Technology on the Farm Now Fits in the Palm of Your Hand

2/16/2013 7:00 AM
By Matthew J. Lohr Virginia Agriculture Commissioner

In January 2011, I featured social media in this column. I reread it the other day and thought, “Wow, how things have changed in two years.”

At that point in time I mentioned cellphones and laptops, and used the word “perhaps” in conjunction with smartphone and tablet use on the farm. For social media, I limited the discussion to Facebook, Twitter and blogs and only referred to “applications” once. I noticed that I wrote “applications,” not “apps.”

Just three months later, we launched our first app, a Virginia Grown app for Windows Phone 7. Later that year, new apps were cropping up daily. The phrase, “There’s an app for that,” became a pop culture aphorism and in farming, as in all aspects of life, smartphones, tablets and apps now have changed the way we do business.

I now know of farmers who say they hardly ever open the laptop anymore because they can conduct most of their farm business on their smartphones. There are many very creative apps for that and farmers are taking full advantage of them.

A lot of farmers use DTN, Data Transmission Network, to access market news updates, grain futures and more. Updates hit their phones two or three times a day, and farmers can get the latest information on the tractor or at the local café. No more going to the house at lunch to check the market reports.

Farmers can measure field sizes using an app. They can check price reports for livestock or commodities or locate the closest elevators to buy grain. They can look for livestock auctions and view them in real time, or they can use apps as an alternative to yard sales and on-farm auctions to find and buy equipment.

A new smartphone application from the USDA is available as a free download for both iPhone and Android users to access soil survey information.

The app, SoilWeb, combines online soil survey information with the GPS capabilities of smartphones. It’s available at http://casoilresource.lawr.ucdavis.edu/drupal/node/886. The soil survey information provided in this mobile form is particularly useful for those working in the field.

The Mobile Farm Manager from John Deere gives access to field data from a smartphone or tablet. It can define soil grids, track sample numbers and navigate from one field to the next. Farmers can associate notes to a specific area and analyze operation maps and report from the car, in a meeting or in the field.

They can move data easily between the manager on their mobile device and farm management software on the office computer. A share feature allows farmers to share data easily with trusted service providers and business partners. All this and they don’t even have to leave the tractor cab.

I recently learned of some consumer apps that help save energy, something dear to the heart of most farmers. The Save Energy, Save Money app calculates the energy use of common appliances, and the MeterReadings app allows you to read your electric meter from your phone. Apps, including the UFO Power Center and Energy Hub, allow you to remotely manage the energy use of home appliances to eliminate stand-by power costs.

There is an important partner with all the apps and the pint-sized devices, and that is social media. When I wrote about it two years ago, it was a growing trend but still somewhat optional. Flash forward to February 2013 and it’s no longer a trend, nor is it optional. It’s here to stay and it is absolutely necessary to run a business or a farm.

I think most farmers have embraced it either enthusiastically or because they have to do so. But I still run into those who say, “I’m not into that stuff.” Well, let’s look at some reasons why you need to get into it.

I am friends electronically and personally with Michele Payn-Knoper, who is so very good at using social media. She gave me permission to quote from her blog, so I’m going to extract from her article, “New Opportunities to Connect Food and Farming.” I’ll give you some highlights, but I encourage you to read the entire post at causematters.com/ag-social-media/.

She’ll give you all sorts of ideas and advice on things like Facebook Fundamentals, Twitter Tips and Pondering Pinterest, as well as Blogging Backgrounds, Leveraging LinkedIn and YouTube Strategies. But you can check those out for yourself. Let’s stick to the basics here.

Why should those of us involved with food and farming care about social media? Michelle has two words for us: mass influence. Face it, folks, social media is not a fad. Facebook reaches 150 million users nearly three times faster than a cellphone. And farmers need to be at the table to provide sound information as well as to counter misinformation.

As Michele puts it, “The conversation is happening about food and farms, even if farmers aren’t at the table talking.” My point is that we have to be at that table, and the sooner, the better.

Ignoring social media complaints is a huge mistake. “It amazes me that even in today’s social media savvy business environment there are still big companies that fail to engage with their customers, particularly customers that are frustrated and unhappy,” Michelle writes. “In fact, a variety of research shows that ignoring those customers is the worst possible strategy.”

Ouch! That’s a tough one, but I believe Michele is right. The “social” in social media means that it is a two-way conversation, and if we fail to realize that, we do so at our own peril. Our detractors have learned this lesson and are using it to full advantage.

Can we really afford to remain silent? Michele’s new book, “No More Food Fights!” highlights more about our detractors and what to do in connecting farm and food.

Michelle puts it very bluntly. When you read her blog I referenced above, you’ll see an article on “Why Small Business Owners Need to Stop Debating Social Media and Use It.” Is anyone unclear about how she feels? I don’t think so. However, that article makes quite a startling point: “We’ve gone back to a small-town way of doing things, where the way you treat individual customers matters because they are going to tell others about the experience they’ve had with your business.”

When you look at social media like this, maybe you’re back in your comfort zone. This is something we farmers understand, the philosophy of treating folks right. When you treat people right, they will tell others. And in today’s world, that telling can circle the globe instantly.

I am convinced that these apps and new methods of sharing knowledge will help us become more productive. If we are going to feed a world rapidly approaching nine billion people, we have to increase our productivity several fold.

Maybe what we need to do is retain our practice of the old one-on-one interactions, but combine them with the instant technology of a new medium. When we do that, I think we will have tapped into the best of both worlds. We will continue to provide a safe, abundant and affordable food supply, but we will also tell the socially friendly story of agriculture.

Matthew J. Lohr is commissioner of the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.


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