Since its creation in 2017, the Digital Agriculture Observatory, coordinated by the AgroTIC Chair and #DigitAg, has conducted surveys and produced analyses on the uses of digital technologies in different areas of agriculture. What are the technologies used? For which types of agriculture and which applications? What are the obstacles to and drivers of adoption? To date, the Observatory has produced 13 studies and infographics, and three more are in preparation for 2020. Interview with Nina Lachia, head of the Observatory.
How did the Observatory emerge?
The project is founded on an observation: the official French organisations include very few or no statistics on digital tools in agriculture in their annual reports (those of Agreste for example). Yet access to reliable information on the adoption of digital tools and services in agriculture is important for all actors: for companies, in order to design services corresponding to the real needs of end users; for teachers, to define appropriate basic and continuing courses for students, farmers and advisors; and for agricultural organisations and regional or national institutions, to develop strategies and policies to support the profession. This was why the Digital Agriculture Observatory was created, building on the momentum of two consortia, the AgroTIC Business Chair and the #DigitAg Convergence Lab.
Which organisational model and methodologies were chosen to determine and conduct studies?
French agriculture represents a wide range of topics (plants, animals, perennial crops, annual crops, etc.), and digital technologies are evolving rapidly, so we considered it inappropriate to produce a single analysis of digital agricultural uses. Every three months we publish short, targeted studies on technologies identified by our partners. In addition to research, training and transfer organisations, AgroTIC and #DigitAg bring together 28 companies covering a large part of the digital agriculture chain. The subjects studied are selected and prioritised according to the collective needs of all partners (cooperatives, manufacturers, service providers), who meet during a workshop twice a year, and with the expertise of the operational team. This rapid, regular production of deliverables informs and guides the discussions not only of the partners of the Observatory, but also of other actors in the agricultural ecosystem, such as cooperatives, competitiveness clusters, and the Ministry of Agriculture, among others.
Our results are public, as required by the SupAgro Foundation, which supports it[A1] through public and private funds. The involvement of researchers and teachers ensures its[A2] neutrality and academic legitimacy, while that of farming organisations guarantees the agricultural value of the subjects studied and reflects the views of users. The involvement of digital service providers ensures access to important information, such as market shares and the levels of adoption by farmer customers.
Surveys and interviews are conducted among the main actors (farmers, advisors, suppliers and distributors) in order to produce studies of two types: quantified synopses in the form of infographics, and thematic analyses, presenting the obstacles and drivers of adoption, as well as the training needs of farmers and advisors. These complementary deliverables enable us to develop a more systemic vision of the adoption of digital technologies in France. These two types of studies require different methodologies.
The production of infographics
The goal is to answer the following questions for each service or technology considered: What is the level of use of this solution in France? What are the associated agricultural applications? Are there specificities, particular obstacles or factors of adoption depending on the sectors of production?
The method used to answer these questions is original, since it is not based on a survey conducted among a sample of farmers. The goal is to obtain the most comprehensive view possible by questioning suppliers of products or services about their market share by region and by type of production.
The first stage is a full inventory of all the providers of services linked to the target technology. Monitoring of the main online discussion forums for farmers completes this stage. The goal of this first stage is to identify the main suppliers and the main challenges for a given technology.
The second stage is based on individual interviews with each of them. The goal is to obtain data on their market share, but also qualitative information on adoption and the evolution of market shares. Finally, individual interviews are conducted with experts from technical institutes and consultancies and with the heads of research and development from the main cooperatives to verify the data after consolidation at the national level. Monitoring of the main discussion forums for farmers is used to verify the coherence of information.
A more systemic vision of technology adoption
Field crops and cattle farming, pioneering sectors
Are there sectors in which tools and services are emerging more rapidly? Although it is too soon to paint a full picture, we can give several examples. The 2017 studies on field crops, viticulture and remote sensing reveal a certain delay in the adoption of digital technologies in the viticulture sector: 10 % of French field crop areas had benefited from a remote sensing service, compared to just 1 % of areas under vines. Likewise, we have seen that robots are commonly used in cattle farming, especially for dairy cattle, whereas this process is still in its infancy for plant crops, where robots are mainly used for weeding and market gardening.
Traceability and smartphones, the most common uses
What are the most notable uses by sector? And the pioneering sectors? So far, for all of the sectors studied, digital technology primarily implies traceability: whether for regulatory, administrative or technical-economic reasons, this is often the first tool mentioned and used by advisors, crop farmers and livestock farmers. Similarly, smartphone applications are often mentioned, with uses that differ according to the sector.
- In field crops, the most common and widespread use of digital technologies is that of global positioning systems (GNSS) for guidance, section control and auto guidance technologies[A1] . We also note the development of remote sensing for nitrogen fertiliser management (last application), which can include automatic intra-field modulation. Uses of tools seem to primarily concern fertilisation (nitrogen, basal dressing) and seed management.
- In viticulture, the focus seems to be on protection against disease, with the use of agri-weather models, or harvest management using remote sensing or soil mapping.
- In arboriculture, it seems that the digital tools used are also linked to protection against pests and diseases. Irrigation management, with frequent use of fixed sensors, is also a focus.
- In cattle farming, robotisation is very present for issues of production, health monitoring, animal well-being, and comfort at work (sensors, herd management software, milking, feeding and cleaning robots). These uses are widespread in dairy cattle farming, whereas digital tools are still used very little in more extensive cattle farming (studies are still underway).
A need for support for the different actors in all of the sectors studied
End users, advisors and also collective agricultural structures and distributors do not always know how to integrate digital technologies into their advice or the services proposed. There is a strong desire to better understand existing technologies and services and to thereby identify those that will be the most useful for end users.
Special demand for expertise provided by farm advisors
Their role as data interpreters, as experts on the basic functioning of certain technologies, and as key contacts for farmers to determine whether or not a technology is interesting has been highlighted for crop sectors.
The factors involved in digital technology adoption are not always economic or based on productivity gains. The value of a tool, whether digital or not, will strongly depend on the user, their strategy, and the socio-economic context of the farm. Thus, the reasons for adopting and using a tool can vary greatly: increasing productivity or economic profitability, fostering environmentally friendly practices, increasing comfort at work, mitigating the lack of labour, or making certain tasks less arduous, etc.
What next? In 2020 we will publish three new studies on market gardening, yield monitors and pig farming, and once all of these studies have been produced, a comparative study of the different sectors.
Nina Lachia – nina.lachia [AT] supagro.fr