Opinion: Obscure John Deere lawsuit has big implications

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If you are like most Americans, you probably don’t think too much about where your food comes from beyond the local grocery store.

So a little education:  cereal doesn’t come from boxes, eggs and milk don’t come from cartons, meat doesn’t come from a Styrofoam tray and veggies don’t come from cans and plastic bags.

It’s the U.S. farmer that keeps our stomachs filled.

So as a nation we should be certainly downright concerned to know that people are not rushing into the occupation and those currently playing in the dirt are long in the tooth.  Very long.

Next February USDA’s new Census of Agriculture will be released and I’d be shocked if the average age of farmers didn’t go up since the 2012 census.

In 1982, the average age of farmer in the U.S. was 50.5 years; by 2012, that number jumped to 58.3 years.

So … in the next decade, poop is going to hit the fan unless a whole lot of people become farmers or robotics/automation makes it possible for fewer farmers to be increasingly productive (remember a hungry population is growing in the U.S.).

A bunch of agricultural companies are banking on automation to be the answer, including Deere & Company, the world’s biggest tractor maker, and rival AGCO Corporation, a designer, manufacturer and distributor of agricultural equipment.

Right now the two ag giants are in a legal fight over farm gadgets including hoppers and seed meters that attach to planting machines are integral to “precision agriculture” which uses GPS, satellite information and remote sensing to control inputs like pesticides, irrigation, fertilizers, and tillage to increase productivity and profitability.

This sort of stuff taken to the extreme means farmers don’t need to be in the tractor to farm.

For example, AGCO introduced this past January what it calls a “smart” combine embedded with 52 censors that tell the machine in real harvest time how to cut, separate and clean the crop.

As it turns out precision agriculture is BIG business. Market Insider projects the market  could reach $10 billion annually by 2023.

So legal dust-ups are a certainty.

Deere has sued AGCO in federal court over patent-infringement of precision agriculture technology.

Deer wants AGCO to pony up cash compensation and stop infringing.

Deere is seeking court orders blocking further infringement and to collect cash compensation.

Naturally AGCO disagrees, public relations spokesperson Kelli Cook saying, “any claim that alleges products made or sold by Precision Planting infringe on Deere patents are believed to be without merit and will be vigorously disputed. AGCO and Monsanto are jointly cooperating on the legal defense of these claims.”

As an interesting aside, Deere tried to purchase Precision Planting from Monsanto, but the deal fell through in the wake of a Department of Justice lawsuit to block the acquisition.

So let me get this straight … Deere is suing ARCO over what is essentially precision planting technology it tried itself to obtain?

Here’s the thing that must have Deere torqued.  ARCO’s Precision Planting do-dads can be attached to any planter of any vintage and the value of retrofits in 2017 was about equal to all new planters sold to farmer in the U.S.

High stakes indeed.

And with tractors without seats just around the bend, high tech technology is quickly becoming the cash of the realm.

About Dave Dickey

Dave Dickey

Dickey spent nearly 30 years at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s NPR member station WILL-AM 580 where he won a dozen Associated Press awards for his reporting. For 13 years, he directed Illinois Public Media’s agriculture programming. His weekly column for Big Ag Watch covers agriculture and related issues including politics, government, environment and labor. Email him at dave.dickey@investigatemidwest.org.

This column reflects the writer’s own opinions and not those of Big Ag Watch.

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