The talk today is about Big Data. The question is, will we use what we collect? It reminds me of the 1990’s tagline, “Data Rich, Information Poor.” In the mid 1990’s, USDA NRCS Chief Paul Johnson commissioned a Blue Ribbon panel to study NRCS data collection named “Data Rich, Information Poor.” As you can guess from the title, the conclusion of the report found that NRCS had a huge storehouse of natural resource data that was never converted into useful information.
Organizations produce data every day. However, many companies fail to turn that data into useful information. Will the term “Data Rich, Information Poor” return to our vernacular with agriculture’s push for more big data? It seems that the precision agriculture gurus are on the search for every data layer they can collect. For instance, the increased accuracy and resolution of elevation data is getting better and better every day: my quick Google search of drones and elevation data will lead me immediately to eBee RTK, the only fully integrated, fully compatible survey-grade mapping system.
According to the website, sUAS News, the Swiss mini-drone manufacturer senseFly announced that in it will offer a highly accurate and flexible mapping solution in the third quarter of this year (2014). The eBee RTK system offers surveying and engineering professionals the very highest positional accuracy. With survey-grade accuracy, it will produce Digital Elevation Models (DEMs) that are accurate within 3 cm (1.2 in) without the need for Ground Control Points (GCPs), meaning less time spent in the field and high precision.
Really, how cool is this? Years ago we were happy to have topography maps that had 10 foot contour lines and now we are talking elevation data with accuracies of better than 1.5 inches! But now for the real question, is this just another case of soil and water conservation being data rich but information poor? Do we have software that can efficiently handle this data? The world of precision conservation needs to wake up to the reality that topographic data is coming to us faster than we can design software to utilize the data.
I’ve asked myself, how can soil and water conservation professionals justify collecting better and better data with little to no thought of how to put that data to use? I guess one simple answer is to quit collecting more data, however that seems like a bit of a defeatist attitude. Instead, I believe we need to focus our efforts on developing the methodology and software for using this high quality topographic data to protect our soil and water resources. And, the sooner we get started the better.
I’m very fond of saying: “Agriculture does not have a technology problem, it has an adoption problem: If all the economically and environmentally viable conservation practices were adopted by farmers and ranchers, we would not have the agriculturally related natural resource problems that exist today.”
For over a dozen years I’ve worked with the now-called Conservation Agriculture Systems Innovation (CASI) Center in Fresno County, California. I retired from NRCS in 2000 with over 31 years of service and was continually preaching that adoption of conservation practices should be foremost in our business plan – much to the chagrin of my fellow NRCSers who, themselves, didn’t want to change from the ease of reporting miles of wire, feet of pipeline, and numbers of stock watering facilities.
Change is very difficult for most farmers, too, but to my way of thinking, the structural practices only facilitate the actual implementation of conservation management practices. Tom, you seem to emphasize the structural over the management practices as being the key to conservation – spoken like a true engineer. I’ve always said that the NRCS engineers had the easiest job in NRCS because the farmers already had made up their mind that the cure to their ills was one more water control structure or another 1000 feet of irrigation pipeline. IWM was only tacked on to satisfy the EQIP requirements but it was never given the same time or the importance of the structural practice.
At CASI, we have embarked on a major adoption literature search and conducted a survey of farmers as to their obstacles to adoption of conservation practices. We are gearing our efforts with farmers to address as many of the listed obstacles that were identified in the survey. My personal interpretation of the survey data is that farmers use anything they can think of to rationalize why conservation practices won’t work on their farm:
• It won’t work with my crop rotations
• It won’t work on my soils
• Not enough economic information
• Too costly
• Ad nauseum
A conservation practice such as conservation tillage has been economically and environmentally successful worldwide, on a myriad of soils, for a wide variety of crops. So, what’s the problem? Pannell, et al. in Australia in his paper “Understanding and promoting adoption of conservation practices by rural landholders” (www.publish.csiro.au/nid/72/paper/EA05037.htm) states that:
“Much of the focus of government policy for land and water conservation is on changing the behaviour and management practices of rural landholders. However, these policies often neglect the large body of evidence about what it takes to achieve such changes. This paper is a selective review and interpretation of the literature, conducted by a team from three relevant disciplines: agricultural and resource economics, rural sociology and social psychology. (Note that there wasn’t an engineer or conservationist in the mix.)
“Adoption is based on subjective perceptions or expectations rather than on objective truth. These perceptions depend on three broad sets of issues: the process of learning and experience, the characteristics and circumstances of the landholder within their social and economic environment, and the characteristics of the practice.
“Some government officers express frustration at the lack of adoption by landholders of conservation practices and call for additional social research to better understand adoption. Sometimes it can be helpful to better understand the adoption of specific practices, but the influences on adoption in general have been studied intensely and we believe that they are sufficiently well understood. Rather than more research into adoption, the more pressing need is to apply what is already well established in the adoption literature.”
So, Tom, please, in the future, give the adoption of management practices that go along with the structures at least the same ink that you give the engineering aspects of the structures.
USDA NRCS (Retired)