The rise of the Generation Y farmer

Satellites, drones, multispectral imaging and cloud computing… To some, these terms elicit images of a military operation, but surprisingly these are the words now used by a new breed of farmer, the Generation Y farmer.

I fondly remember going to my cousin’s family farm over summer vacations as an eight-year-old boy. I used to be amazed (and very envious) that he was allowed to drive the pickup truck at his tender age. The reason for this was more practical than I assumed back then, because as soon as his feet reached the pedals he was mature enough to be integrated into the farming operation – according to the farmer at least. From this moment on the farmer starts passing down the generational farming knowledge which makes up a blueprint of how everything is done on the farm – this is the way of the Traditional Farmer.

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He is connected to his land on a deep emotional level, and pity the fool who would suggest a different way to till the land.

After the technology boom in the late 90’s, spurred on by the advent of the Internet, a new trend has been emerging with the latest generation of farmer.
This new farmer started to question the status quo prescribed for generations, and asked the critical question: – “Is there a better way?”

Enter the Generation Y farmer.
The new breed of farmer has a clear understanding that farming is not a means to an end, but a business, which is subjected to all the competitive forces and risks irrespective of the lineage of the land. The genY farmer, similar to a great CEO, understands that it is impossible to be a jack-of-all-trades. He needs an A-team of specialist consultants across all areas of the agricultural growth cycle in combination with leading new technology to ensure maximum optimization of the entire farming operation.
In order to grow a plant optimally he requires multiple specialists in various areas. For example, a Soil Scientist only focuses on the variation and health of the farmer’s soil. Other areas of specialty include Irrigation, Climate, Plant Nutrition, Orchard Design and Risk Management.

On the technology side, there are a multitude of cutting edge tools available with the potential to exponentially optimize the operation.
Remote sensing technology from satellites and drones provide real-time layered aerial images of the farm pin-pointing where any potential problem areas, likely due to disease, environmental or nutritional deficiency. This helps the farmer to act faster and more accurately to address the problem before it negatively affects output. These images are gathered on a weekly, sometimes daily basis, building a rich collection of data, invaluable for future decision making analysis.

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The correct amount of water at precisely the right time makes a huge difference to the health and output of a plant. Smart irrigation systems have been developed which physically measures the water needs of the plant via sensors attached to the plant. Cloud based software then remotely regulates the supply of water dynamically to each and every plant on the farm.

Each facet of the production cycle generates an enormous amount of data, which is firstly used for on-farm reactive decision-making, and secondly it is collated and processed to generate a unique farm DNA of sorts, which enables better decisions for the next season. All this data is fast moving to cloud based processing platforms, which truly enable remote farming. 1

So, what about Africa?
All of the above begs the question: How is all of this knowledge, best practices and technology being applied to the continent with the most agricultural potential acre-for-acre? The short answer is, it’s not filtering through to the smallholder in Kenya with ¼ acre plot of maize. The reason is fourfold – accessibility, finance, scale & education. Why target 100 farmers who collectively have 30 acres, when you can target one commercial operation with 50 acres plus?
In my opinion, to develop a genY smallholder mentality, we need to start with the basics where education will form the cornerstone to spread the paradigm-shift that has swept though the commercial farming sector globally. Once this is achieved, the adoption of smart mobile technology connecting the smallholder farmer to scientific advice, best practices and better access to markets becomes infinitely more achievable.

Progress today is slow on the educational front, but the various input suppliers clamoring to capitalize on the illusive African potential are realizing that education is a key ingredient to a successful smallholder who will then and only then be in the position to buy their product, whether it be a tractor or a bag of fertilizer.

One thing is clear though, if we are ever going to feed the global population by 2050, our focus should be on cultivating the genY farmer with a ¼ acre of land in the developing world.

 

Notes

1. The real game-changer in this space has yet to be developed – a single intuitive operating ecosystem  that collates and delivers the information in a simple “Apple-esque” way. Currently each technology brand has a separate platform, which limits the ability to cross reference and really capitalize on the farm-intelligence that can be gained by processing this big data centrally. I can guarantee tough that we are less than five years away from seeing the agricultural version of OSX.