3.2.1 Digitalization in Agriculture
One central aspect regarding the general understanding of digitalization is summarized in the following statement: “What we used to write on paper is now digital on the PC” (fg5). Other statements mention that digitalization in agriculture contains the use of modern technologies for increased efficiency in conventional working processes as well as the automatic recording of processes on the field (abolishing the unpleasant task of manual recording).
When it comes to an individual’s own experiences and examples, most but not all (7 of 52) of the participants state that they use digitalized hardware in their everyday work processes. As a result, a wide range of experience is represented. Whereas some participants with an already-digitalized work routine use digital tools for direct on-site recording and highly automatized vehicles with digital steering systems and section control, that is, a precise fertilizer application, others in contrast state: “Everything is still handwritten in our case” (fg8). Companies that practice arable farming mostly take advantage of section control, which heavily relies on satellite navigation of the tractors (fg4, fg8, fg10). Some of this hardware already relies on (mobile) network technologies for data exchange: “When I’m at the [fertilizer] injection, I just enter what kind of spray and how much. Then it’s uploaded, and I read it on my computer, and I’m done” (fg11). Regarding livestock farming, there are also robots and corresponding software involved, for example, for monitoring the milk yield and milk quality of each cow. The aggregated data in the case of a dairy farm allows a highly detailed insight, which was commented as follows: “You see everything [...] the ingredients, the amount of milk from each cow [...]” (fg11). Office tasks that have to be performed on farms use common ICTs, such as telephone, computers, fax, or the Internet. Most participants’ companies have a digital crop field card to keep track of all processes on their land. Processes such as application for state subsidies or invoicing as a temporary employment company require operational data of the company, precise recording of work, and transmission of digital forms. Such recording is typically done automatically by modern, digital tools, such as tablet-like tractor additions for recording all processes, “[...] just to be safe in billing” (fg10).
In line with these reported experiences, personal feelings and opinions differ greatly when it comes to digitalization in agriculture. Here, some of the participants see the small size of their company as an obstacle and express opinions like “Do you even need something like that?” (fg10). In contrast, others outline the possibilities, especially for small-sized agricultural companies, as for example: “With small structures, I actually think it makes sense to drive with things like RTK [Real Time Kinematic] or section control [...]. You get [the fertilizer] much better on the target areas” (fg10). Some participants would even like to see (more) digitalized solutions in their companies and describe their current condition of a nondigitalized company as “quite backward” (fg5). There are also some neutral statements, mostly with the central message that digital tools do not seem necessary and that the real benefit is hard to determine at the moment, like: “I think at the moment it is still a bit too early to draw conclusions. [...] In five or 10 years, when the technology is even more mature, and even smaller companies can afford it, things will look different” (fg6). Negative opinions revolve around fears, risks, and problems and are mainly associated with the loss of data sovereignty and related consequences. Some participants have already thought about possible problems that could arise from the exploitation of their business data.
Another fear refers to the increasingly high level of dependence on technology, which, if it fails, can only be repaired by experts: “You are so dependent on the technology. In former times, one could still detect the cause [remark: of technical failures, for example, in machinery] somehow by oneself or could try to get it [agricultural machine] back by oneself. And now there are error messages, and then it’s over” (fg7). This is related to the dissatisfaction about the unreliability of certain products, incompatibility of devices, or frequently crashing software: “And when that [software error] happens several times a day, it’s annoying” (fg7). A similar problem is the incompatibility of iOS and Android applications because some machine vendors only offer useful companion applications exclusively for one of these operating systems (fg4). A further, often mentioned problem is poor education on how to use digital products (fg6, fg7). Especially concerning is data sovereignty; one focus group mentions that it would be great to educate the owners of small-sized farms on how to build up a local Wi-Fi network that is secure and allows sharing certain data with third parties if required. It would be great “[...] if there would be training or enterprises offering a simple intranet or the possibility to just built up Wi-Fi on our farm with a server owned by ourselves, where we store the data and [...], which offers the possibility to share data” (fg9), “We really want to share, in order to process it [the data]. [...] The only problem really is data protection” (fg9). Participants are generally aware of the importance of backups and the security of their computers, but report a lack of necessary knowledge. No participant mentioned the increasing dependencies on other infrastructures, like the Internet or the power grid, as a risk of digitalization, before the interview questions explicitly referred to this subject.
3.2.2 Resilience in Agriculture
Regarding the resilience of agricultural businesses, we focus on the domains of electricity and ICT, as we see both dependencies as possible sources for a reduction of resilience. We start with statements about the perceived threats of resilience followed by statements based on the definition of resilience capacities given in Sect. 2.2
, which includes (1) robustness, (2) adaptability, and (3) transformability. The following statements are grouped into the domains we perceive to be possible causes for ripple effects—electricity supply and communication and Internet infrastructure:
Resilience of electricity supply
: Although many agricultural tasks involve tools that need electrical power, some technologies are particularly vulnerable (see Sect. 2.1
). In order to (1) cover power outages, power can be self-produced: “We generate electricity via our wind turbine. Also, our whole stable area is equipped with photovoltaics” (fg8). Many participants stated that cattle and pig breeding companies are required by law to have an emergency power generator (including sufficient fuel reserves for its operation) for (2) adaption in power outage scenarios. However, dairy farms that usually use milk robots would have to switch to a manual mode. This could decrease the milk yield, but harm in the form of diseases for their animals would be prevented (fg8). Based on these results, we can see that cattle farmers’ operations are weakened in terms of production quality and efficiency in power outage scenarios. Therefore, we hypothesize that farms that are also active in the livestock sector more often take precautions against outages (H1). Typically, the (3) restoration after a power outage is easy and fast in the domain of agriculture. But for some digitalized tools, a restart could take a long time. After a short power outage in a dairy farm “All the robots and boxes were off, the cows were still inside. So, nothing worked anymore. Until the whole system was started up again and running faultlessly, two days went by” (fg7).
Resilience of communication and Internet infrastructure: The necessity of thinking about communication and Internet infrastructure in the form of both landline and mobile radio networks arises because the regular operations of agricultural companies require communication with various actors. Therefore, access to reliable communication infrastructure is essential. Since we assume a rising dependency on various digital communication products, we are interested in the opinion of the participants regarding the current state of reliability and possible dangers and risks in this field. In 2019 (as in 2021), many areas in Germany were still not covered by cellular networks.
Since most of these blind spots happen to be in rural areas, the big majority of the general public is not affected, but farmers are disproportionately impacted. We hypothesize that the incorporated tools of agricultural operations are often dependent on the Internet (H2), based on the insight that machine vendors create new products that rely on—or at least take advantage of—a permanent Internet connection, and that this requirement intensifies problems such as missing coverage by cellular networks: “We have technical possibilities to use apps and to do everything. And then it depends on simple things like the bad Internet. [...] I know two years ago that it took me all day to download an application” (fg4). Capacities for absorbing ICT outages appear to be difficult to build up, as there are rarely any suitable mechanisms for this improvement. In fact, no absorbing measure was mentioned by the participants. However, there are some ways to adapt in situations of failing telecommunications. In order to share data between companies, the usage of a USB flash drive is considered sufficient and secure and is not perceived as more demanding than sending it to the tractor directly, although it requires more time for data transport (fg2, fg9). This applies also for the exchange between employees of the same farm or between different devices or for business communication: “Yeah, well, you know where the contractor lives. You can still go there in an emergency and discuss everything with him/her” (fg4). The restoration after a communication and Internet infrastructure outage is seen to be as simple and fast as electricity supply. It was not mentioned as problematic at all, since all the tools reconnect automatically and phones are working again on both sides.