Here’s the Brilliance in a Simple Approach

The Courier is a blog by IFAJ President Owen Roberts

You never know from where the next global trend is going to emerge. But here’s an agricultural direction that one progressive and rapidly growing Dutch machinery company thinks farmers and others will embrace: that is, keep it brilliant, and keep it simple.


Agrifac Machinery, based in lovely Steenwijk, about two hours by train from Amsterdam, rolled out the approach last month at the grand opening of its new state-of-the-art manufacturing plant there. I was a guest speaker, focussed on knowledge mobilization.


The company’s new slogan is Brilliant Simple. Like the other 400 participants at the opening, I saw it often repeated – but it struck me as curious. Why would one of the world’s most high-tech farm machinery companies, known for its massive, ultra-modern self-propelled sprayers, associate the term “simple” with its technology?


CEO Peter Millenaar stepped up to the microphone to explain.

Agrifac CEO Peter Millenaar unveils book about plant production written by IFAJ member Marjolein van Woerkom

The way he sees it, in farming, there’s no time for anything to be complicated. Today’s most advanced or “brilliant” farm technology must be intuitive and efficient for those who use it.   


Here’s another simple fact. Globally, we need more food, because we have more people.


However, no matter how many people we have, farm labour shortage is a chronic problem. Hardly anyone wants to do manual work.


So, the thinking continues, farmers need mechanization to operate at increasingly higher levels, and to operate with relative ease. There’s less time than ever for unravelling mysteries that shouldn’t exist in the first place – such as, how do you make this piece of machinery run?


And still one more plus for simple technology is how it can help enhance farmers’ quality of life.


We know that other professions – veterinarians, for example — are pushing back at working unreasonably hard. And while that’s a subjective measure, there’s no question farming is a demanding profession. Even though it’s made easier through automation, farmers struggle with health issues, particularly mental wellness. They don’t need anything else, like incomprehensible new technology, to add to their burden.


Agrifac’s simple-is-better mantra is reflected in new features in its machinery’s cabs. These include easy-to-use multi-capability joysticks and consoles, field monitors with unprecedented clarity, and precision sprayer systems with cameras that can spot individual weeds when the machine is in motion in the field. As it approaches those weeds, nozzles are activated so herbicides are applied only where the weeds grow, instead of blanketing the entire field.

Agrifac sprayer

Millenaar likens that selectivity to sick humans – when illness strikes, only the ill in the population need to be treated, rather than everyone.  Unnecessary treatments are not only costly, they can also lead to resistance from herbicides and antibiotics.           


So, that’s Brilliant Simple in a nutshell.


Now, I’m wondering if farmers can use the same uncomplicated approach to explain agriculture to an increasingly scrutinizing public. On top of all the other things farmers do, they’re being called on more than ever to explain how farming works and why people should trust them.


That’s how I tried explaining knowledge mobilization to the Agrifac audience of media and company personnel (later in the week the company had programs specifically for farmers and the public, including an open house that drew 6,500 people).  Agriculture advances from knowledge created through research. It begins the field, the lab or the factory, where farmers, researchers, technicians and others create knowledge. Then someone needs to put wheels on it. Usually, that falls to agronomists or advisors, researchers who have some communications savvy, and agricultural media. Media have long played a role in mobilizing research findings to farmers.


Who uses that knowledge? Typically, other farmers, other researchers, business and industry, and government. Society is the ultimate benefactor. But society needs help understanding the process that helps ensure farmers produce safe, economical, wholesome food.


Peter Millenaar is right. Keep it simple, and the brilliance behind agriculture will shine through.

This column originally appeared in The Grower, the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers’ newspaper.