The need for change is clear. As a sector, agriculture and forestry are responsible for 24% of global greenhouse gases while at the same time the world's agriculture industry is being asked to output 70% more food by the year 2050 to feed our growing population. It’s a dangerous dilemma to demand an industry already struggling with sustainability to push existing methodologies into full-throttle. There is little argument that innovation has an important role to play in unlocking both efficiencies in conventional methods but also re-designing how food is cultivated.
This global challenge makes it both an exciting and critically important time to be working with technology as a means of improving the fundamentals of agriculture: soil health, water and chemical management and optimizing harvest yield. In recent years, significant advancements have happened within the umbrella of precision agriculture. The industry has moved from in-field IoT sensors to robotic harvest machines to autonomous driving tractors. Beyond hardware devices, the industry has a growing presence in startup incubators with smart, dedicated teams working on software for everything from image recognition systems to blockchain solutions for food traceability.
With all this innovation, it must be an equally exciting time to be a farmer. And yet, the time I spend face to face with farmers - gives at best, a skeptical reaction to the technology seen in an agtech incubator. The skepticism is well founded. For most, the innovation presented at countless precision agriculture conferences feels too far away from the current state of the average farm. To be specific, I work primarily with tree crop producers who grow apples, pears and stone-fruit and occasionally I have the good fortune to mingle with mango and avocado growers too. Many of these farms (yes, even some of the larger operations) manage a season’s harvest through notebooks and spreadsheets.
Like most things in life, there isn’t one simple answer as to why agriculture has lagged in adopting digital work processes. Many will argue that farmers are some of the more advanced hardware users, investing hundreds of thousands if not more in high-end equipment and monitoring systems for everything from moisture to pests. For farms working with livestock, dairy and field crops, I would agree that the trends are ticking upwards for technology adoption of this kind.
However, for the orchard farmers growing fresh fruit, the equipment used is limited by the available space between the rows of trees. Most agricultural equipment built for tree crops is deemed low-profile and doesn’t come with all the bells and whistles you find on equipment servicing a wide-range of field crops. This is one of the many ways in which orchard farming is unique and requires a custom solution for mechanical equipment and integrated hardware. Members of the fruit growing community are often left feeling overlooked by the major agricultural equipment manufacturers, only adding fuel to the skepticism already felt about technology adoption.
If we move the discussion from hardware to software, a pattern emerges. A variety of software systems have come onto the market in recent years, usually under the term, ‘Farm Management System’, but few are focusing on the unique set of needs associated with permanent or semi-permanent tree crops. Planning cycles have longer timelines, plant replacement is often over 15-20 years and there are large labor forces that have to be managed in short bursts - to name just a few of the specific challenges. With fruit and nuts being some of the highest value (both nutritious value and economical value), the importance of optimizing the work processes for this segment of agriculture is huge.
How can we take a step in the right direction even if we aren’t ready to take the giant leap into image recognition based yield prediction? For starters we can capture data from every field in a structured way. In short, we can build a digital footprint of the farm so that we have an accurate starting point for future digital workflows. It sounds simplistic but doing this in a way that doesn’t create heaps of data maintenance (no farmer has time for that), takes thoughtful design work and many cups of coffee with your farming friends to solicit feedback.
At Farmable, our long-term vision is to feed the world while preserving the planet and our aim is to progress this vision by reinventing how farmers gather, organize and use their data. Our first challenge is to absolutely minimize the effort required to gather the data (think spray logs, pests and disease data, fertilizing treatments) and make a highly intuitive system for organizing it. If we manage to do this, there are countless opportunities to layer data on top of a farm’s digital footprint; integrating connected sensor data or daily satellite images are just the beginning. But the benefit of these more advanced data streams is limited if we don’t start with an accurate overview of the farm and reduce the barriers for maintaining operational field data.
Our team launched the first Farmable product in 2019 with a focus on European and Australian growers. By 2022, I hope that the problems facing farmers growing our food isn’t rooted in record keeping or data sharing but rather that simple digital tools have put this part of the equation behind us and given us a usable framework to truly innovate and start solving the sustainability / productivity dilemma that deserves our full attention.