Jacob Maurer

"I’m trying to think across all these crop management systems, plans and ideas, and it gets to be a challenge, says agronomist Jacob Maurer at the InfoAg technology conference in St. Louis.

ST. LOUIS — Farmers today have a multitude of digital tools available to them. Accessing them can be troublesome, however.

Ben Craker of the Ag Data Coalition joined other professionals at the InfoAg technology conference in St. Louis in July to discuss the difficulty of information overload, and obstacles to what they called inter-operability.

Navigating through different platforms operated by various providers can be daunting, if not impossible.

“A farmer may have two different equipment manufacturers, two service providers, a seed dealer and a neighbor that all have data he might want. That’s six systems, four of which the farmer might not even have access to,” Craker said.

“As a farmer, that’s a lot to manage if you want to put everything together in your plan. He has to report all this, pull all this together for crop insurance, banks, landlords. It’s a full-time job to manage this.”

Compounding the problem is limited internet service on farms, affecting downloads and uploads. The latest Census of Agriculture revealed that 25 to 30% of farms nationwide have no internet service at all.

Jacob Maurer, an agronomist with a large North Dakota-based John Deere dealership, arrives at the problem with a different background. He compares the inter-operability problem with resistant weeds.

He and other agronomists became so focused on controlling marestail that resistant Palmer amaranth fell under the radar.

“The moral of the story is that we were unprepared for the challenges we were going to face in the future,” he said.

“File conversion is a challenge. I’m not saying it’s a challenge that can’t be overcome. But it’s the reason you have to have a dozen programs on your computer.”

Data collection can be overwhelming, especially considering the types and purposes of use.

“I have this need to think across platforms,” Maurer said. “I have imagery in one thing, I have PDFs and hand drawings in another, I have thoughts in my head that I’m trying to sort through. I have machine data in one platform. I’m trying to think across all these crop management systems, plans and ideas, and it gets to be a challenge.

“Most of those platforms are built to handle 20 gigabytes of information in one setting. But with a lot of our platforms being cloud-based, we have this need. I have 50 flash drives in my pickup, and more in my pocket.”

Even with adequate service, applications working on different platforms invite frustration among farmers, service providers and others.

Craker uses on-demand television viewing as an analogy. A new app called Movies Anywhere allows users to pair iTunes, Amazon Prime, Vudu, Google Play and other systems.

“This problem has been solved,” he said. “Same thing with farmers. For watching movies, that’s kind of a nuisance, but farmers are making decisions with financial ramifications.”

Jeremy Wilson of Tennessee- based EFC Systems said the ag industry has done many things right, including nutrient management, hybrid selections and traceability in the specialty crop market. But streamlining data delivery and storage is lagging behind.

“Man, we’re great at talking about how we’re helping the farmer,” he said. “But it all comes back to data inter-operability, and how to fix that problem. If we can work together as a team, we can spend more time developing tools to provide more data for the growers, meeting customer needs and solutions and supporting data formats. That’s what has to happen.”

While industry has made some moves toward consolidation of data platforms and ease of use, it could be treading water.

“They’re working to develop tools to facilitate data-driven decisions. At the same time, we’re exponentially increasing the amount and volume of data we’re processing,” Wilson said.

“But the question is, are standards widely adapted so we can be able to support and understand the people who use that data? I think the answer is probably no. We have to figure out how to fix this problem.”

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Nat Williams is Southern Illinois field editor, writing for Illinois Farmer Today, Iowa Farmer Today and Missouri Farmer Today.