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This is, without doubt, one of the recent revolutions that has most changed the way the French irrigation-users think and operate.

 

Adds real value compared with the standard products sold

In the first place, digital technology and connected devices have enabled the players in the crop and vegetable production sector to be everywhere at the same time and to keep track of everything (we have seen this during the terrible shutdown imposed by the COVID pandemic). The main platform is, of course, the Internet where it is possible to do almost everything, be trained and share the expertise, such as buying and selling the goods more and more “directly” (with fewer intermediaries).  You can also act with greater simplicity, speed and efficiency. This applies, for example, to the associated connected devices, which are almost like the hand-piece or receiver of the Digital technology, allowing actions to be carried out remotely (begin irrigating, starting a machine remotely) or measuring and recording precise information (a variety of different sensors…) so as subsequently to be able to analyze it and offer the user relevant predictions and analyses in real time.

Can we really be sure that “Real” products will disappear with this Digital technology and, consequently, lose all the local advice and monitoring activities that could be carried out on a one-on-one basis? Nothing could be less certain… because new services have emerged from this digital revolution and this has, therefore, led to the users having new requirements, enhancing the image of an industry that is well-respected but nonetheless still very conservative…

 

A brief overview of the available technology and its applications

The fields of application and examples are so vast that it is difficult to describe them here. We can do no more than classify them according to the main categories and/or key stages:

• Support tools available for acquiring knowledge and expertise: supported by the Internet, all these existing platforms (public and private), which can relay information about agricultural or green space activities, linked very closely to our sector, i.e. irrigation, are incredible sources of expertise and knowledge. They help all the stakeholders, from installers to growers, to produce more with less… a greater quantity (size and quality of the fruit and vegetables, yield per cultivated surface area) and better quality (new techniques and better crop management favour the varieties that are more suited to an ever more demanding market…), often with less available resources (water, energy, fertilisers, labour…). Therefore, this represents a wonderful opportunity for reducing the impact on the environment and achieving sustainable development by sharing sound practices and strategies for success.

• Support tools for the retrieval of data in the field: modern digital technology allows for the installation of efficient measuring equipment, affordable and smaller and smaller in size, allowing the user to have the benefit of a number of parameters that would otherwise only be accessible after taking samples physically (off line and in situ) and storing massive amounts of data for use in the long term. These are the trackers and benchmarks or references that lead to ongoing progress: data on the moisture content of the soil during irrigation, crop monitoring techniques for checking the impact that could result from human actions, monitoring the use of the assets (e.g. GPS beacons for agricultural machinery) and the personnel attendance control), climate data (humidity, temperature, rainfall)… as well as the information that can be used for calmly managing the agricultural activity or green space with the minimum of activity in the field.

• Support tools for decision-making, planning and actions taken: this is the latest addition but no less important. By relying on stage 1 (acquired and accumulated expertise), then stage 2 (a significant number of field situations that can be used to compare and model in order to deduce from this which patterns of behaviour or situations are obsolete) and, of course, the progress made in the analysis of this data (storage on servers and the use of artificial intelligence for data processing, for example), there will be new possibilities offered to the decision-makers. When to irrigate, how much? Which fertilisers to apply? At what time? How to reduce energy consumption on the farm? How to face up to such and such a risk (frost, heat waves)? How to anticipate any future constraints and optimise in near real time?

 

The other side of the coin!

The risk for those involvedin our irrigation industry…

As this technological development has very often also triggered changes in human activities: new stakeholders are now able to become aware of and predict situations, almost in real time and even when located at a distance, and providing all the new services without having to travel…

Some of them use a weather station installed locally for predicting the risks (diseases, frost, storms, drought…) and suggesting (and charging for) measures aimed at risk anticipation and management. Others offer a method of monitoring the movement and use of the assets (machines, tractors, sprayers…) to optimise their management economically with the use of GPS beacons. Others construct search engines for comparing the market offer and helping to make the relevant decisions according to criteria that is objective (price, deadlines) or sometimes more disputable (quality, user feedback). And others create training courses, webinars and tutorials on-line to share (and possibly sell…) the expertise and good practices. Finally, there are those that provide online ordering tools for the customers, 24/7, thus upsetting the balance that has existed for decades between the supply and demand of products… and services.

They all seem to have one thing in common: the service.  And there is more and more of a risk for a company that only offers a standard product - at a price that covers local storage, near the user, and in the-field-advice provided by an established team - of seeing its share of the market reduced to the advantage of a firm that plays this digital and service card to the full with all the added benefits.

 

Finally, a world of opportunities to be seized

For instance, let us look at the manufacturers and distributors of irrigation products and solutions in France and provide some specific examples:

• Market entry via customer experience: digital technology (Emailing campaigns, updating the web site, blogs, MOOCs, Webinars, Newsletters, smartphone applications…) can make it easier to link an offer with the requirement and make the customer relationship automated. For the traditional stakeholders who become part of this (manufacturers/distributors), it is a way of reaching a targeted public more efficiently with less resources, even if the person is isolated geographically. And they are then able to offer the first personalised customer experience, and eventually be able to attract and catch the interest of the customer. From that point on, nothing then prevents them from physically meeting that informed and adapted target, continuing with the selling process and completing the deal.

The goal is to close the gap that exists between the manufacturer and the end user customers and then filter this demand over to a local distribution network. This allows the user to adopt an innovative solution and helps him/her to go one step further (provide the facts and specific details, share experience and give reassurance).

Inexpensive new services have now been created: it is not always easy for a representative from the Distribution sector to enhance the notion of an associated service while promoting a product… the user often having the tendency to want to incorporate everything together so that it will be to his or her advantage in terms of price… and digital technology precisely creates new less restrictive and cheaper services… this being a definite advantage for the user while costing less to operate to the extent that it is no longer necessary to attempt to charge for them.

Some manufacturers propose a number of support packages for the selection and sizing of the products or the management of a farm. Hydraulic studies (carried out with specialised software) help with the selection of micro-sprinklers (determining the best device suitable for each field type) and advice is  given by our agronomists via an evaluation carried out remotely. Or there is an even more basic solution involving technical monitoring carried out remotely at pre-sales (recommendations for products and solutions) or post-sales level (after-sales support service…). Before digital technology, this was quite challenging whereas it is quite a simple task nowadays.

 

Tomorrow’s innovative service and activity: let’s look into the future still under the spotlight of digital technology… with energy costing more, we travel less… there are still more constraints (customer demand, 24/7 availability, climatic aspects and environmental impact…) and we are faced with a market that is more mature with more business entities in competition… it becomes obvious that a better use of digital technology will be the main differentiating factor for the consumer. This particularly applies to the new advanced services conducted with the use of digital technology.

As an illustration, let’s look at this fictitious but telling example: I am a farmer-grower who manages 250 hectares of fruits in the south of France. Every day I must supervise the seasonal workers so as to be able to harvest my crop within a few weeks and at the same time deal with a mass of information relating to my farm. Every morning at 7.30 am, I have a meeting with my team to prepare a list of tasks to be carried out and at 9.30 am, I meet a customer from the supermarket distribution sector to negotiate a sale. I switch on my mobile phone at 6.00 am and search for any alerts that my farm (automatic) management system has sent while supervising the night-time irrigation. I can see that a major alert has been activated: I advise my distributor under the terms of my service contract and a few hours later someone comes out to fix the problem… I don’t even have to explain anything to him/her as the system has located the device and identified the problem (example: low pressure alert – probable leakage in the southern network). As the Distributor/Installer is authorised to access the system, it is automatic… at 10.30 am I receive an SMS text message from the supplier indicating what corrective action has been taken and I can check the effectiveness of this on my Smartphone (the pressure in the southern network is now normal). This service provider will keep my system under close surveillance for several days… phew! – nothing serious has happened: neither the instructions for my staff, nor the interview with my customer have been affected. What progress has been made since the turn of the millennium!... at that time, I would have had to do it myself, or even monitor the intervention of the service-provider and reschedule my staff meeting and given up that contract with the customer! That would have been even more expensive in the end! Times change and the devices change with them! This really is a concept of digital agriculture where manufacturers, distributers and users work together to be more efficient! and that reflects what Thomas Edison used to say: “Vision without execution is just Hallucination’’!

 

The final contradiction: Digital technology as a tool for social distancing and social rapprochement

Digital technology and its associate connected devices brings an incredible contradiction to our French irrigation market, mirroring what is happening in the world… because they have managed to pull off the tour de force and the contradiction of helping us to manage our activity at a good distance (just like some other stakeholders in the market, we have not been greatly disrupted by the COVID event and we have been able to maintain our business by working from home and remotely following up our clientèle) while allowing us to “physically” reach more selected key players from the different sectors… at the end of the day, many end users (farmers, nursery growers, green space operators, decision-makers in the green space market…) are in direct contact with us and we know that it is the same with many other stakeholders in the market. It is more than likely that this will be a lasting change… and in the same way, digital technology is going to kill off some jobs in our sector as it is going to encourage the emergence of new activities (service and advice) … but, more positively (and this depends on us and our flexibility!), it is going to push us towards change in order to seize the new opportunities on offer. Focusing on the more interested and interesting users… bringing users/consumers and producers closer together … These opportunities are highly topical and that is a good thing: being more efficient with fewer resources, doing more locally to have less impact on the environment… this is probably the change that we all needed so much!