The conversation around a virtual roundtable of farm industry executives Wednesday shifted quickly from talk about autonomous machines and artificial intelligence to the shortcomings of broadband in rural areas.
It was obvious why. Without reliable broadband connectivity, agriculture will continue to struggle with the promises of connected machines, actionable data, automation and autonomous operations.
"We're talking autonomous vehicles and connectivity. We have some farms where RTK (doesn't work)," said Todd Stucke, senior vice president of marketing, products support and strategic projects at Kubota Tractor Corporation.
Stucke was one of four executives offering an outlook on equipment and technology. The session was produced Wednesday morning as part of the 2021 Commodity Classic. "There is a lot of infrastructure that has to be addressed to get the true value out of what we need," Stucke added. "Can we do it? I'm sure we can. (But industry needs) to be a strong voice in Washington for agriculture. We can get this done and provide (farmers) with the tools that harness the value of the technology."
Broadband function drives connectivity. "What does agriculture look like in 20 years? The things we are talking about all absolutely require an appropriate level of broadband connectivity," said Scott Harris, another panelist. Harris is vice president of Case-IH North America. "They do not work -- you talk about stewardship, automation -- you have to have this fundamental piece of infrastructure. The future of agriculture and its success is going to be dependent on (broadband) being in place more than almost any other industry out there."
There are about 24 million households in America with less-than-ideal internet connectivity. It is believed about 80% of those residences are in rural areas. "The entire industry has to come together to do this. It is challenging because it is not cheap. But the opportunity and the return, if we figure this out, is tremendous," Harris said.
"Our companies, our industry is fully behind any effort, and will continue to champion efforts around infrastructure and, most specifically, rural broadband. We can't advance in the U.S. the way we need to without it," said David Gilmore, senior vice president, sales and marketing at John Deere. Gilmore is responsible for ag and turf sales and marketing in the Americas, Australia and New Zealand.
The panel took on other questions from visitors to the Commodity Classic. The following are some subject areas raised for the panel.
FIT FOR ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE
"Broadband is a fundamental requirement. So is (artificial intelligence)," said Bill Hurley, vice president, aftersales, customer support, distribution development for AGCO North America.
He is convinced that the way farmers make decisions in five years will be fundamentally different than how they make decisions today. "You are going to have to be unbelievably smart. The only way you can do that is with very sophisticated AI (technologies). They have to be connected, and they have to be in real time."
Deere's Gilmore took the Commodity Classic audience back to their days of walking beans and cotton. He compared that to the intelligence represented in Deere's new See & Spray Select weed management application.
As farm kids walked through their family's fields, they saw growing crops and they saw weeds. They pulled the weeds and left the crop. That is the human intelligence underpinning machine learning and computer vision, Gilmore explained.
"Our eyes were computer vision. Our brain, the decision to say 'That's a weed, that's a crop' ... that kind of intelligence today though computer vision, through machine learning is done in real time at 12 miles per hour, the (same) activity we all did manually in the past."
CALLING TECHNICAL SUPPORT
AGCO has built an in-house capability that brings dealers and company employees together to resolve tech issues. It is called AgTech(squared). It is a partnership between dealers and company employees who have access to potential fixes or specific knowledge that help dealers address customer technology questions and issues.
"Our dealer capacities have to evolve as technology evolves," said Hurley. "It is approaches like (the AgTech service) that will have to be innovated as we go forward."
Case's Harris agreed that manufacturers, dealers and farmer-customers are building technical support infrastructure on the go. "The very technology we are talking about is also going to the development ... that will support operations in the field," he said. "We understand there is a learning curve that requires boots on the ground ... that allows everyone to remain up to speed and produce the kind of support required today to increase productivity in the field."
GO BIG OR GO NIMBLE
A question rose from one audience member wondering how big, beefy machines play in a world of high technology.
Is bigger, faster, stronger compatible with connected, autonomous, smarter?
"Maybe," said Harris. "But I don't know that we've landed on the right balance." There are advantages to larger implements and higher horsepower. But there are issues like compaction versus the cost of autonomy. "What is the uptime cost and cost of support? If you've got one big machine in the field and it goes down, your operation has a problem. That, opposed to having 10 smaller machines in the field. One goes down and you're still operating at 90%."
More than machines, think about other innovations. For example, plant genetics, Hurley said. "What impact will that have (on machines)," he said. "If you really and truly manage individual plants and not just the seed, but manage the growth of that individual plant or animal, as you do those things, there will be certain operations that will lend themselves to smaller types of equipment or more sophisticated, nimble types of equipment that (operate) through the crop life cycle."
Kubota's Stucke questioned bigger and faster. "I don't know how much bigger we can go. How much faster can we go? If I were betting, I would say it's going to be smaller at the end of the day than bigger. I don't know that roads and bridges and rocks in the field can handle anything faster."
DEMAND FOR LOW-TECH OPTIONS?
Deere's Gilmore suggested that it is not right for the industry to implement technology for the sake of technology. "Then it becomes a science experiment," he said. "Our role as developers and manufacturers is to make sure the technology we introduce to farmers makes them more efficient and effective, that it reduces their cost of operations. It makes their operation more sustainable," he said. "This has been the mode of mechanization in agriculture forever."
Harris suggested farmers look at technology as something that grows with the needs of the operation. "You start with a base level of functionality, then based on your needs and potential returns, you can buy advanced or enhanced services," he said.
Dan Miller can be reached at email@example.com
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