Eric Micheels describes how he came to U of S as “one of those connected stories.”
“I was doing my PhD at the University of Illinois,” said the Wisconsin native. “One of the faculty did her master’s degree at the University of Saskatchewan and she had just got the posting for the job here from her network when we bumped into each other in the hallway, and she said, ‘Hey Eric, you should apply for this.’”
Being connected is such a normal, everyday thing, most of us never think about it. But Micheels has not only thought about it a great deal, he’s measured it in a group of people not particularly known for networking: Farmers.
“Farmers with an entrepreneurial mindset are also the ones who look past the farm gate for answers to problems they have,” said the assistant professor in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics. “They might consult more broadly than most, not just copy what their neighbours and friends are doing. Many even look outside of agriculture.”
And, as it turns out, the world needs farmers to be very good at networking.
“The issues that farmers face today are no different from the ones they’ve faced for hundreds of years,” said Micheels. “They’re trying to do more with less. The number of mouths to be fed is going up. However, resources—such as the amount of farmland in North America—aren’t increasing, but decreasing.”
What’s different today is that the supply of silver bullets for increasing global food supply is getting low. In the past, things such as mechanization, vastly higher-yielding grain varieties, and a suite of very effective agri-chemicals relegated the Malthusian nightmare of mass famine to the ‘no worries there’ category.
Future advances will be of a different sort.
“New technologies are different today because adoption is only the first step,” said Micheels, who grew up on a dairy farm. “For example, go back to the introduction of hybrid corn—the only thing that really changed was what you were putting in the corn planter, and you got most of the gains right off the bat.
“But with big data or really advanced technology where you have to get one system to talk to another, it’s a lot more than just writing a cheque. It’s the same for all sorts of businesses today. There’s all this data coming at you so fast, the technology is changing all the time, and it may not work perfectly. It all adds up to a lot of uncertainty.”
That means future progress will depend on the innovators—the ones willing to tackle steep learning curves and take things to the next level. So who are the innovators in farming?
“We still have this notion that size is important—we think the largest farms are doing all the latest and greatest things,” he said. “But if you think more broadly on what innovation is, size shouldn’t be that important. After all, you see farmers of all sizes making changes and striving to get better.
Micheels actually designed a survey to measure farmers' ability to innovate, known in economics lingo as absorptive capacity—the ability to assimilate and integrate new information.
“Think about a farm with a new program for gathering data for making agronomic decisions or for marketing,” he said. “When you sit down with the rep trying to sell you that product, you have to first be able to see how it would make sense for your farm. That’s assimilation.
“The next part is integration: How am I actually going to put this technology into practice? The salesperson will give you examples of how other farmers use the technology, but you have to figure out how to use it on your farm.”
The best and fastest way to do that is to turn to others who are adopting the same technology and applying it in their business. But for that, you need networks.
Micheels’ survey profiled farmers’ networking ability. A market research firm canvassed several hundred Prairie farmers and asked a series of questions such as: How many farmers do you regularly talk to about your operation? How many suppliers, consultants, and advisors? How many days a year do you spend at workshops and conferences?
The answers varied wildly. Some said zero to all of the above and the norm was pretty low, too—one or two advisors, a handful of farmer confidantes, five or so days at conferences or workshops. Others, from farms of all sizes, gave answers that were five or 10 times higher.
One of the goals of this work is to dispel the notion that being on the cutting edge is only for big and well-off operations. It also shows why it’s critical to get off the farm—both to be exposed to new ideas and, equally importantly, to connect with other inquisitive, forward-thinking individuals.
“You might hear something first at a field day or workshop, or see something in a farm magazine or on Twitter, but you’re going to rely on your personal network to get the low-down on it.”
His survey supports what many, including Micheels himself, see happening in agriculture. He notes younger farmers (including kids he grew up with who are now farming) are generally “bolder” than their parents, well-connected, and open to new ideas. And across agriculture, there seems to be a thirst to push the boundaries of what’s possible. (After all, he noted, while the rest of society waits for driverless cars, auto steer is now pretty much standard equipment in tractors and combines.)
“We’re going to be more data-driven—we’re just seeing the tip of the iceberg of that,” he said. “The speed at which we use data and actually have it make sense to us is going to improve. We’re also going to be more connected—from the processors to people who handle it right through the farmers and to the plant breeders.”