Illinois farmer Steve Pitstick was holding court at a big round table in a San Francisco hotel, with a handful of wide-eyed venture capitalists, soil scientists, entrepreneurs, startup CEOs and other tech geeks hanging on his every word.
“Part of me felt like I was in a cage at the zoo – all these people looking at me like, ‘Oh, a real farmer,’” says Pitstick, who has experimented with new technology nearly all his farming career.
More to the point, they were looking for what farmers like Pitstick want and need from Silicon Valley. The answers are not always clear, despite the 1,300 people gathered at the World Agri-Tech Innovation Summit last week.
Session after session, panel after panel, the talk focused on how technology could help solve farmer problems. But only one panel featured real farmers.
“What’s missing in the ag tech revolution is the real link to actual farmers, in finding the solutions to what is needed,” says Pitstick, who is part of a sizable corn and soybean family operation that includes two brothers, a son and nephew near Maple Park, IL. “What I’m seeing out here is too many solutions looking for a problem.
“If ag tech is going to be successful it needs to flip that over. Come ride with me, ask me what my pain points are, and you’ll be successful with your outcome.”
That missing link between corn belt farming and Silicon Valley startups, is hardly surprising. Most farmers aren’t on LinkedIn, a professional online network, and few would spend the time or money to attend such a conference. It’s one reason why the Illinois Soybean Association is focusing more on ag technology and ponied up sponsor money for a booth. It was the only state or national commodity group there.
The biggest insight I have about this meeting is that lack of connection,” says Pitstick, an ISA director. “One of the things ISA is doing is building some type of collaboration where you can come to Illinois and pair up with farmers to test whatever it is you’re bringing to market. We’re also trying to bring more interest and foster ag tech innovation in Illinois.”
What does Silicon Valley know about farming?
You might say the partnership between corn belt agriculture and Silicon Valley is in a ‘get-to-know-me’ stage. You could make that assumption from the kinds of questions Pitstick got during his roundtable.
“I was most surprised by the general lack of knowledge of what we deal with on the farm,” he says.
Over the course of an hour the techies at Pitstick’s table got a nice overview of how a commercial farmer thinks about technology. Like many, Pitstick started some 20 years ago with GPS yield mapping and soil sampling, then adopted GMO technologies; autosteer came along in 2004, moving into cloud-based data management in the past five years.
“I work a lot with technology to see what will make my operation better, but sometimes it feels like a technology treadmill,” he told his audience. “There’s always something new coming to separate us out from the average.”
What makes you decide to adopt a technology? a listener asked.
“The stuff that gets adopted really quick is the ROI that I can quantify,” says Pitstick. “What is quick? It depends on the cost. If it cost about $5,000 a machine to incorporate and if I could get a two-year payoff I would adopt it.
“The autosteer return on investment is in comfort,” he adds. “It made my life easier.”
The biggest technology going forward, adds Pitstick, is working in the cloud, “so everybody in the operation can see what’s been done. It’s made management easier. It’s hard to put a payback value on that.”
Is imaging next?
Pitstick’s audience grilled him on the value of imaging – from satellites, drones or airplanes.
“We’ve looked at it for 10 years,” he says. “The resolution and cameras have gotten enormously better; the problem is, it’s all reactive. The image is going to show something negative that happened in the field and I don’t want that; we need it to be proactive.
Better imagery may be useful over time to build a data base that can help prevent a problem before it begins, he adds. “For most farmers we can blame it on the weather,” he says. “I would say half the things we do wrong are human influence, but we don’t know it; it’s often a one-time fix.”
Labor is a problem for grain farming in part because people are only needed a third of the year, so keeping them employed full time is a challenge. He believes autonomous vehicles will help, but they are still generations away.
“Machines that drive themselves are the easy part,” he says. “Part of the step-change is a smarter machine that can do other things like depth control in planting. Modeling is another. We apply nitrogen for corn based on historical need; as we get into more modeling based on data and on what the soil can give us, we can feed the crop better.”
Another techie asked: Would you rather own or lease technology?
“Typically, as farmers we like to own it,” Pitstick says. “We love ownership, but I believe we’re transitioning to more of a subscription model where you pay for use and it updates over time.”
Pitstick believes future breakthroughs will occur below the soil.
“There’s big potential for microbial,” he says. “Can we release more nutrients in the soil? A fertile slice of soil 6-inches deep weighs 2 million pounds an acre; If we apply 100 pounds per acre are we really making a difference?
“Focus on that below ground part, what goes into nutrient management and water quality,” he suggests. “Just remember, there’s a big giant industry out there focused on selling fertilizer. You will potentially upset infrastructure.”