Precision Agriculture and Millennials: A Perfect Fit?

Big data and the cloud will affect how agriculture is conducted globally in the 21st century

Recently I was asked by the American University of Beirut (AUB) to give a guest lecture to a group of seniors in Agribusiness. Since my own graduation, I’ve spent parts of 15 years working in and around precision agriculture (PA). No matter what field of interest (watershed management, biometeorology, ecology, and so on), PA eventually makes an appearance, generally as a way to increase sustainability but also with the potential (highlight, ‘potential’) to save growers money.

But this time was different. It wasn’t different because I was lecturing to students rather than demonstrating to clients; that part was rather similar. The difference that my dabbling into education provided was the opportunity to speak to another generation on a level close to (and soon to be) what would be colleagues.

The millennial generation may indeed be “Generation Me”, as psychologist Jean Twenge labeled them, but there are deeper forces at play here. This generation came of age in the Great Recession, skyrocketing college tuitions and debt, the explosion of the Internet and the globization and intense competition that comes with it. Millennials also had a support system of increased divorce rates at home, lowering of trust in our institutions, and a general apathy (aside from an interesting 2008 US presidential election) for a political system many see as having failed and become meaningless to their lives. So, one can’t be too hard on this generation for being out for itself. However, in spite of the deeper forces above, or more likely, because of them, this generation is much more civic-minded than previous generations at this age group. They’re less loyal to employers and more loyal to their cohorts.

As I led the discussion in the class, I left time for a question and answer session. Many of the questions were about how business could partner to increase adoption to PA or how growers could help each other to mutually benefit from PA. Even entrepreneurial questions were aimed at finding the right partnerships and innovative approaches to tailor the technology to the issue, possibly in ways not imagined yet.

It reminded me of the questions that I asked when I was in school. Back in my time, the main issue that dominated my graduate courses was climate change, and how we as scientists could engage the general public better. The issue with our questions was a lot of, “what would I do if I were in such a position” type of framing. It may be important to highlight some differences between my generation, Generation X, and millennials. I like to state that we are the “stuck in the middle” type of generation. We’re on Facebook and Twitter, we use Uber, but we really never got just how big and great these tools could be. I mean, for me, isn’t AOL Instant messenger enough? Social networking was fun for Generation X. The millennial made social networking great, and critically important to business. We used cell phones, and eventually smart phones, palm pilots, and eventually iPads, as tools. Millennials made them an indispensable part of life. We look at their communication style and think, “why not just talk like normal people, have a normal conversation?” Regardless of what older generations say, this type of communication will be, if it isn’t already, the new normal. And so will other millennial traits like work/life balance, or the lack thereof. Millennials don’t view work and life as separate like we do, with one always encroaching on the other. Rather, they blend their careers and lives together into one amalgamated experience. Buying a product means having an experience. Work means having fun with friends. Relaxing at a tavern can mean drawing up the business plans for the next great tech idea. When it comes to precision agriculture, perhaps the idea of an “experience” just might tip the balance in favor of a critical mass of adoption.

But the generation with the ability to turn new ideas into great companies needs an opportunity, so the immediate question, “is there a need” is immediately implied. Recently I attended a conference in St. Louis, MO on PA called InfoAg. One of the components of this conference was education, and whether the needs of retailers for PA knowledge, skills, and abilities are aligned with the content being taught at higher education universities. From an industry perspective, most retailers cannot find enough skilled labor in PA and spend a lot of time and money training on the job (see images below - mouse over for image caption).

Dealer and technology issues creating a barrier to PA adoption.  Note the difficulty of finding employees.  Image courtesy of Dr. Bruce Erickson (Purdue University).
U.S. agribusiness survey responses on difficulty of filling various PA related positions.  Image courtesy of Dr. Bruce Erickson (Purdue University).

A more thorough industry survey is currently being created by Dr. Bruce Erickson and David A. Widmar of Purdue University and will be titled “2015 Precision Agricultural Services Dealership Survey Results”. During this same conference session, a group of researchers from Missouri University (Danielle Skouby, Leon Schumacher, Matt Yost, and Newell Kitchen) presented a content review of PA courses in the U.S. While issues like variable rate technology and GIS were widely taught in PA courses, more nuanced topics like data ownership and compatibility, variable rate pest control, weather variability, crop sensing, and many of the issues related to water quality were never mentioned in any syllabi. It seems evident that the teaching of PA is very superficial yet, and perhaps a bit disjointed. Better coordination could help students succeed better after graduation, and there are new textbooks being written and constructed right now to meet this need.

It seems the opportunity is there for millennials to tackle a career in PA, and it seems the education system is quickly catching up to the needs of industry. With agriculture and technology becoming further intertwined, let’s hope the millennial generation fits the issues and timing to come perfectly. If so, PA could be in for a dramatic makeover. Perhaps the likelihood of shared experiences, paying for access over ownership (think Uber or Airbnb), and a greater concern for civil services and sustainability will tip the balance. These are important considerations when the adoption of PA on a global scale is still minimal, the cost of the equipment quite high, and the learning curve quite steep. At present, for example, PA works best on fields of 100 hectares or larger. That said, most of the worlds farms are small and family-owned. Farms that are less than 2 ha make up 12% of the worlds agriculture. Family farms take up 75% of the worlds land in agriculture. According to farm census data, average farm sizes are decreasing in low and lower-middle income countries, and increasing in most upper-middle and high-income countries. An individual small farm isn’t a great target for PA, but a different, more collective or access-based approach may work. Who better to deliver that than the millennial generation?