Modern agriculture is highly optimized, efficient, often on the cutting edge of technology andinnovation. Robots harvest wheat, tractors are autonomous and apple packing lines have used machine learning for nearly a decade. For every successful accomplishment they have achieved, they also generate a new kind of waste: unused data.
Wait. What? Yes, data is an input, and it’s everywhere. It can be found in field sensors and drones, packing lines, warehouses, logistics and shipping, traceability initiatives and even the grocery checkout. Data is a constant from farm to fork.
Although many agribusinesses are advanced in their use of technology and data, others are still to realize the benefit of using their data to deliver improved business outcomes. Whether driving more revenue, improving margins, or reducing costs, a reframing of the value of data is required. Data is a valuable asset (much like a raw commodity), and not leveraging it to drive growth can be the equivalent of wasted opportunity.
In an enlightening interview for The Packer’s Tip of the Iceberg podcast, Thuan Ngo, ZAG’s VP of Data and Software Services (DSS) group, talked about the state of data in Ag and how the industry can modernize to achieve these business outcomes.
From Data to Insights to Decisions
While industries such as healthcare and finance have embraced data-driven insights to make processes more efficient and improve decision-making, agriculture often relies on manual data input and handwritten logs in many parts of its operations. It might be a skills gap, it might be an infrastructure gap, it might be a tech gap, regardless of the reason, the gap provides opportunity.
Thuan says that agriculture must bridge this technological gap to begin to realize the potential of advanced data collection and analytics. He noted that during his time at ZAG, he’s watched repetitive work in Ag handled via spreadsheets and other older legacy technologies. These systems have served us well for decades but are vulnerable to human error and can be time consuming.
Thuan is clear, “The main challenge standing between Ag and data is a lack of user-friendly options to access, refine and report on the data. The good news is, our team at ZAG works daily with produce companies to solve this problem. It also became an internal conversation that if one or two or three of our clients had an issue, likely multiple companies throughout the industry had similar problems. So like we do in the ag industry, we put our head down and got to work, focusing on a solution that will have potential for the entire industry.”
Customers Share Frustration
It’s one thing for a program engineer to know how to build a tool, it’s another thing to understand the why. Thuan and ZAG’s DSS team wanted more insight into customer needs. They spoke with a variety of grower-shippers. One industry-leading grower/packer/ shipper shared key challenges that were echoed by others:
- Lots of data with no easy way to access it
- No structure to organize the data
- No process to generate reports to make operational decisions quickly
- Accessing data required high level experts
- Sometimes it required waiting weeks or months to get the reports needed
Thuan added, “ERP’s are an expensive investment, one that is filled with information, very few Ag companies have the high level of expertise in-house needed to access the data stored deep in those ERP’s, and most importantly, produce moves fast – they don’t have that kind of time.”
Big Data Needs Big Ideas
With knowledge in hand, the challenge was accepted, a solution crafted. The outcome is a modern process to collect data from an existing ERP, manage it via a transparent pipeline, make available refined data sets to anyone in the company who needs it, and do it faster and more accurately than current alternatives. That’s the bottomline of any aspect of business; do it faster, more efficiently and meet the need.
The new solution allows users to take their data and quickly generate reports and dashboards that they can use to create actionable insights.
“Our solution doesn’t take weeks or months to generate data outcomes,” said Thuan. “It could be hours, maybe only a few days, it’s a simple cost and time saving tool that democratizes data and it will only get better as the level of data matures and increases.”
Data is already everywhere, and Thuan expects forward looking companies to use it to gain an advantage over competitors. Thuan shared his insights on AI, saying, “We’ve already seen an impressive expansion in the use of artificial intelligence and machine learning across industries. These tools are revolutionizing business, and they all run off data.”
The decisions we make are only as good as the inputs available, whether it’s years of industry experience or analyzing the data created by modern technology. As markets become more unpredictable, Thuan believes discussions about data management will become more common in the boardroom of all Ag companies and they will use it to find opportunities to gain competitive advantage.
Listen to the Podcast
We launched an informative and sometimes entertaining series talking all things ag tech, from new tech applied to organic fruit to cybersecurity, AI, robotics, and everything in between. A respected thought leader in the industry will join us each episode to share their knowledge and experiences with all of us. Join us as we uncover how technology is reshaping agriculture.