With our study of ag technology development and adoption in recent years, we understand how dramatic, lasting change requires an aligning of the stars. Technological capability isn’t enough and, in fact, may not hold more weight than secondary factors.

External factors include committed individuals (on-the-ground champions who develop company interest and keep it engaged and supported), regulation/legislation and economics (the ancillary “feel-good” benefits only go so far). And then watching to see how the 800-pound gorillas react, or don’t.

Autonomy’s pace in just a few short years is surprising. The skeptic in me expected the majors to “talk” a good game. But would they risk their factory infrastructures to compete with their own status quo? How long would it be before we noticed a turning of the battleships?

The independents, we correctly surmised, would move the technology forward. But they’ve been getting snatched up by the big players. Yet unlike past patterns, the majors don’t appear to be squatting on their newly-acquired technologies.

It’s not lost on us at Farm Equipment that we’re on the precipice of significant change, much like what my grandfather might’ve felt in seeing the car — and then the truck and tractor — arrive on the farm. 

Fast-moving technologies have kept us hopping throughout 2022, requiring extensive study and surveys on electric power, newer alternative fuels and, most recently, the autonomy that is now testing the limits of imaginations.  

Autonomy has its naysayers, of course, including the dealers and growers who responded to our newest Ag Equipment Intelligence custom research report. But we’re reminded of the words of Henry Ford. As the story goes, had he asked what people wanted, the answer would’ve been “faster horses,” not a powered vehicle. 

With the major players engaged in the autonomy race, a scan of the landscape shows several supporting factors. Things like severe labor shortages, Baby Boomer-aged farmers transitioning out, and skyrocketing land prices that favor the large, well-capitalized operations. Not to mention that 21st century farming requires a Ph.D.-like expertise in finance, chemistries, soils, and plant and animal nutrition, to name a few. 

I remember how independent dealer Mike Houghtaling of P&C Solutions put it. “Before the tractor, the farmer had horses and implements and could be focused on growing food,” he says. “Since then, farmers have become most concerned with the machinery and hiring for it. Robotics will change that and return the emphasis back on the science of growing again.”

It’ll be a long time before the 300,000 farm tractors sold in North America in 2022 become obsolete, but there’ll be incremental progress, and retrofit solutions to ease farmers in. And while we chuckled at John Deere’s bundling of a chisel plow to its autonomy solution (a savvy “want fries with that?” package), Big Green is promising it’ll have fully autonomous solutions for row-crop producers by 2030. The R&D is not slowing down.

One of our favorite ag tech scribes, Shane Thomas, recently shared an analysis on the speed at which new farming technologies achieved varying market penetrations. In the Kansas Farm Management Assn.’s study of 8 precision technologies, the length of time it took to reach a 2.5% penetration averaged 2.6 years, with another 9.8 years before 16% was reached. Automated guidance, as of 2018, was the only one to have reached 50% penetration, occurring 11 years after its introduction in 2000.

There are winners/losers in every revolution (or attempted revolution). The makers of buggy whips and plows learned this lesson, but recall how the once “space-age” lightbars were obsolete almost before they even got started. 

To learn where your business can best compete (or not) in this coming sea change, join us in St. Louis for the 2023 Precision Farming Dealer Summit (Jan. 9-10). It’s a great forum to connect with other visionaries on the how, why and when of autonomous machinery.    

Looking Back to Look Forward: Predictions on Autonomy from 2011