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How age of operator, farm size determine ag tech use

Blaine Harrington III/Getty Images three generations of farmers standing on farm equipment
GENERATIONAL IMPACT: New agriculture technology is adopted most by those farming operations that employ multiple generations rather than sole proprietors. The combination of solid financials of the older generations mixed with the innovation of the next generation seem to bring about change more quickly.
Ag tech adoption varies depending on the generation, and who uses it may surprise you.

In conversations with farmers, Terry Griffin hears their fear of being behind in adopting technology. He reassures them they are not alone. Not every farmer has every piece of ag tech, and he has data to prove it.

Griffin, a cropping systems economist at Kansas State University, relies on statistics from the Farm Management Association, which has written papers going back 100 years and electronic data going back to the early 1970s.

He calls it a “living database” because farmers are in it for several decades. There are more than 2,000 farms in the system. It is largely focused on financial as well as production data acreage, such as yields and input usage. But over the years, questions surrounding technology use on the farm have been added.

“Essentially we asked farmers, what technologies do you have on your farm today and when did you adopt those technologies?” he explains. “And if you stopped using them for whatever reason, what year did you stop using them? We revisit this twice a year.”

The answers drew a picture of ag technology use on the farm, and it all depended on the age of the operator and type of operation, such as sole proprietor or multigenerational.

How much technology?

Griffin looked at data from 656 farmers to determine the level of technology adoption in agriculture. They included use of yield mapping, yield monitor, automated guidance, automated section control, lightbar, grid soil sampling, variable-rate fertility, and variable-rate seeding.

According to the data, not all farmers have all eight technologies listed in the survey. “At best, we have about 70% that have automated guidance,” Griffin notes.

sole proprietor farms chart

He points out for Kansas farmers alone, the most common number of technologies adopted on farms is three. “The second-most common number of technologies is zero,” he adds. “Not all farms have all technologies.” However, the third-most common number of technologies is five. “Very few farmers have all eight.”

But who uses the technology most may offer insight into the next steps for ag tech adoption.

Ag tech use by age group

Griffin looked at the five different generations. Here is a quick review:

Silent generation. Farmers born before World War II.  

Baby boomer. People born after World War II from 1946 to 1964.

Generation X. Those born between 1965 and 1980.

Millennial. People born between 1981 and 1996.

Generation Z. Young farmers born between 1997 and 2012.

For the most part, the silent generation, baby boomers and Gen X were born before the large adoption of the internet we see today. Millennials came into the world in its early use, but adapted quickly. Gen Z only knows a world with the internet.

Griffin assessed their use of technology — those eight items — as individual owners of a farm.

“What stuck in my mind, is that the millennials have a very similar distribution as the silent generation,” he says, “which is interesting because these two should be on opposite ends of the spectrum.” Both had similar use of each technology.

Griffin speculated that it might not be because of lack of want, but millennials may simply not have the money to add technology to their operation.

However, when a younger and older generation farm together, the tech use changes.

Multigenerational farms add tech

The data shows that on a farm with multiple decision-makers from a variety of generations, the amount of technology on the farm increases. 

“What we know is multiple operator farms typically have more acreage,” Griffin explains. “And we also know that ag technology is favored by larger acreage to spread out fixed cost.”

However, the silent generation and baby boomers tend to be more financially secure than the younger Gen X, Gen Z and millennials. “We also know that millennials have an influence on older generations,” Griffin noted.

In his research, early indicators suggest that putting a younger generation operator with an older generation on the same farm, the farm tends to have more technology than if those generations were sole farm proprietors. Leading the ag tech movement are operations that include at least one baby boomer.

One tech farmers won’t live without

Automation.

Griffin says a lot of technologies like automated guidance; he could create spreadsheets to show that minimizing overlaps saves on inputs, and farmers can cover more acres in the same amount of time with the same equipment. “The profitability is pretty clear cut,” he says. “But with that technology, it's almost like that doesn't matter so much as the quality of life aspects.”

He laughs when he thinks about someone coming to a farm and asking to pay a farmer to remove automated guidance from equipment. “Yeah, it’s a technology that you’re not going to be willing to give up anytime soon because it improves utility,” Griffin says. “That’s a word economists use to mean satisfaction. You’re happier. You have a better quality of life.”

So, there are technologies farmers will pay for. However, until farmers can apply human capital to make all the data technologies work, adding every piece of new technology may not be for everybody. Some farms are probably never going to adopt all the data technologies until there is someone, maybe a younger generation, willing to take over more of the farming operation, Griffin adds.

Griffin is continuing his research to see exactly how much the next generation will influence ag tech acceptance on the farm.

FOMO and decision-making

The one thing that trips up farmers in jumping too soon into agriculture technology is FOMO.

FOMO, or fear of missing out, is a struggle for some farmers, Griffin says. “Farmers tell me that they feel like they're getting behind because they don't have all the technologies,” he says. “But where does FOMO go on the benefit cost equation? Does it go on the benefit side or does it go on the cost side? It's a trick question because it should not be a part of your decision-making process.”

Griffin argues that farmers need to ignore that fear when trying to decide about adoption of a service or technology, and not let the fear of missing out affect making profitable decisions for the operation.

Studies show that farmers are slower to adopt new technology than previously thought, Griffin says. It usually takes 15 years for technology to reach a critical mass. “So, sometimes waiting is the ultimate decision,” he adds.

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