Trimble, an Interesting Company

Sometimes I just get lucky.

Like a couple of weeks ago when I boarded a 5 A.M. bus for the Denver airport. Whodathunk that the nice pleasant lady who sat next to me would want to talk GPS tractors for the hour?

Imagine my surprise when she told me she was headed to China and Malaysia to discuss GPS use on heavy equipment. Imagine her surprise when she found out she was sitting next to another lady very interested in that!

My seatmate was a fellow Boulderite who was a University of Colorado graduate in electrical engineering. She now works for the company Trimble, giving expert advice to those interested in adopting their GPS technology around the world. She explained to me that Trimble is one of the world’s leading companies which adds or incorporates GPS to heavy machinery used in farming and construction.

When I told her of my concern about the escalating energy costs and inputs of industrial agriculture, my new friend told me that Trimble allows farmers to save 30-50 percent on fuel and energy through precision agriculture. She said it costs 30 to 50 thousand dollars to set up a system. Trimble works with Deere and Caterpillar and it is the biggest of five GPS system companies for machinery, according to her.

Probably the most insightful part of our conversation was this… she told me that their biggest problem is finding qualified people who can run the GPS farming systems. I told her my demographic knowledge of farm regions in the Midwestern U.S. and how much they have changed over the past half-century. We both agreed that this aspect of the high tech farming future is a very large challenge indeed, especially as farms continue to trend larger as they adopt these systems.

Which makes the situation rather ironic. One of the big reasons to use precision agriculture, besides saving input costs, is reducing labor. But the large scale farms necessary to use the systems efficiently make that niche labor in these rural regions all the harder to find and retain. Let’s call it the human side of the equation.

Though there is a lot of interest elsewhere, Trimble’s main agricultural markets are currently North and South America and Europe. (Let me add that the long-term potential for growth in this arena is huge, however, since the BRICS nations are industrializing production rapidly and some scientists expect that another 2.5 billion global acres may be converted to farmland by the year 2050.)

In China, she said there is a huge wealth and cultural divide. She went on to say that the newly wealthy younger generation has a great interest in buying farmland, but large scale farming is still uncommon over there although it is a goal currently aimed for. Because now, she said, if they buy farmland, what are they going to do with it?

A big part of Trimble’s business is in construction and surveying, as their technology makes competitive bidding more precise. Roads can be laid using precise applications of materials through GPS and laser leveling plus there is great value in being able to quickly relocate expensive tools that are often misplaced during the processes.

HERE is a link to the company Trimble’s website.

HERE is a link to view Trimble’s informative agricultural videos over at youtube.

Please note that this post is not intended to offer investment advice and I do not own any investment in this company.

7 thoughts on “Trimble, an Interesting Company

  1. Don Greenfield

    When we show up it is so fun to see who else shows up to greet us! ;>)

    Love the idea of the technology but become concerned with the results of implementation.

    It seems that as an industry appears to reaching the end of its ability to increase productivity a break through occurs that promises the next level of efficiency. Based on your description, implementation is most likely to happen with already very large operations, so this new technology is going to result in even larger corporate farms. Based on what has happened as other industries onsolidated, this further consolidation in agriculture does not bode well for consumers in the long term.

  2. K. McDonald Post author

    Your comments are always insightful. I think different areas or regions of agriculture are headed different directions right now. All bets are off the table for the future. Depends upon a few variables.

    Good to hear from you.

  3. Julene Bair

    I had the rare treat, recently, of riding in a GPS-driven tractor as it was being demonstrated by its proud owner–a western Kansan who farms 1500 acres of various grain crops organically. I learned that you don’t have to have that large a farm or that large a tractor to benefit from GPS technology. On the other hand, another farmer told me that a farm he works for uses a seventy-foot-wide drill to plant wheat and there is no way they could manage that large a rig without GPS.

    I have to say that my main reaction to riding in the GPS-driven tractor was how boring it would be to farm this way. Tractor driving has always been boring, but it is more so now, with less for the operator to do. I was told that many farmers watch TV while they wait for the GPS to beep at them when it’s time for a turn. I guess that’s okay if you like TV, but in my experience, the only thing more boring than driving tractors is watching TV!

  4. James Rhys

    I apologize, as I’m not a regular reader of this site. I just happened across it while researching various precision farming topics.

    To expand on Don’s comment, “It seems that as an industry appears to reaching the end of its ability to increase productivity a break through occurs that promises the next level of efficiency.”

    This is common with any technology. Take cell phones for example. How many different cell phones has the average american owned and why? Technology is constantly changing. Swath/section control is one area where technology continues to improve the efficiency of the [application]. Imagine a farmer being able to take a 24 row planter, and control 2 sections (12 rows) at a time. Increase that to 3 sections… Then 4… Then 6…. You get the point. The reason we can’t jump straight to 24 “sections” on a 24 row planter is the planters aren’t setup to do this and the average display doesn’t have the horsepower to control that many ‘tasks’. Same concept for sprayers.

    The most common precision farming option is autoguidance. This function allows tractors to steer themselves so farmers can “watch tv” or do whatever else they want to do. In reality, most farmers don’t watch tv, but rather watch the monitor in the cab that is controlling all of their functions. Depending on the display, it potentially shows them yield information, planting information, or machine control information vital for continued field operation.

    And to finish it off, Julene is absolutely right. Most any farmer, regardless of size, can benefit from some form of precision farming. A smaller implement will make more trips over a field than a larger one. Because of this, efficiency is key and the tighter the accuracy, the better the outcome.

    I know this probably came off as rambling, but as someone in the industry – there’s so much that can be said of the benefits of precision farming….

    1. K. McDonald Post author

      While you and Julene are right that precision ag helps on smaller farms, too, it doesn’t help to the scale that it helps the mega large farms. So is the investment worth it? Smaller fields mean higher costs to crop producers because they are less efficient. And they still have to compete economically…. which the smaller farms may be able to do better through sustainable farming methods with lower input costs.

      Since you aren’t a regular reader, you might want to look at this:

  5. Johannes Tiusanen

    I’ve been driving tractors and sprayers with Trimble for 4 years now on my small 50-hectare private seed production farm in Finland, up North in Europe. After my first spraying with GPS guidance it became very clear to me that I would never again do so without one. Even with a narrow tool you get exact coverage, zero overlap, continuous knowledge on remaining area etc. which all are precious features.

    Later I’ve learned to plan quirky driving patterns into irregularly shaped small fields on desktop before going into the field, which reduces transport driving and unnecessary head land turns etc. Add recording of all field management practices and the ability to go back for several years… this is the only way to go, organic or effective.

    The thing you should know about Trimble as a company is that they are building a closed system which will only work along with other Trimble gear. For example, a Trimble guidance console will be able to put out standard NMEA position stream for any general GPS device but refuses to accept NMEA from any other device – forcing the user to buy Trimble made GPS receivers, tilt sensors, position correction modems… you name it.

    This is very bad for the industry, as we all know lots of Asian geeks just love putting out inexpensive small gismos to enable any enthusiastic farmer to incorporate their wildest dreams into their systems, which then again will evetually lead to a technology leap and become mainstream practice. But the closed environment and hostile incompatibility is of course preventing the evolution.

    I’m right now in the middle of transition from the Trimble gear into a a system comprised of components from several non-Trimble manufacturers and a few open source tools from Lance Lefebure, whose technology you should definitely check out. This is all very expensive to me (I’m spending some 7-8 k$), but from now on I will be able to change any part of the system to what ever there is, so I’m pretty confident I’m doing the right thing.

    The biggest problem, of course, is the holistic farm data management problem, as the automation should make things easier, not more complicated. But this is another topic.


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