Old MacDonald has a farm ... and maybe an iPad: Growing number of farmers and ranchers using technology to increase efficiency and boost profits

3/4/2013 9:28:22 AM
Christopher Doering - Gannett Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — Barely nine hours after installing GPS on the machines that water corn and soybeans on his family’s farm, Zach Hunnicutt’s brother saw on his iPad tracking app that two of them were about to collide.

A quick text message to Zach gave the 30-year-old time to drive out to the field and avert a disaster that saved $10,000 in repair costs and, just as important, avoided interrupting the flow of water the machines, known as pivots, were feeding the thirsty crops already suffering from the worst drought in decades.

“I think a lot of times people have the perception that farmers aren’t real modern with a lot of their technology,” said Hunnicutt, who farms an hour west of Lincoln, Neb. Technology “is a pretty indispensable part of our operation, and we’re not unique in the farming world in that aspect.”

A growing number of U.S. farmers and ranchers such as Hunnicutt and his family are using smartphones or other mobile devices to increase efficiency and generate higher profits — a challenge in an industry beset by high input costs, low margins and continual uncertainty from Mother Nature.

“You know the old saying used to be, ‘pry this gun out of (my) cold dead fingers.’ That’s how I think about my iPhone and my iPad. I use it that much. The technology is becoming a very integral part of farming operations,” said Dave Miller, 61, a corn and soybean farmer with land in Lucas and Clarke counties in south-central Iowa. “Technology is all about time. Eventually time is money.”

The use of smartphones, apps, Twitter and other technology by tech-savvy growers such as Miller has shaken the stereotype of a bib overall-, straw-hat wearing farmer wedded to the past and unwilling to embrace change.

Float Mobile Learning, a consulting firm that develops mobile strategies and apps for major agricultural organizations and Fortune 500 companies, has used previous market research to determine that 94 percent of farmers own a smartphone or other mobile phone. Last year, nearly half of American farmers were using a smartphone, such as an Android or iPhone, up from 10 percent in 2010. Many others had tablets, such as the popular iPad.

For decades, farmers depended on the radio and TV to find out what was going on in the commodity markets. The unsettling discovery of an unknown pest or disease attacking their crops could have meant a drive to their local agronomist or nearby farmer to find out what it was and how to treat it, and all the while the nuisance was spreading. And when it came time to apply fertilizer or pesticide, a less-than-perfect one-size-fits-all approach was frequently used.

Today, technology is everywhere. Farmers are able to check commodity prices several times a day and might even be able to lock in how much they’ll receive for their crops while sitting on their tractors — a job made easier thanks to auto steering that takes care of the driving while they tend to other tasks.

The mystery of a weed or pest can be solved in a matter of minutes by snapping a quick photo on a smartphone and instantly emailing it to someone who can provide an answer.

Farmers also can purchase a program that helps them determine how much fertilizer or pesticide should be applied at a specific point in a larger field, preventing them from using too little of the application or adding too much and wasting money.

Does the temperature or moisture in the grain bin need to be adjusted? With a few touches on an iPad, a farmer can turn on the fans remotely.

The benefits of technology extend beyond the farm, as well. Farmers are not afraid to use social media to communicate with the public and correct misperceptions or answer questions that consumers might have about agriculture. An Alabama dairy farmer regularly posts on YouTube a one-minute segment called “Vocowbulary” showing what is going on at his operation and answering a question or two about his industry.

Farmers and ranchers across the country regularly turn to Twitter, YouTube and other media to compare stories, keep updated on new techniques and equipment being used, and trade advice.

“Farmers are very adaptive. I look at the next generation of growers coming up and, yeah, they’re very tech savvy, no doubt about it, but you look at the multiple generations that are out there, even the older generations are very good at adapting technology,” said Chad Berghoefer, technical services manager with DuPont Pioneer in Mankato, Minn. “They realize information is power in making decisions, and they are quick to adapt when they see the value there.”

Some farmers are dismissive about needing to adopt the new technology to be successful.

Iowa farmer Dave Hommel, 37, said technological advances such as iPhones and apps are not crucial to doing business on his corn, soybean and swine operation in Grundy County.

“I don’t need an app to mix chemicals, and I don’t need an app to figure out what my cost of production is,” said Hommel, who still likes using pencil and paper as well as his laptop to figure out finances on his farm. “I haven’t found a big boost to my operation” from them, he said.

But agricultural companies and app developers have been quick to capitalize on the growing demand. Among those that have surged in popularity are weather apps, crop yield calculators, programs with farm-mapping functions, and organizers to sort and hold important records that can be easily accessed at a moment’s notice.

Farmer Apps, a Lubbock, Texas, company, has rolled out six apps since July, including one that estimates the volume of grain in a bin and another that can calculate how much meat will come from an animal based on its weight.“

There are people out there thirsting for these types of things, and I think it is a market that at some point could explode,” said Jim Gilmore, chief executive of Farmer Apps, a fledgling startup with five employees that is working feverishly to make new apps. “We have more ideas than we have the (staff) to make them.”

Gilmore, who also helps a nearby ethanol plant purchase corn, said the idea for the company came after he saw people missing out on profits because they didn’t have the ability or the information readily available to make quick decisions.

“What we’re trying to really save the farmer is time and give him the ability to get the math and the answers he needs quickly,” he said.

Agribusiness companies have identified technology as a way to be in closer contact with their customers. Pioneer has armed more than 1,000 of its field staff with iPads to interact with growers and regularly sends tweets to its 2,000-plus followers.

As companies such as Pioneer collect information from fields and farms over a wide area, they can see trends that are developing and use that knowledge to help other customers. The insight not only helps farmers but also allows companies to better tailor their responses, all the while solidifying the relationship they have with customers who spend millions each year on seeds, chemicals and other products.

Pioneer’s Berghoefer recalls one example last May when the communication paid off. As farmers were putting seed in the ground at a frantic pace, a torrential rainfall caused a hard layer of topsoil to develop that made it more difficult for seeds to germinate and push up. Pioneer’s agronomists responded by sending out tweets telling farmers in Minnesota to start using a piece of equipment known as a rotary hoe to help break up the crusted soil. In most cases, those who received the notice and heeded the advice saw their crop emerge successfully.

Despite the recent adoption, those in the agriculture industry say the market for apps and other technology to help farmers and ranchers has years of growth ahead.

“I think the acceleration (of technology) is continuing, but the adoption is also growing quicker and quicker, too,” Berghoefer said.

“I don’t see that trend slowing down anytime soon.”