Data science key to close the productivity gap, empower the next global ag transformation today

By Ron LeMay

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



Editor's note: Agri-Pulse and The Chicago Council on Global Affairs are teaming up to host a monthly column to explore how the U.S. agriculture and food sector can maintain its competitive edge and advance food security in an increasingly integrated and dynamic world. 

During the past months, US agriculture policies occupied a low profile in Iowa and New Hampshire. While finer points of old policies were discussed, the opportunity for new innovation to close the global productivity gap in a sustainable manner and increase overall profitability for farmers remains a persistent and growing challenge. Now is the time to lead a moon shoot for agriculture - rooted in data science.

Lets Talk Food

And, the clock is ticking. Global economic pressures promote a dangerous hunker down survival mindset, limiting adoption of new tools and perspectives. While many farmers in the US decry the cost of precision agriculture technology, the industry is running up a mounting bill for imprecision. The cost of imprecision, in good and bad times, is enormous and growing. Alleviating this problem in the US is the first step to scaling up this technology globally.  

Quality data science not only supports continued American agriculture leadership, but also can be the crucial difference for farmers around the world. Teaching small holder farmers to use data science is the foundation to the digital agriculture transformation, just as cell phones have connected African farmers directly to markets. This increased productivity here and abroad is a force multiplier that will lead to reduced poverty and hunger alleviation in developing countries. Through data science, farmers can learn when is the best time to apply fertilizer, which fields can achieve higher productivity, and how to validate management decisions. Data is the key to help address the complex challenge we all face - eliminating hunger by 2030.

As the energy, telecommunications, financial and other industries have learned, access to tools based on actionable, quality data to inform decision-making drives incomes and reduces risk. This is a game changer for agriculture. While the good news is quality data tools are available today and improving rapidly, the adoption of those tools based on high quality data must accelerate to have a timely and lasting impact.

Last week, the USDA reported farm net incomes continue to decline, making 2016 the lowest since 2002. Farmers continue to face mounting challenges at the farm gate, despite safety nets. But we can't rely on old policies to bail us out. Now is the time to carefully evaluate policies to ensure they support ongoing innovation and technology adoption. An Iowa State University study recently indicated that more than a quarter of farmland in that high producing state alone is unprofitable. In addition, productivity on existing farm land is relatively flat. The answer cannot be land expansion and continued investments and policies that maintain the status quo. We've already proven that more land does not always equal higher productivity. The problem is solvable. Let's call on policy makers to foster innovation on every acre and encourage adoption of high quality data science.

New tools and approaches can permit farmers to cut equipment costs as a percent of total non-land cost, improve his or her competitive agronomic performance and improve grain marketing using real-time market analytics. Exploitation of those tools can permit farmers not only to survive, but thrive at current commodity prices. Those who hunker down, and protect the status quo, run the great risk of innovation passing them by while they miss real investment opportunities today. Innovation is most critical when times are hard.

Quality Data Enables Competitive Business Decisions

For more than six years, FarmLink collected research-quality data to build the industry's most robust yield data platform and benchmark for corn, soy and wheat. With a scientifically-proven data set combined with extraordinary care in management and quality assurance, our data scientists delivered products to help level the playing field for all farmers. Through a collaboration with DTN/The Progressive Farmer, we are helping farmers make informed, real-time business decisions, including grain marketing. As with innovation in other industries, technology will quickly evolve. Top producers who master these tools today will realize their benefits ahead of the game and maintain a leadership position in the global marketplace. What's needed now are policies aimed at enabling ag entrepreneurs, who stand ready to drive the data transformation. 

I closely observed and participated in a period of tumultuous change in telecommunications spawned by the government's breakup of the Bell System and the aggressive introduction of competition. I served as an officer of both AT&T and Southwestern Bell during that chaotic period. The principal lesson I took away from that experience was that the companies and individuals who celebrated the change, embraced the opportunities by breaking the status quo, and aggressively attacked the future succeeded wildly while those who could not divorce themselves from the strong tradition of “business as usual” were left behind and became irrelevant.

American innovation is a product of change. The future of the country, including the critical agriculture industry, is dependent on our courage and ability to change, adapt, and evolve particularly in challenging times. Let's elevate the dialogue about the technology support needed in rural areas to enable the urban lifestyles most Americans enjoy. We must put the spotlight back on farmers and the infrastructure and technology investments necessary to grow our food in a sustainable manner, and continue to help close the global productivity gap.

At FarmLink, we like to say, “The improbable we do every day. The impossible takes a bit longer.” This mantra inspires us to take bold steps forward to support farmers. For an industry so critical to the future of humankind, let's dare to be equally impatient when envisioning real change and allow data science to make dollars and sense for all farmers today.

About the author: Ron LeMay is chairman and CEO of FarmLink, an agriculture data analytics company. Prior to joining FarmLink, he was president and COO of Sprint following leadership roles at AT&T, Southwestern Bell and other global companies. Mr. LeMay is co-founder of OpenAir Equity Partners, and serves on the board of GoGo Inflight Internet Services and HYLA Mobile. Ron and his family, including seven grandchildren, reside in Kansas City, MO. @RonLeMay

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