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Tech in the sticks: How technology is defining the future of the rural world

Here's why the 'country' should not be irrelevant to the considerations of any high-tech companies.

Conventional wisdom suggests rural populations are declining as young people migrate to big cities. Yet, many technology companies see promise in the stick—and are harvesting the benefits. Ranching and timber have become tech-driven industries with a deep and enduring connection to the rural world. Precision agriculture is experiencing such a growth spurt that herds of startup nerds in electric vehicles are more and more common on the back roads—not just in America, but also in Asia and Africa.

Rural manufacturers are keeping pace with their city cousins when it comes to adoption of new technologies and management practices. Some companies, drawn to lower overhead and fewer regulations, are relocating to rural areas. For example, Oklahoma, a largely rural state, is producing a large number of technology products, and its annual state revenue from high-tech manufacturing now totals $1.26 billion. Globally, India is becoming a popular location for high-tech manufacture as well; market size for desktop computers in rural India is estimated to be $1.3 billion, according to research by Wonder.

Meanwhile, the market size for smartphones in rural India is estimated to be $3.89 billion, and the market size for smartphones in rural China is estimated to be $25.5 billion. The market size for virtual reality technology in rural China is estimated at $232 million.

The result? Digital technology is transforming rural economies, not just their societies.

Agriculture

"There are fewer people doing the work of agriculture, and the demand is growing," says Jeff Lorton, executive producer of the 5-year-old trade show Future Farm Expo. "Technology is the only answer."

Lorton has run the Future Farm Expo (formerly known as the Precision Agriculture Expo) since 2013. He also runs the Oregon UAS FutureFarm Project, an agriculture-focused drone project on 14,000 square miles of farm and ranch land near Pendleton, where drones are tested as tools to spray and survey issues such as soil chemistry and rainfall patterns. The area, in the heart of the Columbia basin, is half the size of Ireland. Lorton calls it "the most agriculturally diverse drone test range in the world," with major growers and processors growing premium soft white wheat, potatoes, tree fruit, wine grapes, and ranch livestock.

Agriculturalists can be conservative, in part because new equipment costs a lot of money. But farmers have always been interested in technology because their goal is to grow more while spending less. The willingness to adopt innovations began with the invention of cultivation itself and can be traced through the institution of irrigation channels and fertilization, to the shadouf, water-powered mills, and mechanical threshers, to the current digital world.

Certainly that's the case today, on family farms and for corporate growers. Wheat growers drive advanced vehicles, including automated planters whose tolerances are within hundredths of an inch. Potato growers control the irrigation of 100,000 acres of potatoes from a touchscreen in the cab of an F-250.

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Ranching

Leo McDonnell, 65, runs cattle on the Montana ranch that has been in his family for generations. But if your picture of what he does is an old-fashioned one, eschewing technology and using the same methods his father used, you would be only half right.

McDonnell Angus is among the more scientifically advanced cattle breeding setups in the world. Even though there are only six people on the ranch (most of them family members), technology and genetics has enabled it to "do more with less." That emphasis on science and technology to improve the cattle line did not start with Leo's son. It started with his father, who in 1962 became one of a group of breeders who began measuring cattle traits for profitability, including birth weight, weight gain over time, and cow production.

"Now we measure gestation length and scrotal size, and we use ultrasound to track the development of muscle and fat marbling," McDonnell says. The ranch is also getting involved with genomics research in pursuit of more disease-resistant cattle.

To measure the genetic potential in young bulls, McDonnell Angus tests 2,500 bulls a year and runs 700 to 800 mother cows. The ranch sells bulls and semen across the country and the world and takes in bulls from other farmers. It works with a network of ranchers that extends beyond the United States to Argentina and Brazil.

The newest technology McDonnell is using, and for which it has become a celebrated test case, is GrowSafe. Created by a Canadian farming couple turned tech entrepreneurs, GrowSafe measures feed intake. Each cow wears an RFID tag in its ear, which is read by an RFID reader built into the "feed bunk" from which the cow eats. It is accurate to within 10 grams of feed, which, given that an average cow eats five to seven times a day, is quite precise. When cattle eat 25 percent less feed, they produce 40 percent less methane, saving the rancher the cost of feed and producing less solid waste.

This data is valuable in terms of not only the bottom line but also marketing. "You're talking a real radical change in how people look at cattle," says McDonnell. "I think we're seeing a real demand from consumers to know where their food comes from and how it's produced. People want to understand the people who provide their food, and we're getting a connection back to the consumers."

Timber

Like a lot of tech in the sticks, the automation that saved logging and timber milling did not come from Silicon Valley. According to Jim Geisinger, executive vice president of Associated Oregon Loggers, it was pioneered by those who needed it: the logging companies and sawmills themselves.

Those innovators—such as Sun Studs, which created the first computerized sawmill in the 1970s, and Seneca Sawmills, which patented machinery that permits more precise control over saw behavior—initially wanted an edge on their competitors. Now there is no profitable mill in operation that is not automated, according to Geisinger. Computers scan logs and programs to tell the sawyer how to cut each log to optimize the use of raw materials. Logging companies are also using technology that makes the journey from forest to mill more efficient by tracking and optimizing truck routes and mill shifts.

That utilization level, according to Geisinger, is now at 100 percent.

"Today, nothing is wasted," he says. "Every ounce of cellulose is used—sawdust for pressboard, biomass, bark mulch, and so on."

That's just a sample of the technology used in timber management and production. Drones are being used to plant trees; software is helping to refine forestry cutting plans; and steep slope logging is being remotely controlled.

Rural doesn't mean 'hayseed'

Yet, when urban developers come to rural areas, they often do two things wrong: They underestimate the rural market's sophistication, and they bring technology in search of a problem to solve.

"Ag has lots of problems to solve," says Lorton, "but you can't learn what those issues are at a trade show—not even at ours." When it comes to agriculture, he says, if you're not starting with agriculture-specific knowledge, you're already in trouble. It takes a deeper effort.

One example of a company that Lorton believes is doing it right is Carl Zeiss, the German optics company. Its spectroscopy division uses light to detect and measure the materials in a given substance. Scientists at Zeiss figured that technology might have agricultural applications. But instead of deciding which agricultural problems to address, says Lorton, Zeiss took extraordinary measures to meet with and learn from growers and processors. It's still an exploratory process, but it is beginning to pay off, says Lorton.

If a vendor or tech firm wishes to capture the agricultural market, advises Lorton, it must have a level of patience that may not be common in American technology. Developers in urban areas know what urban users need; in Lorton's experience, they can be out of touch with people outside their (literal) field. You have to co-develop with your market. "I'm not sure the venture capital [VC] model works for Ag," notes Lorton. "VC lays fixed track down that a developer has to follow, but Ag tech runs on a 10-year maturity cycle."

Rural technology: Lessons for leaders

Are you considering technology to assist in farming or other agricultural endeavors? Keep these points in mind:

  • Work with your target customers to develop new technology; until you know the problems they need to solve, you are likely to waste your development time.
  • Have patience. First to market is often the way to end up being first out of the market.
  • New technology is being pioneered by some of the rural-based companies that need it to thrive.

This article/content was written by the individual writer identified and does not necessarily reflect the view of Hewlett Packard Enterprise Company.