing to adopt technology because there's too many options or too much pressure from service and sales providers out there?

Dr. Erickson: There's information overload. You go to the grocery store and you want to buy toothpaste and you're just like, "I need a tube of toothpaste," but I'm standing there and it's like, "Do I want Tartar Control? Do I want mint? Do I want gel? Do I want paste?" There's a hundred different options, and then you leave the store without buying toothpaste. I've done that a couple of times actually. It's ridiculous. I think the same thing maybe plays with precision agriculture too. Again, it's this collection of technologies that play out different on different farms. You talk about roadblocks or barriers to adoption, a couple of things come to mind.

First of all, some other surveys that we've done in terms of the knowledge level in the countryside shows that dealers are really struggling to find help that understand precision technologies. It's hard, with the current situation in the United States, it's hard to find good labor for a lot of different things, let alone precision technology, and we at the universities are struggling to prepare them for these jobs too, it's not necessarily that easy. The other thing that comes to mind too is this profitability thing. I'll just make some comments and I really don't have a good answer, but I don't know if hard times on the farm or with the dealership, with drive adoption or with better economic times.

We know that like hybrid seed corn came on strong in the 1930s, which is a very tough time on the farm for farmers. As the '40s came along, it was more adopted then too, but I could say, I don't have an answer on that as to how the profitability is affecting things.

Tony: That's a very good point that you bring up, Dr. Erickson that you think it would go one way when there's a lot of adoption, when times are good and the agro-economy is booming, but like you said, in the '30s, we have hybrid corn that it became more popular in the '30s when things were really tough. You think it's going to go one way and it goes the other way, but that's how everything works. One of the last things I want to talk about is, this survey that is put out there, what does this tell the industry? What kind of information are we getting out of it and what can we do as industry professionals? What can we learn from this survey?

Dr. Erickson: We know that a lot of industry people look at this because I talk to people like InfoAg or my various business people that I talk to know about the survey. What they're trying to do is to get a big picture feel of the industry as to where things are going because they may be selling a product or service related to this. They need to know the business environment and they need to know what technologies are being adopted, and what aren't, and why, and some of those reasons. We feel that it provides probably more utility for agri-business than a farmer to take a look at this information.

Tony: I completely agree, especially from the dealership side, the equipment dealership side. Now, we don't offer any agronomic services, it's more so just the dealership, the hardware, and the equipment optimization, but a survey like this, and I've read through back. You gave me the link to all the different ones that we'll talked about here in a minute, but I read back through all of the different survey results. It really can help us from a dealership side to understand what everything looks like and where we need to go with our services and levels of support, so it's really cool to utilize this survey as a tool.

Dr. Erickson: Right, and I know, I don't think this is necessarily related to the survey, but I know a lot of equipment dealerships are stepping up their agronomy game because equipment has always played a key role in producing the crops. Yield monitors, and tillage equipment, and planting equipment, and telematics, they are all tied to equipment, and so there's a very integral role for equipment, obviously, a dealership to be involved in the crop production on the agronomy side of things.

Tony: I completely agree with you there. With this survey, when is the next time this survey will be administered?

Dr. Erickson: We just finished the online part of the 2019 survey just last week, and that would be the first part of May. We should have fresh results from the 2019 survey. The last I talked to CropLife, they were planning to publish them in the July edition of CropLife magazine. Then shortly after that, and it's available online too if you don't happen to be a subscriber to that, those will all be put online, and then we go through and develop a full report. It's 25 pages or so of our interpretation of the results, which, again, in CropLife, it's a three or four-page highlights, but we'll get into the weeds with it here with our full report probably in the fall of 2019.

All of the surveys, I have provided you with the link I think. If you go online and just search for new CropLife precision dealer survey, you'll go to the place at the Center for Commercial Agriculture. Excuse me, the Center for Food and Agribusiness at Purdue, I misspoke there. That will then lead you to the survey.

Tony: That was a perfect segue into the the last question I have for you, Dr. Erickson. You talked there about the link to this survey, where can people go to learn more, whether it's about you yourself or what Purdue University does or anything that's tied to the precision ag survey? Where can they go, who can they talk to?

Dr. Erickson: There are a number of university sites around that have information about precision agriculture. We're in the process of revamping our digital agriculture, and that seems to be the more modern common term used now is digital agriculture versus precision agriculture. We're going to be launching a new website here in the near future. It's not up yet. There's the Precision Ag Institute that is run by CropLife is a good place to go. I think the main thing is is just do a search for precision agriculture and you'll find a lot of information. I was part of a group that developed a number of publications on data for the United Soybean Board.

If you go do a search for USB Tech Toolshed, there's a number of articles there about utilizing data on the farm. There's a lot out there, but it's maybe not well collected in one location like we would like it to be.

Tony: Yes, I couldn't agree more. There's so much information out there, whether it's your local universities, there's a lot, especially the upper midwest, all of the work we do in agriculture. Many different universities. I know them, I go too. There's, of course, North Dakota State University and the University of Minnesota, they've very good information on a lot of different websites. I just want to thank you, Dr. Erickson for sitting down with me and discussing the precision dealer survey. It's really neat to see some of those results that come through.

That link that you provided me to go back and look at all the previous surveys, it's really cool to see how the adoption and the services provided have changed over the years. Thanks again for sitting down and discussing this with us.

Dr. Erickson: My pleasure. You hit me with my favorite topic here, so a pleasure to talk to you.


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