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Navigating the Ag Tech Landscape

Ohio State University is helping farmers weed through the maze of precision ag technologies.

Farm management software continues to be one of the fastest-growing segments of agriculture technology. Start-ups offering drone services, airplane imagery, and remote-sensing technologies raised $572 million in 2018 alone, representing a 65% year-over-year increase, according to AgFunder’s 2018 AgriFood Tech Investing Report.

Yet, for many farmers, figuring out how to navigate the crowded landscape of technologies to determine which ones are right for their operations has become a headache – and even a nonstarter for some.

“There are over 150 digital technologies being offered to farmers today, and each one is a unique tool. How do you sift through that and figure out the value each one has to offer and which one will work best for you? That’s a tall order for anyone in today’s ag business,” says John Fulton, associate professor at Ohio State University (OSU) in the college of food, agricultural, and environmental sciences.

Education Initiatives

Since 2016, the Land Grant institution has created a variety of educational resources for students, as well as farmers, to navigate the confusing precision ag landscape. In 2018, it hosted four field days and workshops, issued five new Extension publications on precision ag topics, published 16 podcast episodes, and delivered 165 presentations. These efforts touched more than 15,000 farmers by the university’s estimate. It also counts 95 sites for on-farm research in 25 counties throughout Ohio.

One of the program’s highlights is its eFields research and outreach initiative, which is dedicated to field-scale research using a variety of modern precision ag tools to explore how they might be able to impact farm efficiency and profitability. Fulton says they’ve distributed over 10,000 hard copies of the report since January.

“We are not necessarily evaluating each tool but, instead, are trying to figure out how we can best use each tool to inform in-season decisions. We can report this back and build content that gets delivered at our Precision U event, which is geared for farmers who are focused on these tools,” Fulton says.

A Real Need Uncovered

Through eFields and Precision U, Fulton and the team have discovered a real need to help farmers and consultants learn best practices for collecting, organizing, and sharing the staggering amount of data some of these tools generate. The cost to attend workshops and field days ranges from free to $50.

“It’s overwhelming to figure out which tools to use, because if you can’t implement it, there’s no reason to spend your money on it,” says Ryan Lee, a corn and soybean operator in the state. 

Lee has experimented with a variety of technologies in his operation including GPS-guided auto steer and variable-rate systems. He has worked with OSU to run a number of precision ag-focused trials on his fields. Having research professionals at the helm takes the extra work out of developing a protocol, executing the study, and interpreting the data.

“I got to the point where I had all of this data, and I wasn’t doing anything with it,” he explains. “OSU is really good because you have to start with the basic building blocks when it comes to these technologies and move forward. The researchers are really good at involving you in the studies. Once you are on their list, you get regular emails with five to six study proposals asking you which ones you are interested in.”

Others Follow Suit

Other ag-focused institutions are building out similar programs. For example, Purdue runs an Agronomy e-Learning Academy featuring a 12-week precision course. South Dakota State University’s program includes internships with companies like Cargill and AGCO. Iowa State University has increased its tech-focused course offerings in recent years alongside University of Nebraska-Lincoln and Kansas State.

Back in the classroom, OSU is hoping to create a robust curriculum for students interested in careers in the precision ag sector. There are ample opportunities to turn precision ag savvy into a lucrative career by providing crop consulting services, agronomy services, or working for one of the many precision ag start-ups in the market.

“Our feedback says that students are interested in precision ag. For graduate students, for example, technology like this enables more on-farm research and the ability to collect a lot of data,” Fulton says. “As we conduct more field-scale research, understanding that data, the quality, the errors, and other factors to properly bring new research learning forward becomes more important.”

Some current course offerings include Introduction to Digital Agriculture, UAS and Remote Sensing in Agriculture, Introduction to Precision Agriculture, and Data Analytics in Production Agriculture. The school also offers graduate opportunities for students who want to deepen their experience with precision ag technologies including big data, precision livestock, and sustainability.

Fulton is also working on having a minor in digital ag approved as well as bringing a number of courses online to meet interest from a diverse array of students.

Offering courses that cover the ever-growing digital ag landscape is a lofty task, however. Designing courses to be comprehensive yet in-depth is a challenge that universities face when focused on increasing precision ag curriculum.

“We continually see new sensors or technologies come to market. We try to incorporate those within topics wherever they fall, but I think we recognize, especially on the software side, that we won’t make data scientists out of these students,” Fulton says. “What is important is teaching sound agronomy. Our expectation is that if students go on to work for a company, they will learn that specific platform. We want to make sure students have enough awareness to determine whether sound agronomy is being implemented.”

Challenges Remain

Despite the progress, OSU still faces a number of challenges when it comes to providing farmers the educational tools they need to understand these new technologies. 

“Digital tech is a virtual thing; it’s not a hands-on experience. It’s very hard for some people to comprehend some of the topics we talk about like sharing data. ‘How does this happen in the cloud and then get delivered back to me?’ ” Fulton says. 

At the same time, there is so much that goes on at the farm level that getting farmers to connect with the topic of ag data can be difficult. 

“When we look at the results from our digital tech studies over the last three years, the most common words that farmers use to describe their technology needs are ‘simple’ and ‘simplifying,’ ” he says.

In-house data collection, cleaning data, and experimenting with new tools in research trials are extra burdens. Although going through the process of using each technology better enables OSU to match farmers to the right tool, the process can be painstakingly tedious at times.

Adding course offerings at the undergraduate and graduate levels will help increase the number of educators and experts who can use their degrees to assist farmers in the field, but the ability to expand curriculum is limited by the number of qualified instructors who are up to the task, Fulton says.

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