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Is farm IT user friendly?

02 Feb, 2013 03:00 AM
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Software developer and doctoral student Carl Sudholz recently resigned from the Victorian DPI to establish his own software development businesses.
Software developer and doctoral student Carl Sudholz recently resigned from the Victorian DPI to establish his own software development businesses.

IS information technology making agriculture more profitable? Carl Sudholz doesn't think so.

That's not because agriculture can't use good information, the software developer and doctoral student says, but because "most agricultural information systems are in fact quite useless, and even more are hard to use".

Relatively few farmers use farm management software. Only about 15 per cent of grain growers report regularly using industry-specific software, a figure that hasn't changed much since the 1980s.

And grain growers are one of the most technology-friendly groups of farmers.

Mr Sudholz has a theory about this. "I have come to believe that farmers do not use agricultural software because quite simply, the software is just not worth using."

He grew up in a Horsham, Victoria, mixed farming family, was a software developer with the Victorian Department of Primary Industries, and is now in the early stages of a PhD in information systems development.

This career path led him to the conclusion that farm software isn't doing the job it should.

"The hype of ag information systems greatly exceeds their performance, and that's been the case since the 1970s," he said.

"Farmers are right to be skeptical adopters of agricultural software."

As evidence, he points to the scarcity of commercially viable ag information systems.

Agriculture software houses, he observed, are small private or government concerns that have either been unable to generate the cashflow to fully develop their product, or in the case of government projects, had their funding yanked before the project could be fully realised.

"If these products were really as good as the salesmen say they are, adoption would be much higher than it is and there would be a John Deere or Bayer CropScience of agricultural information systems," Mr Sudholz said.

"The reality is that adoption is low, and there is no such multi-national corporation."

He thinks that's partly because of a disconnect between how farmers work and the information that software systems provide them.

Software should be useful and easy to use. In Mr Sudholz's opinion, the packages available to farmers have so far failed at one or both of these criteria.

On one hand, farm software can be impenetrably complex. Few farm offices, he believes, ever use more than a small fraction of their software's power.

And the records made by software don't necessarily speak to the farmer's experience.

"By keeping records in software, you get very precise information on things like cost structures, yields and inputs," he said.

"But in farming, the nature of day-to-day decision making is fuzzy. You're always adjusting to deal with things like weather, pests or changing prices. There is a big overhead in keeping digital records, but very often the imprecise nature of farm decision making means that investment can't work for you.

"A simple Excel spreadsheet or handwritten journal will serve most farm management decisions equally well, and these tools are far easier to use, less expensive and more reliable."

That's not to say Mr Sudholz is against farm information systems. Far from it - he thinks agriculture-specific software is vital to meeting the sustainability challenges of the next few decades.

But he thinks the future rests less in the "everything but the kitchen sink" information systems, and more with the sort of software that is creating the mobile data revolution - apps that do "one thing well".

The apps that top sales for smartphones and tablets, like Instagram or Twitter, need few, if any, instructions. They work intuitively, but are powerful within their limited scope.

Mr Sudholz thinks the future of ag information systems will be an ecosystem of independent, tightly focused apps that freely slice and share information in ways that enhance and benefit farm decision-making.

In Mr Sudholz's vision, the budgeting app will just do budgets; the paddock mapping app will just map paddocks.

He is putting his money where his mouth is.

He recently resigned from the Victorian DPI to establish his own software development businesses, agContext and Fast Task Tools, and self-fund his PhD with Charles Sturt University.

His doctorate will attempt to put his ideas into practice, with part of the program dedicated to developing a commercially viable farm planning software application.

Mr Sudholz blogs about "A paradigm shift in agricultural info-systems development" at www.csudholz.net and runs his own software development business, agContext.

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READER COMMENTS

rankamateur
2/02/2013 6:41:57 AM

In my experience the bigger, and hungrier, a farm software becomes, the more likely they are to drive away the customer who would help fund their ongoing developement. As software support, on the book keeping package I bought outright climbed from $100 p.a. to $300 p.a. I cut them loose, now at $500 p.a. I wouldn't consider returning to support the company that used me for an un-paid beta tester, for many years. The package though I continue to use, continues to do the job it always did. If the company struggles to fund further software developement, then it is purely because of it's own greed
dissatisfied user
3/02/2013 1:59:01 PM

I would agree that software is difficult to use. I have in the last 18mths moved from a free software package because of moving to EID in my stud sheep enterprise. The new package was originally written for beef cattle and has added in some sheep specific things. This only adds to the confusion and multiplicity of useless reports and function. While the support from the particular Company providing the software is first rate I use several other commercial packages where I rarely need support. I have been using the computer and various programs since the early 1980's so i know my way around.
Ben Swain
8/02/2013 12:58:40 PM

I applaud Mr Sudholz's commercial acumen in marketing his yet to be released suite of farming apps. However, I think its dangerous to suggest that we can dumb down farming. In a business where every cent saved is one made, and every extra kg produced is more profit (or less loss), surely we need to be embracing state of the art technology. Does it really matter is not everyone uses every functionality of every piece of software. I for one know I only use a fraction of my various software programs, but the fraction I do makes my business much more profitable.
R See 1
11/02/2013 3:49:41 PM

Most apps that referred to rely on a huge amount of material behind the scenes. Who will organise that for individual farm businesses? There is a place for existing farm software with better access via smartphnes and tablets used in the field, which is where they are going anyway. Apps ok for somethings eg calculating spray mixes, rates etc, weather data and similar areas but not so sure for many other areas around the business area.
Jo
12/02/2013 6:16:14 AM

I looked at a lot of software applications before picking cattlemaxonline for managing our beef stud records, mainly as I can update it in the paddock on my ipad and phone as well as on the PC. It does need connectivity for that but has worked ok in a lot of rural nsw and I can print out reports for the other half to fill in on paper when he weighs or checks the cattle as he hates technology, but, I probably still only use 20% of the functions.
jim
12/02/2013 12:52:48 PM

I applaud Carl for challenging those who have for years lived on a government gravy train producing near useless software packages. I have provided training for farmers on the use of such programs and evaluations show that very few ever make ongoing use of them.

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