I’m interested in everything. Not very deeply, but very broadly. One of the things that has caught my attention is the rise of FarmTubers in the YouTube ecosystem.
What is FarmTube?
Farmers have been taking to YouTube to help educate the public as to what goes into the day to day lives of farmers. The sheer breadth of farmers that are producing content is amazing: row croppers in the Midwest, legume and wheat farmers in the upper plains, cattle / dairy / pig farmers all over, sugar cane and peanuts and cotton in the south – there is a FarmTube channel for everyone. They do an amazing job at articulating what they do and the challenges they face.
So why am I interested in them?
There are two things that make me keep coming back to FarmTube. I come from a farming family. My mother’s family raised sheep and wheat in the mid-north of South Australia for years, and I spent summers at the farm “helping” out. Ask me how I know sheep bound out of the shearing shed once they’ve been liberated from their fleece, I’ll happily share that story with you.
That’s the personal reason. The research reason is that the guiding principle of the farmer is always the bottom line. Is this new practice, this new machinery, this new seed, is it going to contribute to my bottom line? Will it increase yield? Can it reduce costs? Am I making it easier to do my job?
And that’s where FarmTube comes into the picture. I see this over and over again as the farmers broadcasting (narrowcasting?) their days demonstrate the same principle, and particularly when it comes to automation. Farm automation is incremental: it starts with mechanization, and has slowly moved its way towards automation.
The advent of the tractor is about mechanization. Automation of tasks gave farmers section control in their sprayers, GPS-driven planting / spraying, and really the ability to take either tasks that were routine or they were difficult to get right, and turn them into an automated task. What’s been very exciting to see has been the introduction, albeit incrementally, of autonomy into the farming realm. While autonomous tractors that combine GPS and automation are the big splash, the introduction of autonomous vehicles such as sprayers and drones offer insight into the future of farming.
The thing about autonomy is that it allows the farmer dual benefits.
- It improves the efficiency of the activity – the farmer doesn’t need to be there to be doing the task at hand, which means that they can do things that are more pressing or important for them (farmers have families too!)
- It unlocks improvements to practices that weren’t possible before – if I can rely on an autonomous vehicle to spray crops, can I rely on it to remove weeds? To spray at the most optimal time for the crop, rather than the convenient time for the human? Can I improve the quality or yield of the crop by being able to use non-disruptive application / management techniques?
To be sure, it introduces yet more technology dependence from a traditional human based activity, and that’s not without its costs. But watch a FarmTuber thinking past the potential problems to the opportunities and you’ll see what I’m talking about.
What does this have to do with I&O Automation?
I’m uneasy with the idea that automation should be treated like a factory.
I think that the more apt analogy is to treat automation like a farm. Invest where it improves the bottom line. Test and innovate to validate the claims of improvement. Don’t be afraid to experiment. The shift to autonomy has to make sense for your operation, and investigating ways to be autonomous generally leads to the evaluation of the practice (the crop!) that you’re trying to grow, and the effect of introducing the practice or discarding it.
By their very nature, farmers are investors. They invest into ground, crops, practices and machinery. They weigh risk and benefits, and they put some of their investment at risk, sometimes for increased returns at sale, but often times it is for the return on improved practices. Tractors are cool, but the lessons they can teach us are cooler.
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