Industry Experts: Culture, Complexity Biggest Barriers To Adopting IoT In Agriculture

A long-standing divide between farmers and technology, and difficulties associated with turning massive amounts of data into something meaningful have inhibited IoT adoption in the agriculture industry, according to a group of technology experts.

Small farmers have operated successfully for generations without having to rely on computers or IT infrastructure, and most are loath to waste energy trying to make sense of boatloads of sensor-enabled data, said Robert Laudati, managing director of commercial products and solutions for Boulder, Colo.-based Harris Geospatial Solutions, during a panel discussion at CompTIA ChannelCon 2016.

But IoT has many practical applications for farmers, such as measuring the activity level of fertilizers and where it is in the root system, said Steve Maxwell, CEO of Plant City, Fla.-based Highland Corp. Most farmers end up over-fertilizing and over-watering when they try to operate by feel, Maxwell said, meaning that sensors can help them reduce fertilizer usage and do less harm to the environment.

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"This is the best opportunity in the world for farmers if they'll work as hard on this side as they do on the farm," Maxwell said Wednesday at the Hollywood, Fla event.

Solution providers must focus on putting the data into a context that's meaningful so that end users have access to the right information at the right time, helping them make the right decisions, said John Keever, chief technology officer at Boca Raton, Fla.-based Telit IoT Platforms. Keever said the channel must make it as easy as possible for customers to deploy solutions.

"If you don't have that specific context, it's a lot of raw data to analyze," Keever said.

One challenge specific to IoT is that the solutions almost never come from one individual vendor and can contain parts from as many as 20 different manufacturers, said Shawn Rahn, vice president of the Internet of Things (IoT) for New York-based Presidio, No. 22 on CRN's Solution Provider 500.

One of the greatest barriers to IoT adoption, Rahn said, is when a customer's internal IT department is forced to learn the nuts and bolts of 20 individual applications in order to get business value out of an IoT solution. Rahn said the channel must focus on presenting end users with a unified IoT solution from which they can adopt and learn all of it without getting into the nitty gritty of each component.

Specifically, Laudati said solution providers should strive to make the technological backbone associated with an IoT solution invisible to the end user.

Additionally, the current state of engineering and computer science education is not on track to provide employers with what they'll need to deploy IoT solutions, said Jason Hallstrong, director of the Institute for Sensing and Embedded Network Systems Engineering (I-SENSE) Florida Atlantic University, based in Boca Raton, Fla.

In particular, Hallstrong said educators must focus on training prospective employees broadly across the entire application stack so they can communicate with farmers in ways they can understand more easily. Departments should also focus on the interpersonal piece of the equation, Hallstrong said, so that engineers can speak with farmers about their needs, constraints and goals and work with them to come up with solutions.

Highland is launching a multimedia division to provide technology-focused support to the agricultural community, Maxwell said, noting that farmers are producing great yields but are unable to sell their products due to the consolidation of the retail channel by direct shipping operations such as Amazon.

The multimedia division will focus on putting farmers on more equal footing with their go-to-market competition by building them websites and social media divisions. Maxwell said most small farmers don't have time for a website, and if they've even bothered to launch one, the pictures and design are typically at least five years old.

"The best things farmers can do for their children is to hand over the farm with about five million [social media] followers," Maxwell said.

Solution providers considering an entrance into the agricultural vertical would be wise to remember that it consists of more than production farming, said Chad Paalman, managing partner of Grand Rapids, Mich.-based NuWave Technology Partners.

NuWave, for instance, has completely automated all of the systems for all of the largest distributors of apples in the Midwest, Paalman said. These opportunities may prove most fruitful in the short run, Paalman said, since family farmers both young and old still aren't aware of how tech offerings such as IoT can help them improve productivity and yield.