By Lisa Boonstoppel-POt
Digital infrastructure needs to be thought of as a digital barn, a place where data is stored, analyzed and maintained so that when new markets emerge, farmers are ready to participate profitably.
So says Jesse Hirsh, a digital strategist and futurist who shared his knowledge and experience in technology with farmers via an online webinar offered by Farm Credit Canada on their website. Hirsh says agriculture is as driven by data as any other industry and farmers need to be in control of it to be sustainable and profitable moving forward.
In fact, he says dairy farming is among the leaders in robotic technology (see accompanying story on robotics at the Pletsch dairy farm) from robotic milkers, to feeders, to manure cleaners. Robotics company Lely even has a robot to harvest and serve fresh grass to cows while measuring the quality of the grass, the quantity being eaten per cow and then correlating that data to cow health and milk production.
Will all farmers embrace how robots are changing farming? It’s a philosophical thing, says Hirsh. “Different farmers have different philosophies but everyone needs to start thinking about the digital farm and the purpose of your technology,” explains Hirsh. For some farmers, digitization is about increasing efficiency and making more money. For others, it’s about value-add and sustainability.
For instance, John Deere’s Blue River Technology has a sprayer attachment that uses artificial intelligence to apply pesticides only where needed. This can dramatically lower input costs and increase overall efficiency. This concept also applies to nutrient management. “Instead of painting a field like a single canvas, you can paint a masterpiece. You can use specific strokes on each and every field to achieve truly precise agriculture.” Furthermore, Blue River Technology collects data allowing the database to identify different weeds and their resistance to sprays, as the weeds themselves evolve.
Hirsh reviewed a few robotic and digitized options farmers are adopting around the world. Naive technologies in France has a hybrid weeding machine that also uses AI but instead of applying pesticides, it uses a little blade to cut down weeds as they grow between the rows. These robots are cheaper than other attachments and much more mission specific. They require a custom map of the fields to be weeded and specific input on the weeds to be cut. Data is always a prerequisite to accessing this technology.
Small Robot Company is a British company that has created a fleet of tiny robots. “Like ‘lawnmower’ tiny,” says Hirsh. They are designed to communicate with one another. One little robot sprays, another weeds and another seeds but they “teach” each other about the field and have a series of “checks and balances” to analyze each other’s work to minimize mistakes.
The benefit of using robots for cropping, dairy and other farming ventures is labour savings. Like many businesses, the agriculture industry is facing a labour shortage. “Being able to manage larger fields and acreage with automation frees up humans to make management decisions,” says Hirsh.
Robots and data collection also allow farmers to be more transparent about their production practices, something consumers are demanding to feel secure about food safety. “We still live in a world where farmers can farm the way they want but increasingly, the medium is the message and the process is the purpose,” says Hirsh. “How you raise your crops and livestock is important to consumers and they will want to have proof.”
As more farmers embrace robotics that allow them to collect data, the value chain is being transformed by technology. “It used to be that the farmers had labour, equipment, feed, water, seeds and crop protection. But increasingly, the world of agriculture technology is collecting data and is data driven. This entire ecosystem depends on data from farmers to build their products. Either they (the company) will NOT tell you how essential your business data is to their business model or they will be honest and provide some type of deal or business relationship.” Or, suggests Hirsh, farmers should store their data like grain in silos until the market price is right to sell their data.
Ultimately, using technology is about literacy and getting on the learning curve. It’s also about taking action. Hirsh urges farmers to learn how to manage their data by, as mentioned earlier, building their digital barns. “Have you thought about ways to protect and maintain your technology?”
To do it, he also urges farmers to work together and use existing software and hardware to increase their internet efficiency. He referenced a Spanish group at guifi.net which physically laid out their own fibre optics infrastructure so they could share data and video amongst themselves. Other farmers who wanted cheaper and faster connections have staged protests with tractors, taking over highways to demand better internet. Others have created Edge Clouds meaning, they created Clouds on their own properties to create video surveillance on their farms.
Hirsh himself created his own mini-Edge Cloud to use agriculture automation without being cut off or slowed by “craptacular” internet connections. He used Ubiquity gear to set up a video system to monitor his animals and property without an internet connection. It definitely takes some learning but the hardware and software are out there for farmers who want to control their own technological destinies.
Hirsh also recommends using devices like Raspberry Pi micro computers which cost anywhere from $10 to $50 and can use sensors to manage barn temperatures and collect data that only the farmers themselves can see. “Companies want to gather that data themselves for future products but you can gather it yourself by building your own AI models. Before you say its too crazy, there are a lot of tutorials out there to teach you,” says Hirsh.
“Pretend your farm is the only internet that matters and use technology to extend the internet across your farm. I have run an ethernet cable to the barn so at every place on my farm, there is wifi. Part of Edge computing is just ignoring the internet,” concluded Hirsh.
To learn about Edge computing and creating your own digital barn, you can watch Hirsh’s webinar at https://www.fcc-fac.ca/en/knowledge/digitize-your-farm.html ◊