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  • Writer's picturePrecision Ag Reviews

Does Your Farm Need a CTO?

Updated: Aug 5, 2022

With the scope and depth of information being collected on farms, precision ag experts see a new type of trusted adviser emerging to manage and monetize that data.

When you think about the most valuable aspects of your farm operation, does information technology cross your mind?

Maybe not consciously, given the mobility and convenience of the smartphone in your back pocket or the monitor in your tractor cab.

But these and other technology tools are part of the evolving infrastructure that spin the spiderweb of data connectivity on your farm.

So, who’s in charge of making sure you don’t get tangled up in that web, and instead are weaving a stronger, safer, smarter digital plan for your farm?

Maybe it’s you or your farm manager. It might be your agronomist, your precision ag specialist, or your equipment dealer.

But in the future, it could be someone brand new – a farm Chief Technology Officer – who specializes in organizing, protecting and monetizing your ag data.

Precision Ag Reviews compiled three considerations to decide if, when and how a farm CTO might fit into the future of your farm.

1. Think Beyond “Bookend” Data.

Planting and harvest tend to be emphasized as the most essential times to collect and apply field data. These are “bookend” data sets of precision agronomy, says Steve Cubbage, AGI Vice President of Services for Farmobile.

But today, almost every aspect of a farm operation can be tracked, reviewed and modified, if needed.

Making sure that information is accurate, organized and comprehensive is going to give farms a competitive advantage, says Cubbage, especially as more opportunities to monetize ag data emerge.

“Some of the new sustainability programs and the carbon credit market require farms to provide pretty specific data sets to third parties, and trying to compile digital records is often outside the scope of traditional precision agronomy,” Cubbage says. “This is where the definition of a trusted adviser gets more complex, and those resumes of agronomists and precision ag specialists could get a lot longer.

“But not everyone is going to want to or feel comfortable extending into that role, which is why I see these new IT or data-specific people filling the need.”

2. Establish a Threshold.

Farmers have a core group of people they invest in to help guide critical cropping decisions - from agronomists to precision ag specialists.

The size and scope of a farmer’s operation influences their investment in that network of trusted advisers to meet production goals.

For a small or mid-size farm to hire or develop an in-house CTO, the decision will likely depend on how long and how much it already has invested in data collection.

“It's less challenging for farmers to adopt a plug-and-play technology because they don’t have to spend a lot of time getting up to speed for operating things like auto section control or auto-steer,” says Joe Luck, precision ag professor with the University of Nebraska. “But once it’s to the point of doing an assessment or analysis of the data, farmers don’t always have the time or desire to take that next step.”

Luck has seen 20,000-acre operations invest in a full-time precision ag data curator. In contrast, smaller farms have delegated data-specific duties to a tech-savvy family member or outsourced them to a service provider.

For Iowa farmer, Kyle Mehmen, the threshold for hiring a full-time person to be the farm’s in-house ag data expert came soon after they committed to collecting extensive field data more than a decade ago.

He credits hiring a “reconciliation specialist" as a proactive and vital step to capitalizing on the economic potential of their farm data.

“When we started intensively collecting data from our farm ten years ago, we knew it was going to be important to have the information, even if we didn’t know why,” Mehmen says. “But it’s starting to become more and more relevant as we invest in more data-driven opportunities on our farm including the carbon market.”

In less than three years, the farm has seen carbon credit revenue grow, in part because they already had the infrastructure in place to realize an economic return quickly.

“The time we’re investing to report out the information we’ve been collecting and practices we’ve been doing for years, is time well-spent,” Mehmen says. “What we’re learning is there is an endpoint to this system because it’s monetized.”

3. Quality Is The Economic Incentive

The phrase “garbage in, garbage out” is often used to describe the value of poorly collected and processed farm data.

Quantity doesn’t automatically translate to quality.

“Bad data is going to lead to bad decisions,” says Luck. “It’s not enough to just have the data. Farmers need to be able to make good decisions from it and assess how those decisions are improving their operation.”

This is a familiar conversation for Jeremy Wilson, an experienced precision ag consultant and Illinois farmer.

Wilson, who also serves as Executive Vice President for Ag Gateway, has been a longtime advocate of data quality.

“I talked with a grower recently who has been collecting data on his farm for 25 years,” Wilson says. “And he told me if the market doesn’t give him the ability to monetize his data, he’s going to stop collecting it.

“That was an eye-opening comment because he made the decision a couple decades ago to start collecting everything and learn as he went, but now can’t find the right person to get to the finish line.”

Wilson sees the farm CTO market gradually developing, with fee-for-service providers emerging to meet the needs of farmers ready to monetize years of solid data.

Eventually, Wilson says the most skilled local CTOs could be absorbed into large farm operations, similar to how independent agronomists have been added to farm staffs.

So will a reliable data specialist or CTO become as integral as an agronomist or precision specialist?

Time will tell. But as the industry continues to recognize the value of data, the need to properly collect and protect it will grow.

“There is a tremendous and growing need for this new role because we spend millions of dollars on high-tech equipment, but haven’t yet figured out how to make that machinery fit Into the rest of our operation,” Cubbage says.

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