Digital technologies are apparently revolutionizing farming. We asked Marion Meyer, Head of Business Development, and Jörg Migende from the Digital Farming business unit at the agriculture group BayWa whether there is any truth to this claim, and what it means – for farmers and for BayWa.
Automatic systems feeding livestock, tractors using GPS to take the perfect route across a field, farmers using apps to manage their operations: Ms. Meyer and Mr. Migende, all this has already become reality in some places in the agricultural sector. But what does the future hold?
Meyer: Data-driven, measurable, and above all networked information is providing new scope for people to get what they need from natural resources in a careful and responsible way. We will have to wait and see how long it takes for farmers in different parts of the world to embrace digitalization and smart farming. We are however convinced that digital services will not only support the work of those in the agricultural sector, but can also provide our customers with a number of new options for managing their operations.
What makes you think that?
Migende: Take, for example, digitalization in the music industry. As recently as 20 years ago, many of us wouldn’t have even thought of managing our music digitally. Today, it would be hard to imagine not having these convenient applications at our fingertips.
It’s a similar situation with smart farming – it’s just that many applications are still at the development stage, and people will undoubtedly realize its potential in the near future.
Farmers are right to look closely at what really provides value.
But with your customers, of course, we’re not talking about music. They have entirely different needs.
Meyer: Yes, of course. It’s about managing their operations, their equipment costs, optimizing their harvests and yields. But looking at the developments already available today, we can see how digital services support our customers in distributing fertilizer, for example, and help them to optimize how this fertilizer is used in specific areas and at specific times. After carrying out our own pilot tests in agricultural enterprises, we determined for instance that automatic steering and site-specific distribution can have a positive impact on business. However, each business should analyze for themselves which investments and innovations in digitalization would be beneficial in their particular case. Farmers should always seek advice for their individual situation.
Do farmers understand why that is important? Do they not tend to err on the side of caution when it comes to new technologies?
Meyer: In our experience, our customers are very open to new developments in technology: for instance, even today, more than 75 percent of large, high-horsepower tractors sold in Germany are equipped with automatic steering systems, digital field record systems are generally quite common, and according to a survey carried out on behalf of the digital association Bitkom, 20 percent of all agricultural businesses already use Industry 4.0 applications. Still, customers are right to look closely at what really provides value – it’s not only about the potential costs for a certain technology; it’s also about the efforts required for the yield and the success of the business.
This new technology allows farmers to distribute fertilizer in a better way.
Can you be a little more specific? Where and how is digital technology used on farms?
Migende: Let us take an example project that is also involved with. Today, satellite technology allows us to create biomass maps of fields at a fraction of the cost of traditional methods. That means it has become an interesting option for small businesses. These maps make it possible to carry out a precise analysis of the amount of crops that grow on a particular patch of land over a particular period of time. By looking at the growth of this biomass and adding further data from soil and crop samples, you can calculate the level of nutrition the field needs in the future. BayWa
And what happens then?
Meyer: The software uses this information to create what is called a fertilizer application map. This tells the farmer the precise amount of nutrients required by the different parts of the field in order to achieve a better yield. It also reveals where too much fertilizer may have been used in the past. This new technology therefore allows farmers to distribute fertilizer in a new and far better way – one that benefits the soil, the yield, the farmer, and even the environment. The system even provides the settings for configuring the tractor and fertilizer spreader. In a few years, farmers will be able to use these methods to optimize how pesticides are distributed with the help of field robots.
Why is that not an option right now?
Migende: It’s a complex process. There are numerous factors and variables – and not least legal regulations – to consider. The projects in this area are still at the trial stage, but it is only a matter of time before we are able to provide helpful and beneficial applications in this area, too.
Transparency is key.
If digital infrastructure in rural areas isn’t improved, then surely the smartest Big Data features are of little use.
Meyer: Yes, absolutely. Politicians and infrastructure providers must therefore act to provide fast and above all comprehensive Internet coverage across the country – in particular in non-urban areas. Some progress has been made here, but we must continue to work flat out in order to make this happen. America is a good benchmark in this respect; there, it is possible to synchronize data from the accessory equipment out in the cornfields.
At the same time, for many farmers there’s the fear that being transparent will leave them at the mercy of large conglomerates because their business data is circulating on the Internet. What do you think about that?
Migende: We take these open issues regarding the collection, analysis, and use of data in the agricultural sector very seriously. Who does the data belong to? Who can use it and for what purposes? How can secure data collection and data transfer be ensured? BayWa has a clear position on these points: the farmers’ personal and business data belongs to the farmers themselves. They are free to decide who they give their data to and for what purpose. At the same time, this data has to be protected as effectively as possible against theft and misuse. Fortunately, the German data protection law provides a very clear framework here. It’s one of the reasons why we at BayWa host all of our data only on servers in Germany or other EU states.
But farmers will only be able to apply the features of digital farming once they have released some of their data for service providers to use, won’t they?
Meyer: That is correct. But that is a necessary step; after all, these services include the ability to use raw data to generate new and above all valuable information and services that the customer can then take and apply in practice. That means that transparency is key, especially when we’re talking about processed or refined data. Farmers must have a clear idea of who is using their data, for what purpose, and what that person does with that data. The level of trust between the customer and provider plays a significant role in this process.
What further challenges do you see?
Migende: Smart farming solutions must always be compatible with the machinery and equipment used by the customer. Vendor independence is worth a lot, both today and tomorrow. The integration of digital products and services should always be in line with the guiding principles of a credible advisory service and fair competition. Digitalization must not be allowed to create a situation where farmers feel that decisions are being made for them; after all, farmers insist on being independent and taking responsibility for themselves as entrepreneurs – and that’s a good thing.
Image credits: istock/Avalon_Studio, istock/jeffbergen