Editorial: Evaluating farm tech adoption

Is agriculture ahead or behind the rest of the economy on the technology curve?

I’ve always said ahead, but those who monitor these sorts of things from outside the industry always rank agriculture as a “mature” or “legacy” sector that lags behind other sectors in technology adoption.

The answer is likely somewhere in the middle – way faster than those outside of the sector think – but slower than I like to believe.

When I was doing some consulting work in a previous life, a high tech company with which I interacted put down the fact I had experience in agriculture, as it was low-tech.

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I did mention the growing prevalence of real-time biometric monitoring of animals and the fact that the most-widely adopted vehicle automation was in agriculture, but the urban sense of farming didn’t overcome my arguments.

I’m exposed to the latest and greatest in agriculture technology and we’ve made covering it a priority at Farmtario. Yes the technology exists, but how quickly do farmers adopt it? In some cases it is very quickly (such as with autosteer), in others it is a long haul.

There’s age, and we know that farmers are older. We know that age means something in business technology adoption. I don’t completely buy the age argument. My generation, Generation X, has been a rapid adopter of technology and we, well, are not as young as we used to be. We’re rapidly approaching the age at which they say people become averse to technology adoption, but I’m not sure that’s going to be the case. We were the first generation to have computers in school and have moved fluidly through the adoption of mini-computers to the rise of the internet, to smart phones to tablets and now to sensors. We weren’t born with this technology, but we’ve adopted it quickly.

The other factor is that farms remain “small” businesses, although those farms run by full-time farmers sure aren’t that small. However, with tens of thousands of businesses to move through the adoption process in agriculture instead of 100 or 1000 as there often are in other sectors of the economy, the work and the process can be slower. That’s not always a bad thing but it can reduce the time it takes to market start-up companies. Some agriculture startups have told me that they don’t fit the usual model of dash to market of other technology companies.

There are specific examples of where farm technology similar to technology in other sectors is adopted quickly. Take, for example, robotic feed pushers on dairy farms. They are certainly mainstream and many companies now offer them, after Lely introduced the concept in its Juno years ago. That type of technology is just now moving into supermarkets as cleaning robots. Some of them are being rolled out in the north-east U.S. and the reaction from consumers has been mixed.

A recent study by the sales management software company Salesforce looked at Canadian adoption of technology and its effect on business success.

It paid specific attention to agriculture, mining and manufacturing (which it called legacy sectors), with the assumption that agriculture is a mature business that doesn’t adopt technology quickly.

The report says that 81 per cent of businesses believe Canada is an innovative country, yet 52 per cent lag behind the rest of the world in adopting new technology in their businesses.

It says that companies that have invested in digital technology are twice as likely to say their business has grown strongly over the last three years.

Agriculture companies have similar barriers to technology adoption experienced in other sectors including market conditions, staffing and government regulation.

When it came to the actual adoption of technology, agriculture was ahead of mining and manufacturing, but well behind faster adopters of technology in other sectors.

The whole issue of digital technology adoption is more complex than people make it out to be, but there’s little doubt agriculture adopts some technologies quicker than other sectors of the economy.

About the author

Editor

John Greig has spent his career in agriculture journalism and communications. He lives on a farm near Ailsa Craig, Ontario. Contact John at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @jgreig

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