Three agriculture professionals weigh in on how the sector’s rapidly-evolving technology will shape the role of agri-retailers in the future.

Chris Paterson
Chris is the lead for Bayer’s Digital Farming initiative in Canada, and has been involved with the crossover opportunities between farming, agronomy and information technologies for a decade. Chris travels far and wide to try to learn more about emerging technologies in the ag tech, precision ag and farm data arenas, with a goal to develop products that will make business easier and more efficient for farmers and their agronomic advisors.

James Draper
James is an account manager for Stueve Construction, LLC., an industry leader in the construction of dry fertilizer storage facilities across the U.S., and now Canada. Before he started with Stueve he was a project manager/salesman with an automation company that specialized in fertilizer plant automation. His background in fertilizer automation, handling systems and storage, and the technologies that have made these facilities more efficient, enables him to to help customers find the best solution for their future fertilizer storage projects.

Marty Willick
Marty is a specialist in business management systems and information technology, with over 30 years of experience working in Saskatchewan and Western Canada. In his current role, he is the acting business manager for Innova Ag Solutions Inc., of Central Butte, Saskatchewan. He has been involved in the agri-retail industry for 10 years.

THE COMMUNICATOR: From your perspective, how are advancements in technology impacting the agri-retail industry?

Chris Paterson: There’s a lot of complexity that’s emerging in farming right now. Producers would traditionally manage five or seven fields, and all of a sudden many have 20 or 30 fields, more employees and new equipment – there’s a lot of moving parts. The traditional toolset for making decisions and communicating those decisions on a farm is overburdened right now. What’s stepping in to replace the traditional toolbox are technology solutions like sensors, wireless communication and data platforms.

I think it’s going to be important for the retailer to play a role in that, because they can really help.

On the agronomy and crop scouting side, retailers are also overwhelmed with too many fields, not enough people. So, technology will obviously play a role there. Whether it’s through sensors, satellite imagery, weather stations – different things that can help the retailer be in more places at once.

James Draper: Every year we see more and more different fertilizer products out there – you see a lot more custom blending and liquid coating. Having everything automated makes it easier for the salesmen out in the field to be able to do soil testing and analyzing to figure out what each field needs, which is sent back to the agronomy system, which can be sent directly to the control operator’s computer. Then the control operator takes the order, sends the blend out. It makes things go a lot more smoothly and with a lot less errors.

It comes down to speed, accuracy and economics. These automated plants can be run with one to two people a lot more efficiently than before, when it took maybe three or four employees to run them. When it comes down to it, it’s good for the retailer, and most importantly it ultimately is better for the customer.

Marty Willick: I can see where the automation side will be a benefit. Like James said, you’re able to do more and be more efficient, and hopefully you’re saving costs. From the agri-retail side, it comes back to information management – soil testing, soil analysis, working with the farmers in identifying what their crop plan is for the spring, and carrying that through to look at what types of blends to put into play. We spend a lot of time working with the farmers before they even do anything with the seed in the spring. A lot of people are going to have to be comfortable with the technology.

The Communicator: What “nice-to-have” skills will become more valuable – or even mandatory – in the future?

JD: You’ve got to have basic computer skills. The platforms have become very simple, but you still have an older generation that isn’t comfortable with a smartphone or a computer, and they will have a challenge running these systems. Further along down the road, things are going to get more complex. So I really think that a technical background is a must these days. When you’re looking for new employees, you’ve got to have someone who is tech-savvy.

MW: Your employees have to be comfortable with the technology. It’s not just for them to use, but it’s for them to assist the growers with what they need to accomplish as well.

You’ve got drones that go out and do your field scouting, you’ve got variable rate for seeding and fertilizer, but when we sit down and talk to the growers about it, they say “We’re just way too overwhelmed.” They have to understand so much stuff that they really are reluctant to get into that.

I think in the next 10 years, there’s going to be the evolution of the farmers becoming more comfortable with the information and the technology, and the agri-retailers better be up to speed and be able to work with them.

CP: There are a lot of people in our industry who are not confident with technology, and the rate that technology is emerging is only accelerating. Trying to find somebody to hire that’s competent with all the different gizmos, gadgets and data platforms is like trying to find a needle in a haystack. Those people are rare, and worth a lot – and there needs to be more of them.

You’re going to have to be up to speed on all these new technologies, just to be able to dialogue with the farmer. And the farmer will also need someone to help him get confident, install these gizmos and gadgets and get it all working, because he may not have that skill set. Who’s going to fill that gap?

If they go to a trade show and see something they want, the easy part is writing the cheque. The next step is looking at the equipment and saying “How do I put this thing in here, and how do I connect it to my other technologies?” Agri-retail could have a brand new job opportunity there. If you’re the best in your area at helping these farmers get all this stuff working properly, guess who all the farmers will call? That’s an emerging role that agri-retail could be well suited for.

The Communicator: So, you see agri-retailers as having a big role in helping producers adopt new technologies

MW: I think agri-retailers have to be able to talk the language. You don’t necessarily have to have those technicians, but you sure better know some companies that are able to do that.

CP: Retailers have always played a very strong role in technology adoption. It might not be how they make their revenue, but it’s a big part of the added value that they have offered for a long time. I think there is an expectation that they will be somewhat involved.

JD: I think that keeping your company on the leading edge of technology is critical – not only so your business can compete in the marketplace, but also in helping your producers to realize their goals. 

The Communicator: What can agri-retailers do to prepare for the changes technology will bring to the industry?

JD: Make sure that new hires have that background. When it comes to new technology, a lot of the automation companies that I’m familiar with host training sessions for their systems. It’s very important that employees who are going to be assisting with that technology get that training.

The other thing is trade shows. Some of these trade shows and conventions are having meetings and workshops that help get people up to speed. Everyone should be going to these things, because a lot of the technology companies are there. People should do whatever they can to go around, see what every company does, and what they’re capable of. The more well-rounded everyone is, the better.

MW: I agree with James. From the agri-retail side, it’s important to get people to the trade shows and ask questions and find out what’s going on. If the farmer starts asking questions, as a retailer we can either answer those questions, or connect them with the companies they need.

CP: I think one of the challenges is that most of the education right now comes from the product managers. What the retailers really need is more of a general education in all of the different technologies, so that you can be a generalist. Right now, a farmer’s mindset is that the only good resource they have is someone who is trying to sell them something, and they really want to know what the other choices are, what the best suite of technologies is.

MW: Retailers have to be able to take something that might be difficult to understand, and put it into terms that the farmer needs, so he can understand the benefit of that technology. A lot of the newer technologies that we’re seeing at trade shows, I think they’re still 10 years out from being in general use. But with any technology you’ve got the early adopters, then comes the crowd. Then you’ve got the guys that come late kicking and screaming, and in some cases they may be too late – it might impact their business if they are the last to get involved in this new technology. I think it’s not necessarily our role to implement everything, but it’s to assist them with understanding it, and potentially being more of a facilitator.

CP: There’s not a lot of businesses that I talk to who wonder if they’ll be using these technologies or supporting farmers who use them – it’s more a matter of when should I get engaged, and what happens if I choose the wrong technologies?

If you think that’s going to be a part of your business – whether it’s in five years or 10 years – and you wonder when to get started, I think you have to get started immediately. You grow the competency over time. There’s no real penalty for getting involved with the technology at any point. It evolves over time, and yes something that you invest hours into learning about might become obsolete, but you haven’t really wasted your time. You’ve learned a bunch about how to relate to your customers, what you appreciate in the technology, what problems it’s trying to solve. There’s no downside to getting involved earlier.

JD: Both of these guys made great points. Every year it seems like there’s new technology, but it’s never going to hurt you to get involved. There are a lot of people who think, “I want to wait until the latest and greatest comes out.” But there’s never going to be a latest and greatest – it’s always going to change. Getting that understanding is huge – getting people informed is the most important thing.

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