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Paradigms in agriculture

A paradigm is a set of concepts, practices or thought patterns that create a framework to define our way of looking at something. Your age will influence your paradigms as you transition from the optimism of youth to the caution of old age. If dad told you there was no future in farming, you were likely to believe him, but his ideas were formed by his own disappointments. The future is unknown but it is our paradigms that will influence our expectations; where one person may see a challenge, another will see an opportunity. Is the future bright or is it cloudy?

Our common experiences, beliefs and values create a dominant paradigm that is held across segments of society at a given time. The organic food debate is a good example of the different paradigms about food and the connection that people want to have with their food production. A commercial farm’s paradigm is to produce a safe and abundant food supply as efficiently as possible using the best available tools. The urban consumer has a paradigm that is centred on their experience with food. An organic shopper wants fresh food that is produced “naturally” to fit their food paradigm.

The beliefs within a paradigm can be difficult to define as we attempt to draw the lines between the different ideas. For example, how to define a chemical can be debated when different groups analyze the same data and see different trends and results based on their paradigms. This is why the GMO debate continues 20 years after GMO crops were introduced.

A paradigm shift occurs when our views change in response to the accumulation of theories or evidence. Consider that farmers once had a reverence for worked ground and the smell of the earth following the plow. But over time, our paradigms shifted to value minimum tillage for the benefits it provided.

Precision agriculture contains a paradigm shift in how we approach farming. Each of us can look at farm fields and have different perspectives and judgments as to the merits of what we see. My farmland has rolling hills and a range of soil organic matter that produces a range of yield results from the uniform crop input applications. To me, it always seemed odd to apply the same rate of fertilizer to good areas and poor areas of the field, but my older equipment wasn’t capable of varying the rates automatically.

I remember looking at the combine yield monitor for the first time and seeing the near-infrared (NIR) images of crop vegetation, which reinforced what I knew about my fields and their natural variability. But now with precision agriculture, I had a framework to do something about it. I could see the layers of data to better understand crop variability across the fields and could take action to manage it.

Many of the components of precision agriculture, which monitor and measure the soils, vegetation, water and yields, are now in place. The equipment is capable and there are precision agronomists and technicians ready to meet the farmer demand for precision agriculture services. Crop inputs are used across millions of acres and we generally understand how they work and are expected to perform. But when a farmer is facing a stressed crop, he doesn’t care what the normal or average results are on millions of acres. He wants to understand his unique field situation.

Research and product development strive to identify regional differences in product performance, potential crop injury and rotational carry-over for specific soils. We know that landscape and soils determine the variability of the vegetation and that specific weather will affect the crop in predictable ways. How we look at fields will determine what you can see. When you ride a horse across a field, drive by in a car or gaze down from the air, you see different things. As more farmers and researchers get access to satellite imagery and UAV-drone imagery to see the fields in new ways, such as NIR, which human eyes can’t see, it will change how we see agriculture and provide the tools to understand things that may have been difficult to explain in the past.

Are you ready for a paradigm shift in agriculture? The next time you are at the coffee shop, start a discussion about precision agriculture and try to identify the paradigms expressed in the dialogue. All farms are selecting crop inputs, making management decisions and measuring results in some way. Our paradigms define our present actions and also influence the future by dictating when and how new ideas are adopted.

Rarely do we critique successful businesses or winning sports teams, but it is a reasonable response to critique the results in the face of challenges and hardships. Does agriculture have to experience tough times before the mass adoption of new technology? In any business, you will hear some potential customers say they can’t afford the new services while other customers say they are making good money, so they don’t require any new services. Some farms have the paradigm that hiring a crop consultant is like an admission they don’t understand farming, while other farms view crop scouting services as seasonal extensions of their farm labour.

Growing a great crop is more complicated than filing the annual farm taxes, but most farms readily hire an accountant before they hire an agronomist. More farms are recognizing the value of crop consultants and trusted advisors with experience in the increasingly complex business of agriculture. Every farmer doesn’t need to become an expert in remote sensing because experienced precision agronomists can now use the tools to service hundreds of thousands of acres to identify production issues that were difficult to identify on the ground.

Whether or not a farmer adopts precision agriculture may have less to do with the technology than their paradigm of how they evaluate technology to begin with. Changing the way we do things begins with changing the framework to define our way of looking at things as much as changing the tools we use.

July 7, 2016
By Dale Steele P.Ag. Precision Agronomist