Stop! What’s the first thing you think of when you think of Indiana? OK, besides basketball? Cornfields, of course!

For decades it seemed the only thing Indiana had to offer was corn. I could not think of a better way to kick off my tenure as a Fellow of the Institute for Digital Transformation than to continue the stereotype by talking about, well…corn! More specifically and more to the point, The Digital Transformation of the Family Farm.

A lot has been written about the Digital Transformation being a revolution akin to the Industrial Revolution. In a recent talk given to the Indy CIO Network, Patrick Poer of Foundation 648 describes the digital revolution as being the fourth major revolution to impact business, after the Industrial, the Assembly Line, and then the Information Revolutions.1

On a recent trip to the Indiana State Fair, with that same group of CIOs, it dawned on me, here in front of us was a microcosm of the transformations that had taken place over the last two hundred years. Yes, there among the horses, cows, and the World’s Largest Pig; among the pork chop tent, the turkey leg stands and the deep-fried Oreo vendors (all delicious, I might add), you can stroll through history and witness first hand how these revolutions changed the life of the farmer.

A Stroll Through History

Industrial Revolutionfarm1

Our exploration begins at the Pioneer Village. Through reenactors, you can see life on the family farm as it was in the 1800’s. Many of the tools in use were either handmade by the farmer or his wife themselves, or by the local blacksmith.

As our walk continues, we begin to notice signs of the Industrial Revolution. In front of us is a Gristmill, manufactured back east. The full impact of the Industrial Revolution is in front of us as we watch steam powered sawmills and threshing machines in full operation.

Assembly Line Revolution

Next to the Pioneer Village is the Antique Tractor Field. Steam-powered threshing machines, from the Pioneer Village, now had wheels and drivetrains, enabling the farmer to take them to the fields instead of hauling the crops to the thresher. Throughout the 1900’s tractors continued to evolve. Many familiar companies were born: International Harvester, Case, Caterpillar, and of course, John Deere.

It took John Deere from 1918 to 1966 to reach a billion dollars in sales. Seven short years later, in 1973, sales would surpass two billion dollars. In 1994 they introduced the first row-crop tractor.2

Information Revolution

In the 1980’s the family farm entered the Information Revolution. The Revolution came to the farm, much in the same way it came to other industries, quietly and through the backdoor, er, the back office. The introduction of the PC enabled farmers to computerize their record keeping, track their finances, and analyze crop and livestock trends like never before. By the 1990’s GPS technology was being used to help the farmer optimize his or her use of water, fertilizers and pesticides (“inputs” in agricultural parlance).

The Glass Barn is our final stop on our tour of history. In the Glass Barn, education is the goal. Leveraging technology, children of all ages engage in activities that teach about farming. There is a photo booth that emails your digital picture (and yes, it is possible to squeeze 25 CIOs in one photo). The four-player video game allows children (or CIOs) to compete against each other and Mother Nature to achieve the optimum crop yield. Finally, in the digital theatre, visitors can talk live to a farmer riding in their tractor out in the fields using Facetime and an iPad.

Yields are one of the primary metrics farmers use to measure the success or failure of a given crop year. Through improved techniques, technology, the introduction of fertilizers, hybrid seeds and GMO seeds, yields have grown substantially from 26 bushels per acre in 1936 to 162 bu/ac today.3 As the world’s food demand grows, the gap in production will need to be made up through improvement in yields. Enter the Digital Era.

Farming Today and Tomorrow -The Digital Revolution

Today’s farm is a networked farm. The digital transformation is well underway. Farmers are using social, mobile, analytics, cloud, and IoT technologies in growing numbers. Companies such as Monsanto, Bayer, BASF and others are developing digital ecosystems that not only provide data that drive their own businesses, but they provide this data through a set of tools directly to the farmer.

These technologies help the farmer manage their crops meter-by-meter instead of field-by-field. Using a combination of satellites capable of a resolution of 30 cm, drones equipped with infrared sensors, infield sensors, and tractors equipped with photosynthesis sensors, farmers can get a view of their crops like never before possible. Data is fed to a tablet giving the ability to review all of their crops in a moment’s notice, without having to drive or walk the fields.

Industry experts believe these technologies will provide the biggest step in crop yields since biotech seeds. Farmers using this technology have already seen 10 – 11% increases in yields in just two seasons.5

All of this is leading Reuters to advise of potential disruptions to the pesticide, seed and fertilizer industries. As usage of these “inputs” becomes more precise, yields will rise and the amount of these inputs needed will decrease.6 Bayer has already announced it is reviewing its pricing models and is looking for ways to move from “crop protection products” to “clean fields”. In other words, pricing based on outcomes as opposed to inputs.7

The digital transformation of the family farm is just one of many examples of industries that are being impacted by digital technology. If you think your industry is immune to this transformation, you may just want to think again.


1 Poer, Patrick. “Digital Transformation in an Age of Disruption”. Indy CIO Network Quarterly Meeting. Eleven Fifty Academy. May 4, 2016. Lecture

2 SodGod. “History of the Tractor”., undated.

3 Nielson, R.L (Bob). “Historical Corn Yields for Indiana and the U.S.”. Purdue University Department of Agriculture. August 2012.

4 Various. “How to Feed the World in 2050”. How to Feed the World 2050. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

5 Pepitone, Julianne. “Hacking the farm: How farmers use ‘digital agriculture’ to grow more crops”. August 3, 2016.

6 Burger, Ludwig. “Digital farming could spell shake-up for crop chemicals sector”. May 5, 2016.

7 Vogt, Willie. “The rise of digital farming”. September 8, 2016.

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