A Different Kind of "Services Oriented" Agriculture – Part 2

“An app for this, an app for that” is fine, so long as these apps can share, or at least access common services. It’s not much different from my smart phone where I have lots of apps that value add pictures, notes, recordings, GPS tagged items, etc. can ultimately be shared and discover these things via Facebook, Twitter, email, text or even my favorite “farming app.”  I want an app to find my fields, my yields, my imagery, my equipment, and my staff.  I want to put things “in the cloud” once and share them many times, with many people as I choose, and across many apps.  For you Apple users of iPhones, iPads, etc. you can think of the iCloud…your music, photos, videos, books, etc. follow you anywhere in the world, are updated in near real time, are backed up, and you don’t have to sync anything…it just works with an internet connection.  This is where services oriented agriculture is headed. So how does this relate to interconnectivity and modern agriculture?  Only in that it is simply the way we will do business in the future…and many of you are already doing it both physically through contracted services and digitally through information services (I can name apps off the top of my head for weather, markets, field boundaries, soil sampling, seed selection, pest management, etc).  This new kind of SOA, or services oriented agriculture will redefine workflows across agriculture and there are a handful of forward leaning firms working to build the platforms for agriculture which can leverage these services.  This will save you time, money, and enable better decision making.

Interconnectivity is what services oriented agriculture is all about and without interconnectivity, services oriented agriculture does not work.  It is no different than choosing power, water, telephone, internet, television, garbage, mail, lawn services for your home.  On the farm you will make some calls (via phone or web) and choose services for yield data management and storage, imagery, weather, markets, crop scouting, soil sampling, pest management, agronomic services and more.  In this model when you don’t like a service, you don’t replace a large software system you simply use a new service.  When you don’t like the song on the radio, you simply change the station or better yet pull up your favorite song on your phone without skipping a beat.  Apps and services that do not provide value will “fail fast” and those that do will become a part of your workflows.

Like subscribing to cable or the newspaper, the services will just “happen” and you will have choices about how you see this information, interact with the data, share results and build collaborative teams around the process.  The same data and applications will be available on your desktop, tablet, and/or phone and will be easily sharable with staff and collaborative teams. As described in Part 1, these new “linked, repeatable business tasks, or services” in Services Oriented Agriculture will leverage economics through economies of scale and scope as well as mitigating the opportunity cost of your time so you can farm, play golf, or spend time with family.  On your phone, tablet, or laptop you will be able to prepare a spraying prescription for the bean field and send it to a service provider, evaluate the yield map of your wheat field with your agronomist over video chat, pull up the video cam in the feed barn, check weather, place marketing orders, show you your equipment and their fuel status, and even turn up the air conditioning in the office...all while sitting at the little league game.

We’re almost there, it’s only the beginning, and you are going to like it.


A Different Kind of "Services Oriented" Agriculture – Part 1

Services Oriented Architecture or SOA has been a buzz term in IT for years.  According to IBM, SOA is “a business-centric IT architectural approach that supports integrating your business as linked, repeatable business tasks, or services.”  Let me simplify further.  You move to a new home, you make some calls, and power, water, telephone, internet, television, garbage, mail, lawn service etc. just “happen.”  A bill comes, you pay it, and the services continue.  You like one provider over another, you change services and life goes on.  These are “linked, repeatable business tasks, or services” (both physical and virtual) which can be “called” via phone or internet.    They leverage economics through economies of scale and scope as well as mitigating the opportunity cost of your time so you can farm, play golf, or spend time with family.  SOA in IT is no different; you need market information, weather, time, or a map?  Make a call to a service over the web. How many pieces of hardware and software are sitting in your office that do one thing well and then exhausts their usefulness because it doesn’t do anything else well and requires your staff to export information and import it into something else that offers the next thing you need?  We have come a long way in information technologies for agriculture, but we have barely scraped the surface of the opportunity.  At GeoSilos, we say that “data is the modern agricultural commodity” and sadly most of this modern commodity sits and spoils in the bins on our hard drives rather than in the bins near our driveways.

Let me slip back into IT philosophy speak a bit and talk about the services in the “cloud.”  Forget the fancy commercials, over simplification, and over marketing of the “cloud” for a minute.  The cloud, or more simply a bunch of computers in a building somewhere rather than in your office, offers a key advantage for this discussion: cheap and rapid deployment and scalability.  The traditional model is to “build to peak” rather than “building to base” which is a lot like building a 10,000 square foot house because family comes over for Thanksgiving weekend.  That’s 360 days of sunk cost when you have a family of four so it makes a lot more sense to block rooms at the local hotel rather than break the bank.   In the cloud you build 2000 square feet and add or remove space as needed, in near real time.

Ultimately the cloud offers one very important thing…you can scale to meet your needs as they change and you can fail quickly which means you fail cheaply.  This means that IT providers in agriculture can build lots of apps and services at relatively low cost, find out what works and what doesn’t, leave what doesn’t work for dead and quickly improve apps and services which provide value. In a world of “an app for this, and app for that,” if you are going to fail, failing quickly and cheaply is far less painful.   Think about what you do in the cloud now (email, photos, music, computer backup, etc.) and replace that list with yield data, imagery, soils, weather, maps, grain storage, telematics, and other farm services.

I used to be quite vocal that firms were building better mousetraps and not addressing the holistic nature of agriculture by creating more robust systems.  We were simply catching our own tails by putting additional burden on producers rather than enabling them.   What I was after was a brute force way to make systems work together, and SOA changes that.  We don’t need bigger systems, we need systems to call services that do certain things really well.

So what does this mean for Interconnectivity?  See Part 2 for more.

Interconnected We Stand…part 2

Modern producers have to be farmers, biologists, agronomists, bankers, accountants, market hedgers, economists, policy analysts, and often technologists to be successful.  As farms grow larger and risk and volatility increase, technology is enabling us build an interconnected system of equipment, software, data, and virtual consultative teams around our operations.  When it comes to humans and technology, it is interesting that technology can be simultaneously an attractive and repulsive force. Telecommunications and social media enable people to stay connected with a larger and increasingly decentralized network of personal and professional contacts.  But at the same time, it sure seems like people are growing disconnected, spending more time alone with their phones than with their friends.  We may stand interconnected, but agriculture is fraught with intramural battles which position food vs. fuel, crop vs. livestock, and farmer vs. consumer, and it is when we divide and disconnect, that we fall.  IDEAg Interconnectivity is a forward leaning look at how our interconnectivity is an enabling, uniting force in the field, on the farm, and for the future.

So what is “Interconnectivity?”  Suffice it to say that it is an ancient social concept, with a modern technological twist that makes it a bit slippery to define.  The verb, interconnect, means to “connect or become mutually connected,” something we have been doing just to survive for thousands of years.  But interconnectivity is a noun.  It’s a person, place, or thing, right?  Most often we refer to interconnectivity within the context of telecommunications, internet networks, and electronics but it can be much broader than that and it may be why some find it difficult to describe.  An objective of the IDEAg Interconnectivity community is to facilitate a conversation about interconnectivity in food and agriculture, the current opportunities and challenges surfacing in an increasingly interconnected industry, and a peek into what future of interconnected agriculture may bring.

Leading up to the IDEAg Interconnectivity meetings in March of 2012, we’ll explore a number of topics, focusing on a wide range of interconnectivity topics.  For example, the interconnectivity of GPS and farm equipment has enabled tremendous efficiency gains, loss avoidance, and reduced physical wear and tear on human operators.  But what will new GPS and telecommunication innovations bring when tractors “talk” to grain carts, maps “share” themselves with advisors, and everything drives itself around?  How will the interconnectivity of social and professional networks enable farmers and ranchers to build virtual but trusted, professional consultative teams around them for rapid decision making while preserving control, choice, agility, and most importantly, privacy?  We will consider the implications of consumer to consumer interconnectivity that will shape consumer demands and expectations for years to come.  We will look at the interconnectivity and impacts of the global economy, the world may be flattening, but it is also growing rapidly.

IDEAag Interconnectivity is about a dialog, so let’s interconnect.  How are you interconnecting in agriculture in your shop, on your farm, or in your business?  How has interconnectivity opened opportunities, developed challenges, or brought a return on your investments in technology and innovation?

Interconnected We Stand…part 1

From the chisel plow to the combine to the cell phone, technology on the farm has aimed to improve effectiveness, efficiency, and expectations of our industry’s capabilities.  It has enabled us to deliver the most abundant, safe, and affordable food supply in the world.  An unintended consequence of this progress is that it has also eroded the numbers of a once dominant community of America.  Farmers and ranchers are among the hardest working, ethical, and community driven people in the world.  Technology has enabled us to do what we love, to be profitable and to be responsible, but there simply a lot fewer of us now because of it.

In 1919 farmers represented 31% of the workforce, there were 6.3 million farms, and average farm size was 138 acres.  In 2010, average farm size was 418 acres, the number of farms was 2.2 million, and farmers represented about 2% of the workforce.   In 1910, a single farmer could feed 2.5 people and now a single farmer feeds 130.  In the next 20 years, we may need to double that.

How did we get here?  How are we going to get “there”?  Farmers and ranchers have never been short on work ethic, drive, or a deep respect and understanding for the land we farm and the animals we raise.  But without question technology has been the enabling catalyst of our success.  Engineering technology builds equipment that is stronger, faster, and increasingly gentle with our land, air, and water.  Biotechnology is selecting plants which are specialized for the equipment we use, the soil that nurtures them, and for the products they will become or the livestock that they feed.  Animal and nutrition science innovation is developing livestock which are bred to be strong and healthy, to minimize impact on the environment, and meet consumer dietary needs as well as particular tastes and preferences.  These products are distributed using the safest, most efficient network of processors, wholesalers, retailers, and logistics specialists and (what I hope will one day again be) the best infrastructure in the world.

Technology and innovation have enabled these developments and technology will enable us to feed the world in a profitable, sustainable manner.  But a more important thread in the commentary above is that agriculture is a system of systems, each unique and in many ways independent from the others, but inescapably interconnected. Like the example relationship of equipment, crops, livestock, consumer, and environment described above; the food and agriculture industry is deeply and irreversibly interconnected and it is in this interconnectivity that we discover many of our strengths, weaknesses, and opportunities.

How has technology changed your operation in your lifetime?  What unexpected challenges or unintended consequences have arisen?  Where will technology make the biggest impact on the farm in the next decade?