Despite the ongoing ag technology “boom” and endless opportunities to increase yields and revenue, reduce manual labor, and more, farmers’ adoption of these new technologies is much lower than most would expect.
In 2021, the USDA reported that only 25 percent of U.S. farms use precision ag technology in their operations. Rates were higher in some key production states, but overall, adoption was low. More recently, the agency’s “Precision Agriculture in the Digital Era: Recent Adoption on U.S. Farms” report found some dramatic advancements. Even so, farms in general tend to be slow adopters of technology, and it all comes down to proving ROI.
The new report specifically mentions yield maps, yield monitors, soil maps, variable rate technology (VRT) and automated section control (ASC), drones, autosteer and guidance.
Barely five percent of soybean acreage was planted in 2001, compared to a totally different picture by 2016, when almost 60 percent of farmers reported using the technology. That, however, is a rather unusual adoption pattern and rate for U.S. farmers, says Michael Langemeier, a professor at Purdue University. “GPS was very quick because it was not very expensive, and farmers could see the benefit immediately.”
Even today, anecdotal evidence suggests GPS adoption rates aren’t much above the 60-70 percent mark. Precision ag dealers report surprise at the number of autosteer and GPS systems still purchased ahead of and during each season.
Combinations of technology also see increased adoption rates compared to technology alone, according to the report. For example, VRT (reported as an up-and-coming technology), is more commonly used in combination with other technology, even if it isn’t widely adopted as of yet. Most commonly, farms use VRT with guidance or with guidance and maps. About 13 percent of soybean acreage is farmed with VRT and guidance.
Factors Affecting Agriculture Technology Adoption
So why are farmers hesitant to invest in ag technologies, and what are the barriers to adoption that need to be overcome? “There are many factors. First farmers need to understand the value story, and then there is understanding the technology itself,” says Adam Weiss, CTO for OPIsystems, which produces grain monitoring technology solutions.
The USDA study identifies seven key factors impacting farmer adoption of agricultural innovations:
- Field variations
- Risk perceptions
- Profit potential
- Availability of other options
- Farm size
- Affinity for technology
Telling the “Value Story” of a Product
The value story is something tech companies must cement, especially in the Corn Belt, Weiss says. Though the USDA report states, “Adopters generally have lower input costs for fertilizers, pesticides, and fuels,” farmers often remain unconvinced until a neighbor tries it first or a majority adopts it. Behavior of the farmer will also impact how successful the technology will be, Weiss explains.
“The growers that have the most success are anxiously engaged in the entire process,” he says. “There are two types of farmers when it comes to technology: one checks on his bin every day, and then there’s the guy who puts the technology in at harvest and doesn’t check it until March.”
How Can We Encourage Farmers to Adopt Agriculture Technology?
So what questions should farmers be asking about technology, and what’s the best way to decide if it’s right for your farm? “The most insightful questions you can ask are around finding out what the data presented means,” says Weiss. In other words, when a potential vendor gives you the dog-and-pony show, ask not only means, but “What should I do with this on my farm?”
Also, consider the intangible benefits that come with technology, items ROI may not take into account in the black and white analysis. “Over the last 10 to 15 years, technology has gotten a lot easier to use,” he says. “Making sense of the data is the next step to adoption.”
The USDA study specifically references the enhanced quality of life that comes with technology use, such as less stress, lower fatigue, and increased operator satisfaction. While not as easily quantified, these are no less important than say, productivity or yield increases, risk mitigation and improved environmental quality.
Bottom line is the digitization of ag continues. Where are you on the continuum?