Gene Logsdon: Drone Groans

The Contrary Farmer

How quickly business picks up on innovations that waft the odor of money into the air. The idea of using unmanned aircraft in agriculture has been so completely embraced that there are already experts out there warning farmers of possible shysters who will try to sell them the wrong drone for their operation. Good grief. There aren’t any proven right ones yet.

I am trying to imagine this innovation positively but it’s not easy. I can see, or almost see, drones delivering to our doorsteps all that stuff we are purchasing online. I suppose it will take some kind of receptacle next to the garage for the drone to deposit stuff into ($$$), or perhaps special bags or crates ($$$) that can be dropped gently on the lawn, in which case there will have to be some kind of safeguard ($$$) to keep thieves from stealing the packages. Maybe the drone will just hover over the roof and drop packages down the chimney.

But when it comes to using drones profitably in farming, my imagination puckers up. The sales pitch right now is that Big Data will need drones to collect unending reams of electronic information to help “you” farm better. There is an assumption here, I guess, that farms will be so vast that farmers will no longer have time to eyeball crops and animals from their pickups or leaning over the fence. Or perhaps Big Data assumes that farmers will disappear into the mist of history, their work taken over by robots. I was sort of amused by a quote in the news attributed to Matt Bechdohl, president of something called GeoSilos, speaking recently at the American Farm Bureau’s 95th annual convention: “I don’t like the term ‘precision agriculture’ especially if we aren’t doing anything precise with it. We are going to move to predictive and prescriptive agriculture. We’re going to move beyond precision agriculture with Big Data.” To do that, Bechdohl said, drones will play an increasing role, using a technique he called “fly and scan” to collect data for producers.

I’ll take a shot at some predictive agriculture myself. I predict that trying to use drones in farming will cause one of the biggest headaches human society has ever had to endure. A whole lot of us just aren’t going to take kindly to pieces of metal flying around our private sanctuaries like horse flies. Just as “precision” farming has fallen into disfavor, so will “predictive” and “prescriptive” farming. Big Data will not be able to deliver the predictions and prescriptions it promises any better than the grey matter between a farmer’s ears can deliver them. The latter costs not the outlay of one penny.

I remember all too well when predictive farming said there was going to be an airplane in every barn. One of my favorite true stories is about two farmers on the other side of our county who both got a plane and laid out an airstrip in their pastures. They would regularly fire up their winged beasts and fly down to visit each other just to pass the time of day.  As it turned out, an airplane in every barn was not practical or profitable. Just because something is mechanically or scientifically possible does not mean that it will become generally adopted.

And if I’m wrong, I’ll be long gone before it happens and you can laugh at me while you swat at all those drones buzzing around your ears.