Moon Landing vs. Farming: Ag Econ Prof Spotlights Data Hurdles

Chad Fiechter, assistant professor of agricultural economics at Purdue University, posed a thought-provoking question at the Bushel Buddy Seat conference in Fargo, North Dakota last week: What’s easier, landing on the moon or raising crops? The answer, as Fiechter noted, is pretty obvious. However, the comparison was intended to highlight the complexities and uncertainties inherent in both endeavors, urging the audience to consider how these challenges present opportunities to improve data usage in agriculture.

Fiechter, who has a decade of farming experience, emphasized that farmers interact with an inherently uncertain system. “Uncertain weather can impact the kinds of pests present on a farm, which in turn impacts decisions growers make,” he explained. These decisions ultimately affect crop yield. Additionally, farmers must navigate fluctuating prices throughout the growing season, adding another layer of complexity to their decision-making process. “The whole point of this is to show you this is a messy, messy process,” he said.

Data is the backbone of many agtech startups aiming to streamline this “messy” process. However, Fiechter pointed out that current data is often siloed across various apps and platforms, preventing a holistic view of farm operations. “Lots and lots of people have talked about data and collected data and tried to bring value to producers,” he noted. “To me, it seems like we need to be working together to get all of the data in one spot so that we can actually understand what is the uncertainty and how farmers [can] manage the uncertainty.”

Fiechter teaches advanced farm management and data analytics courses at Purdue, equipping students with the tools to tackle these challenges. In a follow-up conversation with AgFunderNews, he elaborated on the need for better data integration and the distinction between risk and uncertainty. “With risk, the probabilities are known. You have uncertain outcomes, but you know all the probabilities. In uncertainty, you have uncertain outcomes and you have to approximate what those will be,” he explained.

Fiechter also critiqued the agriculture industry’s current use of data. “In some ways, we’re using data inefficiently,” he said. He argued that the industry needs general guidelines and rules of thumb informed by data, rather than real-time insights on every single aspect of farm management. Historically, ag economists had access to comprehensive farm management datasets provided by the government. However, the explosion of consumer data has led to a lag in access to modern farm management data. Much of this data is now held by private companies like Bushel and John Deere.

“There’s still a place to do some public good through research,” Fiechter asserted, emphasizing the need for aggregated data to provide actionable insights for farmers. “As a producer, you don’t really have time to get an individual daily insight on where you’re at. You just need a metric to show you what you should do next.”

Fiechter also addressed the notion that agtech and data cannot replace human intuition on the farm. “Data can be supportive of a producer. As a researcher, it’s valuable, but it’s really only valuable if I have 100,000 other farmers that I can also observe what they’re doing,” he said. Despite the potential value of aggregated data, he noted that the industry has not yet fully realized this potential due to data silos and a lack of functional integration.

In summary, Fiechter’s insights at the Bushel Buddy Seat conference underscored the complexities and uncertainties of modern farming and the critical role of data in navigating these challenges. By breaking down data silos and fostering collaboration, the agriculture industry can better equip farmers to manage uncertainty and make informed decisions.

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