AgGateway Conference – Food for Thought
I know that blogs are supposed to be timely, but I’m just now getting my head around all the content from the annual AgGateway Conference in Phoenix last week, Nov. 10-13. It was my first time attending the conference, which I did at the invitation of SAP customer and AgGateway member Tessenderlo Kerley (for which I thank Bruce Blitch, their CIO).
My scheduled participation in the conference was to support a workshop on transportation planning and execution processes common to agribusinesses. Fertilizer, crop protection, seed, and grain companies have more transportation challenges than many companies: hard resource constraints (railcar fleets whose size is relatively fixed, at least in the short term), short and seasonal delivery windows for their products (spring planting and fall harvesting), and more exposure to weather events that disrupt transportation (big snows, late springs, and floods). About 10 companies got together to figure out if there are common best practices for planning, re-planning, and executing transportation in this environment. That discussion was enlightening, and one we hope to continue with remote sessions to define best practices in such a way that they can be shared with other AgGateway members and with software providers like SAP, so we can continue supplying solutions that are responsive to industry requirements.
My unscheduled participation in the conference was the chance to attend any session I wanted for the two days I was not presenting. Such freedom to browse is a rare opportunity for me, and one I thoroughly enjoyed. Some of the highlights of my session browsing were the meeting of the Crop Nutrition Council and the session entitled “Precision Ag is Changing the Software/solutions Allied Providers Need to Deliver”, delivered by Charlie Nuzzolo of Adaptris/F4F.
What’s crop nutrition? Feeding plants with fertilizer and other soil amendments. Most interesting was to hear about the Responsible Ag initiative promoted by fertilizer companies to voluntarily certify facilities that store and handle fertilizers. Anyone who remembers the West Fertilizer company explosion last year will understand why this is a good idea – and why the industry itself should sponsor such regulation. I also heard that the Canadian government already has in place regulations to prohibit shipments of specific fertilizers like ammonium nitrate to locations that have not been certified to store and handle these substances. No such regulations are in place right now in the US, but it’s not hard to imagine that there could be. In any case, software providers like SAP with Transportation Management solutions need to be aware of these kind of industry requirements. Given access to an authoritative repository of certified locations (in SAP-speak, “ship-to” locations), we could use the same mechanism our Global Trade Services solution uses to block shipments of specific goods to “sanctioned parties” – companies or individuals with whom trading is prohibited by law.
In the Precision Ag session, there was much discussion of farm data — how to collect it, define it, model it, and deal with errors in it. My takeaway from this session was that the technical issues around data collection and analysis will be easier to solve than the “social” issues. Business networks already exist to enable farms to exchange data with their suppliers – the F4F network being a prime example. Software platforms exist that can handle predictive data analysis of vast amounts of data stored across heterogeneous systems – SAP HANA being an example here.
But the social issues are more complicated. Farmers’ concern about ownership of data has been well publicized. Until this session, I had not thought much about how the regulatory environment in which farmers operate might increase their reluctance to share data. In the US, various governmental agencies control use of certain crop protection chemicals and monitor nutrient run-off into streams and rivers. If farmers have to report to state/federal agencies what they have planted and applied in individual fields, they are unlikely to report any practice that departs from government imposed standards – no matter whom they are sharing the data with. So if agribusinesses are looking for data about actual farming practices, they are unlikely to get data about off label use of chemicals or fertilizer application rates that differ from established guidelines. Yet this data could be critical to the determination of what seed a farmer should plant and what crop inputs he should apply to a field.
The only suggestions from the group to improve the climate (pun intended) around sharing of farm data were to enlist the collaboration of state Agricultural Extensions, who farmers may perceive as neutral parties, and perhaps also to collaborate with the American Farm Bureau, historically a voice for farmers’ rights and concerns. No coincidence that the Farm Bureau, who had several members at the conference, issued a press release on Nov. 13 reporting a new agreement with several major agribusinesses on Privacy and Security Principles for Farm Data. The policy is good. The issues in executing it remain complicated.