Disruption distraction

Online shopping disrupted the economics of bricks and mortar stores. Uber disrupted the taxi business.

We had a neighbour who used to sell the World Book encyclopedia. She doesn’t do that anymore because Google and Wikipedia disrupted – actually killed – the reference books business.

Inspired by a tech presentation at the Bayer Agronomy Summit, which I attended in Banff in November, I posted an @CanolaWatch tweet that said: “Disruptive tech completely changes how things are done. To me, straight-cutting #canola is not disruptive. But what would be?”

It fired up a decent Twittering of ideas: Terminator genes to end canola volunteers, RNAi technology to make herbicide-resistant weeds susceptible again, perennial canola and plants with genetically-enhanced photosynthesis.
@Joe_Widdup shared a link to an article, “Photosynthesis breakthrough crams millions of years of plant evolution into months,” at globalfuturist.org.

I jumped back in with, “What about nano factories in the soil that make N fertilizer from the air? No more applied N. That’s disruptive.” In related responses, @SKweedgeek suggested rhizobia already do this and @Ploughboycoach wrote, “…until then will have to rely on legumes in rotation.” Rhizobia left over in the soil after a pulse crop can provide a benefit, but they can’t replace fertilizer. A breakthrough on this front would be revolutionary.

The rotation comments remind me of a chat I had with Dale Fedoruk, who is in the farmer panel in this issue. On his farm, which he says is small by today’s standards, he has time to give his fields a lot of attention. Doing the basics really well has made his farm highly profitable, he says. Yes, he uses technology, but he’s not betting on a tech tsunami to improve his productivity or profitability. Instead, he doubles down on what you might call old-fashioned agronomy.

Interestingly, many of the techniques to create a big jump in canola yields, as described in the article on page 12, are not new or disruptive. What they represent are incremental adoption of agronomy techniques proven to work in other crops and other regions.

Straight combining of canola, to tie back to my intro tweet, is another technique that, though relatively new in Western Canada, is common in other canola-growing regions. And of course our growers already straight-cut other crops.

One can achieve surprising improvement through increments. In a recent Freakonomics podcast called “In praise of incrementalism,” host Stephen Dubner talked about Great Britain’s cycling program. Through a to-do list of tiny one-percent improvements, including body position on the bike, installing a tire perfectly straight on the rim and attention to athletes’ health and nutrition, the nation’s cyclists went from middling to top of the hill. Great Britain’s Team Sky went on to win four Tours de France and its Olympic cycling team won 12 medals at Rio.

Danny Klinefelter’s five per cent rule for farmers is all about incremental improvement. In his research, the Texas A&M ag economist found that the top 25 per cent of producers are only five per cent above average in most categories. As a result, he recommends that farmers aim to do 20 things five per cent better, not one thing 100 per cent better. Waiting for that one disruption can be distracting. Good agronomy, attention to detail and incremental improvements reign.