Fighter jet intercepts another fighter, from iStock

Grow crops like a fighter pilot

April 14, 2020

Editor’s Note: Joseph Byrum, a geneticist, is chief data scientist at Principal Financial Group and a regular contributor to AFN. Read more of his contributions here.


The next harvest is becoming a matter of economic survival for some growers in uncertain times. With trade wars, pandemics and market plunges, farmers now more than ever need every edge they can get to make the most of the growing season. One thing they can do to up their game is to take inspiration from fighter pilots.

Fighter pilots have mere seconds to make complex decisions carrying life-and-death consequences. They’re under more than just financial pressure, and they’ve developed a detailed framework to help them cope. This framework can help growers.

The military calls its tool the OODA Loop, which stands for Observe Orient, Decide, Act the four main phases used to break down a difficult situation so that the pilot can act swiftly and efficiently. Air Force Colonel John Boyd came up with the technique after recognizing that the secret to success in aerial combat was to be the one who acts first. The OODA Loop helps the pilot act quickly and decisively, without feeling lost or becoming overwhelmed by an increasingly complex situation.

Farmers can be forgiven for feeling overwhelmed, particularly given current events and the impact it’s having on their way of doing business. The key to the pilot’s strategy is to always be ready to adapt, because the combat environment is always changing, and just as filled with surprises. The loop is about helping you adapt.


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How the loop works

Boyd dissected the pilot’s thinking process into four distinct stages, beginning with the Observe stage. Here, the pilot takes in the situation, seeing where the enemy is, and looking for other potential threats. As the situation is constantly changing, the information taken in will be imprecise, colored by the fog of war. This is the stage where “just the facts” are collected.

Next is the Orient stage in which the pilot evaluate the situation and forms judgments. This is done by taking in the observations just made, and weighing their value. Not every observation is clear, so each one needs to be judged by much they can be trusted. Based on this, the pilot comes up with options.

After this, it’s time to Decide, which means taking the options uncovered in the Orient stage and going with the one that seems most likely to work in the given circumstances. This means taking into account constraints such as the rules of engagement that limit possible choices. In the Action stage, it’s time to pull the trigger (figuratively or literally) and to validate whether the action taken resulted in the desired outcome.

Once the four stages are complete, it’s time to loop back and Observe all over again, as the action taken will have affected the landscape. The pilot will Orient, Decide and Act, looping continuously until the desired result is achieved.

Applying the loop to farming

The OODA Loop is a way of thinking, and it’s useful for confronting any complex, fast-changing situation. Farmers certainly don’t need to make split-second decisions, but the failure to, say, apply herbicide or insecticides to a crop at the first hint of pressure can ruin the harvest. Time is still of the essence.

Farms are also a chaotic environment, constantly changing from one day to the next. Planning is essential to turning a profit, but it’s difficult to plan effectively when it’s not possible to know with certainty what the weather is going to be next week, or what commodity prices are going to be at harvest time. The idea behind the OODA Loop is to train the grower, in this case, about what needs to be considered, in what order, to make effective decisions.

For the grower, the cadence can be the same as the pilot’s. It all begins by Observing by taking in all the data from the farm. This includes taking in weather reports, soil tests, remote sensor readings, aerial imagery, and so on. Next, the grower must Orient by weighing the information gathered and challenging assumptions – just because a particular seed worked well last year doesn’t mean it will this year. The idea is to focus on the causes of performance gains, only consider what the observed facts are telling you. After this, the grower Decides what to do based on the available information. Finally, the grower Acts, and watches the effect of the decision before looping back to the beginning.

To some, these steps may seem obvious. But what makes them effective is focusing on gathering more data and more precise data, at a heightened pace. The data are the foundation for every decision, so the higher quality the information the grower gathers, the better the results.

To those who find the process complicated, there are artificial intelligence (AI) decision support tools that can automate the process, turning mission success into a point-and-click affair, with the information conveniently laid out on a computer or phone display.

It’s not just the military that have been making use of these tools. AI decision support tools are becoming more common in finance, and growers with the “right stuff” will likewise one day find them as essential to their work as a tractor. Better information, combined with better analysis means the grower can conquer the uncertainty by making choices based on knowledge and science, rather than gut instinct. Better decision-making is the key to victory in every field.

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