Precision ag evolving quickly

Companies are lining up to help farmers manage, analyze and integrate data collection

If you’re a Canadian grain grower in the 21st century and you’re not using precision agriculture tools to reach your full productive potential, then it might be time to reassess the way you’re doing things on the farm.

That was the key message delivered by speakers and representatives from various agriculture technology companies who attended the Farms.com Precision Agriculture Conference in Saskatoon Oct. 25.

The event attracted dozens of technology companies that displayed the latest in precision ag products.

“Precision ag today is different that what it was even 10 years ago,” said Wade Barnes, president and chief executive officer of Farmers Edge.

“Ten years ago … it was focused around GPS technology, driving the tractor straight, gathering data. But I think today, precision agriculture has really morphed into what I would call decision agriculture or digital ag.

“It’s about taking all of this data and information that we’ve been logging and putting it to use finally, to actually help a farmer make a decision that impacts his bottom line.”

Precision agriculture is still a relatively new industry but it’s evolving quickly.

The market for digital products — from variable rate mapping systems to cloud-based data analytics — is attracting a lot of product developers.

Last week’s conference included dozens of companies, from local start-ups to global powerhouses, such as Monsanto and Microsoft.

Farmers have access to a wide range of services and technologies and assessing their relevance and applicability can be daunting.

Monsanto’s acquisition of Climate Corp. a few years ago was a touchstone event for the sector, Barnes added.

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Since then, many new entrants have been crowding into the space, hoping to secure market share in an industry that has huge growth potential in Canada and around the world.

As the market matures, there will be mergers, consolidations and new innovators, he added.

But ultimately, it will be the users — farmers, agronomists and grassroots decision makers — who determine which companies prosper.

“The space has changed very quickly with Monsanto acquiring Climate Corp., (which came) with this a huge, billion-dollar number so what you saw after that was this real drive toward innovation … with a lot of tech companies jumping into agriculture,” Barnes said.

“I don’t think farmers are overwhelmed by (digital ag),” he continued.

“To be honest, I think they’ve been waiting for it ….

“They’re saying ‘look, I’m in the business of farming. I want this tool to tell me what to do and when to do it and I want to be able to trust that it’s accurate.’ ”

Data integration will be critically important as the market matures, he added.

“You might have five companies offering five different services and each one of them might be very important on its own. But the farmer has to be the one that sort of marshals it all together and he may not have time for that (type of management).

“I think … the companies that can be fully integrated … are the ones that are going to be successful,” he continued.

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“There’s not many like that in the industry right now and … it will take deep pockets so I think what you might see is that movement toward consolidation … where the bigger companies with deeper pockets are the ones that are gong to be able to build those fully integrated platforms.”

Joe Dales, founder and senior vice-president of Farms.com, said Western Canada’s farmers are no strangers to digital technologies.

However, adoption is still in the early stages.

“There’s a lot of new technology hitting the market today so I think it’s just a really dynamic time for technology in the agricultural marketplace,” said Dales, whose company organized the Oct. 25 event.

“It can be a bit intimidating and confusing for farmers so we just wanted to get everybody together so we could talk about what’s out there ….”

Dales said the adoption of digital technologies on the farm has advanced significantly since Farms.com hosted its first Precision Agriculture Conference five years ago.

He said farmers in Western Canada are eager to embrace technologies that can increase yields and boost profitability.

However, farmers and product developers have yet to understand the full potential of the available technologies, let alone those that are yet to come.

“Today, we have access to data and tools and technologies that we’ve never had before, so I think there’s some tremendous potential, especially in Western Canada,” Dales said.

“We’ve got great scale, we’ve got wonderful farmers, we’ve got productive soil and I think we all know we can get more productivity out of our operations. It’s just a question of how.

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“The analogy that I like to use is that it feels like we’re in the fourth inning of a nine inning ball game. We’ve started to (recognize the potential of this) … but there’s still a long way to go.”