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Darker Reflections on The State of Data (Perspective)

I could see my name being placed on the "do not call that guy again" list as I was ranting.

It was the end of the day on Tuesday this week, and one of my very good contacts from a PR/Marketing firm gave me a call, looking for some perspective on precision ag — and in particular, what’s going on with data.

Well, the subject of data had been the center of my existence for about a month, up to the recent conference on Data Platforms we hosted in Champaign on August 31. It was successful, but my nerves are still a little raw from the whole experience. We got a lot of positive comments, but interspersed were some critiques as well. “Not enough tough questions!” decried one panelist about the sessions. “Too many people on stage!” said another. “Solutions were not offered!”

So, the meeting came out pretty much where I thought it would. Yes, it offered education and established where we are and where things are likely to be headed in the future. But to me, the big goal was getting these 20-plus panelists and 300 attendees in the room to network and share ideas, and maybe begin to cooperate at a greater level.

But it’s clear we are still a pretty long way from resolving things. I was mulling that over when my PR friend called, so I obliged him .. probably too much. While I won’t be able to reproduce the conversation precisely, this is how it went down.

Me: Where is data going? Honestly I have no idea. After sitting through that meeting, I feel like consensus and collaboration are a long way off.

Quickly, I went into a diatribe of my beefs with the way things appear to me right now:

  • I’ve said the 80-20 rule applies to precision ag in terms of non-adopters vs. adopters, but when it comes to data, on an acreage basis, I think at best it’s 90-10. The data component is further separating the haves and have nots. I mean, you really need to WANT to collect and manage data and use it on your farm. It’s really, really hard.

  • I share with him my personal work analogy: If I had to work as hard to get my computer up and running as the farmer is required to work to maintain a legit data platform, I’d be using a typewriter. I’m a writer, not a programmer. Farmers want to farm.

  • Compatibility across platforms is a constant heartache. Sure partners are working together, but it’s on a company by company, partner by partner basis. What if every phone app you downloaded had to be designed to work with a specific phone manufacturer? Would you have any apps? Would you have any app makers? How useful would your phone be? There needs to be an underlying consistency, or we’re all chasing windmills. WHEN WILL IT HAPPEN?!

So now my PR friend is getting nervous. He asks me a question, but I don’t really hear it … I moved on to what could move the needle:

  • Maybe we’ll get some sort of market disruption that forces us to become more open and compatible. Maybe it’s government regulation or reporting requirements. Maybe food processors start demanding to know more about what we grow, or demand specific crop regimens that are verified through data. Perhaps Walmart walks in and blows everything out of the water. Frankly, while I believe this is a real possibility, I am tired of hearing myself say it. I’ll tell you one thing, I am pretty sure that those inside of agriculture don’t have the stomach to cause a big disruption. But I am absolutely ready to be proven wrong.

My PR friend thanked me for sharing my thoughts, and it was one of the few times a PR person was anxious to get me off the phone. He said, “I’m starting to get more involved in the precision side, so I’m trying to get a handle on what’s happening.” Sorry to be a Debby Downer, my friend … we all have our dark days!

Back more than a decade ago when consolidation was rampant in retail, an old timer told me, “don’t sweat the bad times. Good operations in agriculture live for the troughs that wipe out the pretenders and the also rans, and pay us back for all the hard work we’ve done to build a strong and sustainable business.”

So much of the development in data platforms has come at a point of big growth in ag, and as we face a downturn, maybe we’ll see a washing out of companies, and more compatibility and connectivity.

There absolutely are some amazing tools out there. The opportunity to improve efficiency and agronomic practices is remarkable. It’s just too hard right now.

Lisa Prassack, who co-chaired the conference with us, had a slide in her deck that really rung true: Customers Buy Outcomes. Outcomes are pretty easy to identify for farmers: higher yields, more efficiency. Everything in between is noise. Ag needs to reduce the noise and simplify the data solutions for growers.

I wished my caller well and hung up, hoping I did not scare him away. The truth is, there’s a lot of OPPORTUNITY out there as evidenced by how many players are swimming in the pool. But getting it right will require, in my mind, fewer players and more cooperation.

For another perspective on the conference, check out conference attendee and Lawyer Todd Janzen’s blog. Thanks for coming and for the kind comments about the conference, Todd … and I agree with everything he says.

One final note: The one moment that generated spontaneous applause was when panelist Doug Hackney, who worked extensively on the healthcare industry’s data challenges, said the following:

“80% of the value of data comes from integration.”

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