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Sensor Skepticism at Forbes AgTech Summit

July 11, 2017

The Forbes AgTech Summit in Salinas, CA draws a varied mix of ag industry stakeholders whose differing viewpoints often call attention to the sometimes wide distance between the startups who make agtech products, and the farmers meant to buy and use them.

It was a notable phenomenon at this year’s conference, therefore, when the producers, the sellers, and the end users of technology all seemed to be on the same page about a technology that isn’t all that new.

Field moisture sensors have been on the market for decades, but their efficacy to date is still questionable. At the Forbes Summit, three industry stakeholders participated on a panel that was slated to focus on California’s drought but ended up being a debate largely about sensors.

On the stage were Dale Huss, vice president of artichoke production for Ocean Mist Farms in Castroville, CA, Dan Hodgson, president and CEO of farm management software and hardware platform FarmQA, and Tomer Tzach, CEO of Israeli moisture sensor and software manufacturer, CropX.

Here is a slice of their conversation:

The Trouble with Sensors

Dale Huss, Ocean Mist Farms, who doesn’t use sensors in his operation: “I want to see our managers out in the field looking at the crops. I want to feel the moisture in that soil. And above all else I want to make sure that manager that I’m with sees and understands what I mean by “wet” because every person in here has a different perspective when it comes to “wet” and if you’re in a certain soil trying to irrigate a crop and you think it’s wet but it ain’t, then you’re in trouble… The reason that we don’t use these sensors is because the ones that we’ve used up until now are inconsistent. These heavy soils, they have a tendency to crack, and they crack around these sensors and get inconsistent readings. You can’t afford that in the kind of business we’re in. So, that’s why we don’t use them. One of these days, there will be one that we trust, and we’ll take a look at it but this smoke and mirrors stuff and the computer diagrams and all the crap that we see out there – it doesn’t work, and we need something that works.”

Dan Hodgson, FarmQA: “If you go back through the history of sensors, it’s very common for people to develop a sensor without an actual understanding of the field process, the daily management, and the life a crop goes through… When you look below the surface what you really want to know is what is the health of the soil and the health of the roots. There’s more you can learn from watching the water move than just the movement of the water. You can actually learn the depth, and the health of the roots and the truth is that these complex biological processes that happen when plants grow and in different soil types can be measured if the sensors are robust and adapted to the scale and speed that [the farmer] has to operate.”

What Sensors Should be

Dale Huss, Ocean Mist Farms: “I haven’t seen one yet that tells us anything about the crop until it’s too late. We can’t correct problems fast enough. We need to know these things sooner rather than later so we can make changes to what we’re doing because the last thing you want to have is a crop that costs $5,000 per acre, or in the case of strawberries, it’s $25,000 per acre, and we lose because [the sensor or software] couldn’t make a decision fast enough on what you need to change, and that’s really important.”

Dan Hodgson, FarmQA: “I spend most of my time finding ways to see something before you get a physical manifestation. So can we look and see plant chlorophyll? Can we measure tissue and soil in minutes or overnight so we can get samples and analysis and respond to them instantly? Can we see disease coming before it’s going to manifest itself because we can predict the environmental conditions are right? The answer to all of those questions is yes, now or we’re close. That kind of identifying of nonconforming events before they happen is how you create real value. If you’re seeing it after, it’s a problem.”

Tomer Tzach, CropX: “I think that it’s very important to distinguish between data that is coming from above the soil and data coming from below. Data from above the soil is coming from drones, satellite imagery, pictures that are coming from cameras that are put on weather stations and so forth, and when you take imagery, you’re alway too little too late because by the time you see something, it’s already happening and the plant is already suffering. It’s a much bigger challenge getting the data out of there, but I think that the data coming out of [the soil] can be much more useful in terms of being predictive.”

On Farmer Adoption

Tomer Tzach, CropX: “I think when it comes to adoption, I distinguish between the adoption of hardware and the adoption of software. On the hardware side, I think if you create something very simple, and people understand it is easy to use, from our experience there are no real issues there. In terms of software, it’s a bit more challenging because you need to create software that addresses many different customer types. You have the more simple customers that are less technologically savvy, and then you have the more complex and sophisticated ones; farm managers want to see a view of their entire farm, be able to get a lot of data, see graphs and play with it and configure it and so forth, so it all kind of ends up creating a very, very simple and smart UI, and when I say smart, smart is simple. I’m a true believer that with these things are very simple and are very low cost, we’re going to see a new distribution channel when it comes to ag technology and that is called e-commerce. I see many of our customers have the newest smartphones, they buy on Amazon, and I think it’s only a matter of time until ecommerce becomes a very valid and substantial channel for selling these things online.

Bottom Line Impact of Sensors

Tomer Tzach, CropX: ‘It all comes down to the value to the user, and I think the easiest sample would be using pivot irrigation. One turn of a pivot costs about $400-500 in terms of the energy that it takes to turn that thing around, so if you’re able to save just one spin, then that by itself more or less pays for the entire use of the system. Now in [Salinas], it’s less about pivots and more about vegetable growing, and at the end of the day, I would say that if you don’t measure, you’ll never know.

How to Get Farmers to Trust Data

Dan Hodgson, FarmQA: “Earn it.”

What do you think? Email [email protected]

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