Farm on the go

Visit Andrew Campbell’s website and the first thing you see is picture of a farmer — a bit of a silver fox, too; no youngster — in a cow pasture, leaning on his truck, tapping the screen of his smartphone. It’s an image we should get used to.

While it’s not Campbell in the picture, it could be. He’s a big proponent of the power of mobile technology as a farm management tool. He blogs about it, speaks about it, tweets about it, writes about it and, yes, he uses mobile technology on his own farm — a 400-acre, 45-head dairy operation he runs with his wife, Jessica and his parents, in Strathroy, ON.

And he is by no means alone. In June 2011, a Farm Credit Canada vision panel study found that 29 per cent of farmers had a smartphone, with over half of them planning to buy a tablet in the future. A mere eight months later, in an Ontario ag ministry (OMAFRA) online survey of Ontario producers, ag students, and ag professionals, 69 per cent of respondents reported owning a smartphone, with half saying it was essential to their work.

“Fifteen or 20 years ago, some people were reluctant to get a computer,” says Campbell. “Now, most farms are heavily computerized.” Mobile technology, he says, is the natural next step in electronic farm management, and while it has much to offer now, it can be a whole lot better if farmers themselves get involved.

Today’s dairy farms are fairly well automated. For Campbell, the big challenge is integrating that automation with mobility. “On the mobile technology end, we’re trying to accomplish two things,” he says. “Number one is how can we make data more accessible to all of us; and number two is how can we not call each other every seven minutes to see how we stand.

“For example,” he says, “if I book a load of corn, my dad can see that and not book it again. We’re gradually getting to a smartphone-friendly farm where the idea is to key information into one of our phones and we can both access it.”

This is leading to greater efficiencies on the farm management and crop marketing sides. “I can make crop marketing decisions from wherever I am; I can make change offers from an airport and actually hit the prices I want,” says Campbell, who travels frequently to conduct workshops and speak about new media in agriculture.

On the herd management side, he and his family are making strides, but in many respects, the technology cart is still before the application horse. “It’s a bit more challenging on the herd side,” he says. “It’s not the technology so much as the programs — it’s difficult to get an app or program that’s designed for agriculture.”

There are many good and useful farm apps focused on grain prices, weather forecasts, agronomic decision tools, and the like, but purpose-built, whole-farm management applications are rare. “I have zero interest in opening up 17 different apps in a day,” he says.

Campbell uses a program called Evernote, which has the benefit of being downloadable onto just about any platform, and allows him to synchronize all his notes, files and images among different devices (say, his phone and the office computer), share them with his dad’s phone, and even amalgamate information from many different sources into one file.

It’s good, but he’s had to adapt a program never meant for agricultural use, and it’s not always ideal. “On the herd management side, we still do a lot of work on a note pad because the technology to do it all electronically doesn’t exist yet,” says Campbell. “Until we can get a system that works and that we can rely on, we’ll continue to do that.”

The beauty of smartphones and tablets is their mobility, and Campbell dreams of the day when producers like him can do everything they need to from mobile devices. On his dairy farm, for instance, being able to see milk production, vaccinations, treatment dates, and breeding and pregnancy information for each animal on his phone, whether he’s in the barn or in an airport, would greatly improve efficiency and reduce the potential for error.

Not to mention the sheer job satisfaction. “No farmer wakes up in the morning and says, ‘Yay! It’s a bookwork day,’” says Campbell. New rules and regulations such as the dairy vaccination protocol, that require detailed records, would be so much easier to manage and more accurate if dedicated software existed.

“Ag software developers should be looking at mobile technology and thinking ‘how do I make this easier for farmers?’” he says.

Campbell believes it’s only a matter of time, and that farmers themselves can drive the bus if they choose to. “The phone can do it; it just needs the application. And the application needs the uptake.” In other words, software development isn’t cheap, so producers need to tell developers what they want and then use it.

“We’re getting more and more to a position where you can do more management chores off-farm, wherever you are,” says Campbell. “In a perfect world, I don’t have to go into the office any more.”

Photo Credit: courtesy of Andrew Campbell