Yielding answers with ag tech

Yielding answers with ag tech

CHAMPAIGN — Investors are putting more money into Illinois agriculture technology, making it the fourth most popular state for ag tech.

Illinois ag tech investment rose from $20 million in 2015 to $70 million last year, according to AgFunder, an online investment platform for ag tech. It sits behind Massachusetts, New York and California.

The increase came even as investment nationwide in ag tech slowed down from $4.6 billion to $3.2 billion, though ag tech investment has increased in the long term from $0.4 billion in 2010.

At the second annual Agriculture Technology Innovation Summit, which was hosted by the University of Illinois at the I Hotel and sponsored by John Deere, investors, startups and farmers grappled with how to use technology in a way that's useful for farmers.

Area farmer Ken Dalenberg said he tries to keep up with the latest tech — "If a new iPhone comes out, usually I have to get one" — but ag tech isn't always built with farmers in mind.

"There's some extremely smart people who reside in California that create software that can be very beneficial to agriculture, but they don't really understand agriculture and how we think," said Dalenberg, who grows corn and soybeans in Champaign and Piatt counties. "The needs of the farmers are sometimes much different than the perceived needs of the developers of the products."

One of the most hyped technologies in ag tech has been drones, but that has cooled off lately, with investment in drone tech down 68 percent in 2016, according to AgFunder.

"It's kind of expensive, it's a pain to learn, short battery life," said investor Justin Strausbaugh of CME Ventures about the problems farmers have with drones.

If drones eventually succeed in agriculture, the technology will have to improve and Strausbaugh said it may have to become a service for farmers instead of something farmers operate themselves.

Drones are an example of "innovative technology in search of a problem," said Chris Harbourt of Agrible of Champaign..

"Drones are really amazing technology for what they can do in agriculture, but how many of those drone companies started with the customer, that grower or insurance company, and really solved the problem that they had?" he said.

Instead of drones, which receive less than 5 percent of total investment in ag tech, the panel of farmers said they'd like technology that helps them make better decisions with all the data they collect, which at one point was referred to as a "data cesspool."

Some of that is starting to happen, said Pete Pistorius, a sixth-generation farmer.

"For 20 years, it felt like we were just collecting more and more data," he said. "The exciting thing that's happening, in my opinion, at least in the last four or five years, we're actually doing something with that data. Now it's turning into something that we're able to actually make good management decisions with."

Going forward, Pistorius would like to be able to use this data more easily. While there's plenty of good software out there for managing his farm, the programs don't talk to each other easily.

He wishes there were a way to "take the best part of each company and be able to put it together into a system that played well together," so that he could "think about how each move I make impacts my entire operation and be able to easily look at that and make better decisions."

With all ag tech, farmer Matt Barnard of Foosland said one of the limiting factors is the weather. Farmers can try out a new technology, but if the weather doesn't cooperate, the technology won't necessarily help.

"I may make the right decision. Maybe it's a micronutrient that a sensor told me to put on," he said. "(But) it may not rain for six weeks, and I had zero outcome."

"So we can try to control everything," he added. "Until we can start controlling weather ... I really think we're trying to minimize the impact on the potential crop."