Discover the Latest in Agricultural Technology
Robyn Lawson grew up in Casa Grande, Arizona where she spent much of her time on the family farm. Her parents are Paco Ollerton and Karen Geldmacher. Robyn previously held marketing and brand management positions for agricultural companies, working to create market strategies and agronomy and farm data management service packages for various markets.
The Murphree, Ollerton, Geldmacher families have known each other for some time, nearly all related to agriculture. Karen Ollerton, and my mom, Pennee Murphree rode together in the women’s rodeo drill team, Quadrille de Mujeres. I’ve watched Robyn and her brother, Byron, grow up and expand the family agriculture footprint in so many ways. Agriculture technology and its capabilities in all its forms are often a central topic even if the conversation didn’t start out to be about agriculture technology.
Farmers and ranchers are always looking for a better way, if not simply to improve something for the farm and ranch business, to reduce costs. These technology discussions generate some of the best conversations. Robyn always has insightful comments on this topic. This one is no exception.
Robyn and her husband, Clayton, have two dogs; she also enjoys paddle boarding, hiking, snowshoeing, and her time spent as a PureBarre instructor.
Arizona Agriculture: Why does the public have such a hard time getting their minds around agriculture technology, and expecting that agriculturalists would use technology to improve?
Lawson: This is purely my own opinion here, but I think in general people have a hard time with topics of which they don't have a deep understanding. The general public has other priorities during their day. While agriculture fuels the day of each person in our communities and is essential to everyday survival through food and fiber, the public does not understand the PRODUCTION of the agriculture that serves them each day. When it comes to production, growers are the elite experts, but how many people in the public have access to experts to gain a deeper understanding of production agriculture?
Something else to keep in mind is the way in which we consume technology on a day-to-day basis and the rate at which we have seen technological advances is quite fast paced. Some of that fast-paced evolution translates to agriculture, but some do not. Frankly, we just don't have the luxury of starting over in the season because that time in the plant life cycle has passed for which we needed that technology. I think the public, within reason, has some concept of how technology can translate to a farm, but they can't wrap their mind around the time it takes to implement, and that lost time cannot be made up for the crop.
Arizona Agriculture: What are the leading/overall technologies we need to be aware of?
Lawson: Irrigation technologies. Not just irrigation sensors/probes, but tools where you can potentially increase irrigation efficiency. Some of these are hardware-based for sprinkler or drip irrigation systems. For example, there are opportunities to include pressure valves and switches that can be remotely managed. This could be helpful to further customize your irrigation management for your crop.
Do you have tank storage in a remote location? How helpful would it be to have a tank monitor to know when your fertilizer was at a point where you needed to take action to order more, move the tank, and more? Maybe implementing a tank monitoring system would be a good fit for your farm.
Arizona Agriculture: If a grower wants to make improvements in their business operation and even streamline processes or find ways to reduce costs, what are some of the first questions they need to ask?
Lawson: I would start with where do you want to prioritize your investment: time, money, resources? And then follow up with the questions of, with all that is happening on your farm right now, do you have the bandwidth to work together toward a solution? There are only so many hours in a day. And growers are the scientist, human resources, payroll, accountants, marketing, operations, and “you-name-it-they-do-it experts” for their operation. Oh, and expect the unexpected, ALWAYS.
And I mean that list as a positive. Growers are incredible. I ask those questions because to me, I want to help growers, and that means asking hard questions to understand where technology can have the most impact on a farm. There isn't a one-size-fits-all question to direct a grower to a fixed flowchart of technologies that are the best for them to use.
Each farm is custom. Continue your custom farm by selecting one technology that is the best for you - while keeping an open mind that you may add more in the future. When you find one technology that yields positive results the acceleration of success increases for you and your farm.
Arizona Agriculture: You’ve said no one has “won” in the farm management software arena. Talk about this.
Lawson: To put it simply, I think -- and this is predominantly in remote sensing and the software space -- no one has taken the time to create "the easy button." Right now, growers log in to five to 10-plus software systems almost every day - between operating their daily farm activities and paying bills. A few of those software systems "talk to each other" streamlining some of the process, but overall, it is cumbersome to login to multiple platforms. And when you log in, there is still some interpretation of data that must occur for the grower to take action on their farm. Think of it like we have the who, the what, where, and when -- but we don't have the “why” estimate to be able to take action.
The "easy button" is an estimate of the “why” to be able to make swift decisions for the farm that are based on the sensor data. Lucky for us, technology - hardware and software - continues to evolve and we are seeing analytics emerge for agriculture which will help shape some easy buttons for the future.
Arizona Agriculture: List out and explain what technologies growers need to watch for.
Lawson: EQUIPMENT MONITORING AND MAINTENANCE: Equipment and operational management is part of a farm that sometimes escapes our minds when we think about sensor technology. Sure, we talk about laser leveling, we talk about utilizing AB lines for efficient planting, variable rate seeding or nutrition application, nozzle-specific spray prescriptions, and the displays and features in the cabs can feel like they require a special certification to operate. I'm not discounting the technology that is included with equipment, or the technology that you can purchase aftermarket in displays and controllers. But what if you had sensors on your equipment to track the most effective routes? Collected insights for efficient maintenance? Elevated your farm operationally because you could cover more acres with your current bandwidth? I think it would be worth looking at these sensors. One option is FieldIn.
IRRIGATION MANAGEMENT: Soil moisture probes are not new technologies to agriculture. There have been innovations to probes that make certain sensors more accessible and increase the value to your farm. Depending on crop needs, not only can you use your probe to design irrigation management customized to your farm and crop, but the weather data can also be indicative of environments for disease. What if you could look at temperature and humidity levels and infer that microclimate was trending towards a disease and you were able to act sooner due to this localized data? There is one soil moisture monitor that completely submerges in the soil, or you can place it in a canopy. This workflow creates an ease that wasn't previously available with other probes which you had to worry about breaking during installation or breaking it by running over with a piece of equipment. Taking it one step further, depending on your crop, you can also dig up the sensor and transport it with your crop to measure data points to discover the least destructive routes and confirmation of temperature control in transportation or storage. For this example of an innovative soil moisture sensor, check out Soiltech Wireless.
IMAGERY ANALYTICS FOR CROP HEALTH: Collectively, our agriculture space has an opportunity to increase available analytics for remote sensing data. What I mean by this is that right now most remote sensors can point out a problem, but they can't tell us how to fix it. With analytics, there could be situations where specific sensor data could not only be visualized in software, but it could also visualize the state of the crop and suggest actions to take for a solution, or no action to maintain. An example of software that uses multispectral imagery analytics for plant health is: Regrow: https://www.regrow.ag/
Arizona Agriculture: Talk about the economic constraints of implementing the latest technology. This was a great discussion earlier this year with one of our alfalfa farmers, Wade Accomazzo. What’s your take?
Lawson: Hardware implementation and software subscriptions can be economically challenging. However, can I share a rebuttal of what isn't economically challenging in agriculture? I think like anything in life, we prioritize what is most important to us - whether we realize that in a conscious decision, or not. When I talk with growers about technologies on their farm, there are plenty of technologies that are exciting and if we could implement them all and have ourselves an agriculture technology fiesta, that would be fantastic! But that just isn't reality. I talk with growers about what keeps them up at night, where there have been challenges to overcome and areas in which they have tried to elevate their operation but haven't seen the results of which they know their business and their crop is capable. Then, we get to work. We look at the technologies – hardware, and software - that could provide a truly actionable solution. Once we identify the technology which the grower wants to implement, we do a general economic analysis. Cost is always the first thing that comes to mind, and it is a very real barrier, but cost is not always the barrier we make it to be. We take a holistic approach to what the "cost" is for the grower. Time, assets, depreciation, and of course, money. What happens if technology were to save you time? And not just a little time, I'm talking hours a week. Hours you can spend with your family at the Little League game, making it home for dinner, being at a dance recital, or just getting to enjoy some extra time with friends? What if that technology meant less wear and tear on your other equipment? What if a specific technology meant maximizing the effectiveness of your employees? What if that technology had a price tag that also yielded results in an overall potential crop yield or quality increase? The answer to all these questions is not always positive for all technologies for every grower. But, when we do find positive answers to the questions in which the grower feels the most value, that is when I know we have created an opportunity for technological success for the grower.
I know I am answering a question with more questions here, but to have a singular answer to the economic constraints of implementing technology is doing a disservice to our growers. Hey, some technologies that work for other growers might not work for you. That is ok, even expected. Ultimately, I want what is best for that grower on their farm.
Arizona Agriculture: What excites you the most about today’s technology and enabling it for the next generation of growers?
Lawson: Nothing makes me more excited than knowing I get to help growers. When I bring technology to the farm gate, it is because I believe this technology can help a grower find a new solution for their operation with the simultaneous goal of maximizing the acre for yield and quality. Maybe I'm helping a grower get more time with their family, or the ability to prioritize and focus on another part of their farm, or maybe I can help give them a little peace of mind and eliminate the smallest amount of stress. And if I can help a grower make their today a little better than yesterday, then does it get any better than that?
Arizona Agriculture: I liked your point in an earlier discussion that technology has a vast meaning across all agriculture. Talk about this.
Lawson: Technology can mean seed traits, a new way in which a coating is applied to a fertilizer prill, a new active ingredient for a pesticide. Technology can be a new mechanism that is used on an implement, an upgrade to AC in the cab of a tractor, or a new spray nozzle, Technology can also mean using a phone to call someone instead of writing a mail-posted letter. Technology can be multi-spectral satellite or drone data, it can mean pressure switches, software on our computers, apps on our phones, and drones, and we can keep going.
My point is technology can be what you want it to be on your farm. I don't say this to be ambiguous, but I say it to bring the reality of the best technology for your farm is the one that works for you. As I mentioned above, it can be easy to get overwhelmed with the options available for solutions to implement on your farm, and it can feel like the only way to be successful with technologies is to make sure investments or be on the bleeding edge of adoption. Not always true. Pick one and make that one great for you and your farm.
Arizona Agriculture: If you have a vision for the farmer of the future, what will it look like?
Lawson: I see a grower waking up and being able to log in to one software to look at a dashboard of directive information to help them plan their day/week. I see trying new technologies and failing smarter, so we move on at a faster rate that doesn't disrupt a production season. I see us being able to better evaluate technologies for the market, so growers have accessible data sooner. I see more time spent on evaluating the best crop inputs for maximizing the acres, and less time coordinating schedules and delivery. I see an increased opportunity for crop uniformity. It is hard to believe what we have already accomplished, but I see an increase in yield and quality.
I see challenges, but also rewards. I see utilizing the acre-to-max capacity with fewer crop inputs in a way that feels comfortable instead of restrictive - again maximizing profitability for the grower. I see our growers and future growers as one - innovative, doing the absolute most with the resources they have, and building an incredible future for the next generation of agriculturalists.
Arizona Agriculture: What happens when things go wrong?
Lawson: There has not been one day in my agriculture life where it has been the same as the next day. Not one. Now, some days on the farm or meeting with growers all day fall into place with no challenges. Most days are smooth with minimal troubleshooting needed on the farm. But there are days when technologies - remote sensors, hardware, and/or software, just don't work. It happens. Are these anyone's favorite days? Most likely never. Ha! But again, I ask - has anyone spent a year on a farm where each piece of equipment, each employee, and each plant exude traits at the top of their performance with no disruptions? That picture is not our experience. Equipment breaks, weather out of our control can create challenges, fertilizer doesn't arrive on time, and a tire on your truck goes flat. You think it, and it happens. I suggest being hyper-aware of the support you receive when talking with companies about their technologies. How responsive are they to you when you reach out with questions? After you have done a hardware install or software login and you reach out, do they answer your questions in a timely and digestible manner so you can continue your work? Notice the customer service - it is the service that will get you through the hard days even more than the easy days.
Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the September 2023 issue of Arizona Agriculture. We provide here to share with a wider audience.