From Chief Science Officer Brian Lutz, an open letter to farmers on resilience, persistence, data, and decision making. This letter comes during the COVID-19 pandemic and at a time of uncertainty, when we’d rather be engaging with customers at the 2020 Farm Progress Show. Yet, as always, America’s oldest industry continues to advance and overcome.
If you’re interested in learning more about the ways we’re driving innovation in agriculture’s digital transformation, register to attend our virtual Farm Progress tent experience, available until next year’s (hopefully in-person) show.
My family has farmed in Ohio for four generations. Like most farmers, they don’t get sick time off of work. As such, COVID-19 has introduced a lot of uncertainty and concern for farm families across the nation. Like many farm families, my dad and brother worry that, if they fall ill, the work won’t get done.
The world is relying on the resilience of farmers in the face of uncertainty, despite the host of different challenges that face us. Food security is a basic human need, and there’s no need that leaves us feeling more vulnerable if we don’t have it.
As most folks have transformed their lives to living, working, and playing at home, the ag industry has persisted. We’ve kept shelves stocked with essentials, despite panic buying and shutdowns of factories. Crops were planted, ranchers moved herds, and processors put contingency plans in place to ensure as few as possible went without.
What we as farmers have collectively managed since March of this year is a testament of the commitment and passion of farmers across the world. Farmers are not only trying to stay healthy in order to run their operations, but they’re also facing challenges with the global pandemic eroding some of their livelihood.
This year’s harvest is now just around the corner; we can begin to infer some of the effects on the crop commodity trade from what COVID-19 has already wrought. A third of our corn crop is used in ethanol production. With travel way down - and no foreknowledge of what consumption will be like when we emerge, post-COVID-19 - the critical leg in the food/feed/fiber/fuel stool seems loose. Not a lot of folks understand that less travel has an effect on farmers.
These challenging times - from the pressures that the pandemic puts on agricultural commodities and markets to the changes necessitated by the pandemic to safeguard our health - are making even more important the ability to closely manage your farm operations, using data to get the most out of each acre.
We are collectively getting an education in data science this year, being armchair epidemiologists monitoring the health of our communities and the state of the pandemic, as well as keeping our operations safe and functional. As farmers, many of us have had a few years to become familiar with the power of data to change the way we think about not only our operations, but the world around us.
A global pandemic, coupled with a changing climate, makes for an unpredictable future. The most revolutionary tool we now have in our sheds as farmers may be data. For the history of agriculture, we’ve been operating without a level of quality data that could fundamentally change the way farmers think about their operations.
We’re entering another agricultural revolution, driven by the aggregation and analysis of field and environment information, in ways that will not just maximize production and yields, but maximize the use of every acre and every input. With accurate modeling that takes into account many of the major factors in determining field productivity, we will be able to target optimum and sustainable yields, and partner for performance.
So much of farming, though, is driven by interpersonal relationships. There is little that has been more strained this year than our ability to reach out to each other, physically. For us as farmers, this is critical as we scout our fields, maintain and operate our equipment together, and troubleshoot issues with data, plant disease, weeds, and unforeseen circumstances in the environment.
Broadband access that serves farming communities isn’t always as good as we’d like it to be, but it’s getting better every day, and software is ready for it. Our tailgate agronomist catch-ups might be at a standstill, but the prevalence of video connection opens up a world of possibility to socialize on our tablets while social distancing in our offices.
Our ability to connect virtually with our trusted advisors is deepened by our ability to share the data and insights from our farms without being there. We have always held that data ownership rests with you. But these days, as we’re connecting virtually, we continue to offer you the ability to share your data with advisors, compatible partners, and platforms in the ways you choose, to facilitate better discussion and collaboration.
Advanced capabilities are on the horizon that will unlock even more potential for you to get more out of your data. Building on data management and sharing capabilities will be ever improving models that continually drive improved yields and greater performance.
Those models will be enabled by next-generation technologies, from drones that image fields and provide micro-targeted applications to artificial intelligence trained for accurately diagnosing problems in the field.
Labor shortages and the movement of people around the world are projected to be mitigated by automated operation management in the next few years as well. The future holds exciting things when it comes to equipment automation, including advanced technologies to improve on-farm safety, drone application of crop protection and foliar products, self-driving tractors and combines, and intelligent robotics to reduce food waste via selective harvests.
Innovations across agriculture will combine to drive the sustainability of farms of all sizes and types. These advanced technologies will ensure we get the most out of each acre, and maximize efficiency across all crop inputs.
We have kept up our pace of production this growing season despite uncertainty the world hasn’t seen in a century. Without knowing what the summer or fall - or beyond - would throw at us, the ag world has adapted and continues to persevere, though the pandemic has certainly not been without consequence.
The pivot and adaptation that farming has undergone underlie an industry made of resilient individuals. Time will tell how the coronavirus pandemic continues to affect farming. No matter what, we need to keep up the pace as we enter agriculture’s next revolution. The world needs our resilience.
We can’t be certain what’s next, but we can enter this next phase with an eye to the data, to what’s coming that will make farming more adaptable, resilient, and digital than ever.