Agricultural economics expert looks for value in digital agriculture

Decisions involving digital agriculture innovations are made with agricultural economics analysis.

Nathan DeLay, assistant professor of agricultural analytics and production, focuses on the big picture, making the image clearer for industry.

“My role,” said DeLay, “is seeing not what can we do, but what makes sense to do for producers.”

Nathan DeLay, ag economist
Nathan DeLay, assistant professor of agricultural analytics and production at Purdue University

DeLay recently joined Purdue’s Department of Agricultural Economics to focus on data analytics and precision agriculture. His goal is to improve farm policy and producer decision-making.

Variable-rate fertilizer application

DeLay helps farmers look past the exciting prospect of incorporating the newest innovations to determine whether the investment makes financial sense. He shared the example of variable-rate fertilizer application, which uses technology to observe a landscape and optimize fertilizer usage based on detected differences.

“If you have a small farm and you don’t have much variation within that field, the technology doesn’t make a lot of sense. That upfront cost is spread over a much smaller amount of product. If you’re a big operation that has much more variability, you’ve got the economy of scale spreading that upfront cost over a larger area, and you actually have the variation within the field that makes it profitable.”

Trends in digital agriculture

DeLay balances his efforts between discovering new trends and dispelling current misconceptions. In a recent edition of the Ag Economy Barometer, Purdue posed questions related to drone usage.

“The most interesting thing that came out of it,” said DeLay, “was despite all the enthusiasm around drones, only 13% of the producers said they own one. That is a lot lower than you would think.”

He continued, “When we drilled in a little bit more, we noticed that while only 13% owned one, over one-third had used a drone on their farm at some point in the last year. We found that service providers and crop consultants are clearly elements driving usage of these technologies.”

“That drone survey has inspired us to do more of a long-form in-depth survey for the whole suite of data services that farmers are using and how they’re using them,” added DeLay.

aircraft flying above crops

By gathering this information from the source, Delay can increase the accuracy of his vantage point. “We try to do a little bit of ground truthing between the industry and what’s written in the farm press… because when we talk to farmers, there’s a range. Many producers are on the skeptical end of the spectrum when it comes to these technologies.”

DeLay provides producers with objective information. “Because we have the land-grant mission as a primary imperative for what we do, we don’t have a dog in the fight between whether you invest in a new planter that’s got all the bells and whistles. We are interested in what helps rural communities and the producers in those rural communities. We seek to serve the land-grant purpose through our understanding of these digital technologies.”

While DeLay encourages farmers to avoid hasty decision-making, he approaches his research aggressively and boldly. “There’s a real sense of urgency around digital agriculture,” said DeLay. “It’s great to be a part of that kind of effort and be on the cutting edge of the challenge. It’s new and exciting, which means we have to write the script. We have to go and find the projects that are going to generate value for producers, and that’s exciting too.”