Trading Pitchforks for Smartphone Apps- The Modern Farmer’s Newest Farming Essential

 

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Farm staff boots up FarmLogs application on their personal device

 

When you think of a farmer what comes to mind? Is it an old-school family-owned operation involving a pitchfork and a pair of overalls? Maybe you think of Old McDonald tipping his straw hat while looking over his happy chickens and pigs in a bountiful field of vegetables and fruits.

If you’re from Ann Arbor, you may think about the farmer’s market and farmers like Shannon Brines, who attends every week to hand out produce to his customers from the back of his truck.  You think of his customers who gather under the worn down “Brines Farm” sign, hung every Saturday morning by two crooked wires curled around the support beams of the overhead covering.

In reality, modern farming is a complex business operation.  From the Brines family farm to massive cash crop farms, we are in the age when “every farmer is out in their cab with a smartphone with an app on it that’s providing them data of what is going on in their field” says Brad Koch, Co-founder of FarmLogs, also located in Ann Arbor.

FarmLogs is one of many young agriculture technology start-ups that have kick-started the fast-growing industry for precision agriculture applications in the past five years.   As a definitive leader in this field, FarmLogs provides a wide range of information as well as services like field mapping and soil composition maps via a smartphone application.  The application is designed to provide real time data tailored to each farm directly to the hands of any farmer, categorized as a precision agriculture service.  What makes the application exciting for more than just the farmers using it, is the environmentally friendly practices it naturally implements.

The data provided is intended to conserve resources like water and reduce the over application of fertilizers that can damage the environment.  According to Koch, this issue is something that FarmLogs considers in their efforts to innovate as science and technology evolve. The goal is ultimately providing a product that will significantly benefit both the environment and farmers at large, by cutting increasing yield and decreasing waste.

According to the USDA 2016 report “Farm Profits and Adoption of Precision Agriculture,” the adoption of precision agriculture practices, similar to what the FarmLogs application provides, has resulted in improvements in net returns and operating profits for average sized corn farmers.  This is true even when considering the overhead costs of adopting the technology itself. Though this is great for cash crop farms spanning for several thousand acres, precision agriculture practices have yet to show widespread benefits for small to medium sized farms.

Brine’s farm is about 80 acres of “diversified fruits and vegetables” and he has yet to find an application he feels supports a combination of precision agricultural information while also tapping into what he calls his farming “niche” of a small, local farmer.

What gives Brines an advantage in this market gap is his extensive background in using geographic location systems (GIS), which is a computer system for visualizing and interpreting trends in the earth.  He uses multiple GIS mobile and desktop applications to plan the best way he can utilize the landscape.  “This has not always been the easiest thing to share with people that help me on the farm” says Brines.  “I need something that can work for everyone.”

As start-up businesses continue to rapidly expand the industry of agriculture technology, everything comes down to ensuring that the services will decrease their “bottom line” says Koch.  Dr. Scott Swinton, a professor in the Agricultural, Food, and Resource Economics Department at Michigan State University, has studied the factors that prevent farmers from adopting precision technology. Dr. Swinton has shown that farmers are either unable to afford new technology or do not adopt it because they are skeptical that they will see a return on their investment.

The 4R Nutrient Stewardship Certification Program, which has been used by landowners and farmers in the Lake Erie watershed to help stop the bad algal blooms occurring in the lake, uses a different approach to simultaneously improve the environment and the stakeholders’ net profits.  The program consists of four main points (4R’s) being Right source, Right time, Right place, and Right rate to “maximize economic, social, and environmental performance of nutrient application.”

What this program brings to the table is an idea of farms voluntarily adopting this type of precision agriculture technology to earn a certification symbolizing a reduction in their greenhouse gasses.  This certification can then be sold to companies who are working to reduce their emissions.  Could this program decrease monetary risk for farmers, therefore increasing their willingness to adopt precision agriculture practices?

Though this idea sounds appealing, a recent paper published by the Journal of Great Lakes Research, points out that earning certification from this program is a very difficult task.  Farmers are in a constant “time crunch,” according to Dr. Swinton, making it likely for them to  pass up an opportunity like the 4R’s certification program on their land and use their time for a task that will deliver  certain and immediate rewards.  Therefore, farmers are often faced with a choice to do something that is environmentally friendly or to do something that boost their profits.

From the many advanced smartphone applications, to Brines’ make-shift solution, to the 4Rs, the precision agriculture field is just beginning to be tapped into, according to Hillary Zdanowski.  Zdanowski is a Customer Advocate for FarmLogs who is in constant contact with the farmers to whom her company provides services.   There is not one solution that can be used to benefit the agricultural business. But for any to be successful, she, Brad, and Brines all agree that an intimate relationship with farmers is necessary.

If people care about where their food comes from or the viability of continuing to accomplish the yield numbers necessary to feed the growing population, according to Koch, it is imperative to consider both the farmer’s success and the health of our environment.

Our image of farmers needs upgrading.  The pitchfork is here to stay but the need for cutting edge tools using smart, affordable and easy to use technology to help farmers and our environment is a point worthy of consideration.

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