Herve Pillaud by @kokosiki_babosiki_OneSoil Blog

"In France, I am perceived as a digital evangelist from agriculture". An interview with Herve Pillaud

We're launching a new column "Interviews". Our first hero is Herve Pillaud, a French expert in precision farming. A farmer with 40 years of experience, Herve is actively promoting the use of new technologies in agriculture. He heads up several specialized organizations and writes a blog. Also, he is a frequent speaker at conferences. We talked about the present and future of precision farming, and also asked Herve's opinion about OneSoil (spoiler alert — it is a good one).

"In France, I am perceived as a digital evangelist from agriculture". An interview with Herve Pillaud

We're launching a new column "Interviews". Our first hero is Herve Pillaud, a French expert in precision farming. A farmer with 40 years of experience, Herve is actively promoting the use of new technologies in agriculture. He heads up several specialized organizations, is a frequent speaker at conferences and writes a blog. We talked about the present and future of precision farming, and also asked Herve's opinion about OneSoil (spoiler alert — it is a good one).

What is it like to be a digital evangelist?

— Hervé, you lead a big number of professional associations and are a member of several others. Could you please tell us about yourself and your current duties?

 — I really have a lot of work. First of all, I have a farm in the Loire Valley region (Herve breeds dairy cows — OneSoil) and I am the chairman of the Department of Innovation and Research of the Chamber of Agriculture of that region. In addition, I am a member of the board for Digital Africa — a large-scale project created under the initiative of the French President Emmanuel Macron. The objective of Digital Africa is to facilitate the exchange of ideas between French and African associations and entrepreneurs, as well as to share a French perspective on digitalization. Finally, I am a member of the National Council on Digital Transformation and I also lead the Etablières Group, an educational institution for agricultural workers.

— How do you manage also to work on the farm?

— I have to divide my time between the Vendée — this is a region on France’s Atlantic coast where my farm is located, Paris and Africa. By the way, I was invited to join Digital Africa together with La Ferme Digitale. This is a French association which was created some three years ago and today assembles about thirty agrotech startups offering B2B and B2C products.

— How come you are involved in startups?

— I don’t have my own startup, I’m a bit too old for this. The founders of La Ferme Digitale invited me to join the association as an honorary member. This happened due to several reasons, I guess. I wrote a couple of books about new technologies in the agricultural sector (the first, "Agronuméricus", is devoted to the review of technologies, the second, "Agroeconomicus" - to the prospects of their development — OneSoil) and, in general, have a wealth of experience in agriculture.
The accuracy with which OneSoil determines the size of the fields and calculates the rate of fertilizers to apply, astonished me — Herve Pillaud
— And what is your academic background?

 — I don’t have any university diploma — after receiving my certificate of secondary education in 1980, I decided not to continue my studies and returned back home to help my parents with their farm. However, I read a lot of books and gained practical experience, so in actual fact, I have had a life-long educational program.

— How did you become interested in precision farming?


— I got interested in technology thanks to my work in various agricultural organizations. When suggesting the use of new communication tools, I had to be familiar with how they work. Precision farming attracted my attention much later when I was working on organizing a start-up competition in France and had the opportunity to test some products on my farm. I am actually perceived as a digital evangelist from agriculture in France, and in addition to that, I actively write on my blog.

A few tips for farmers and OneSoil

— From your point of view as a digital evangelist, what is the situation with precision farming in France?

 — French agriculture is fairly well digitized in my opinion. This applies to both small private farms and large ones managed by companies. This digital shift occurred due to two factors — pressure from the government aimed at changing the old model of agriculture, and more or less equal access to technology in all regions of our country. However, the north of France is still more developed than the south. Within the European continent, we lag behind Germany and the Netherlands a little, I believe.

— What predetermines the difference in capacities for adapting technologies by different farmers? Do all farmers need to switch to precision farming?


 — I do not know whether there are any objective criteria. I think this is due to the banal aspiration to become more competitive. About 50−60% of farmers in France have already gone through the process of digital transformation. I also think that in the next five years their number will increase significantly. Those who do not want to or fail to integrate technology into their work processes will be pushed out of the market.

— Judging from your experience, what stops farmers from switching to precision farming?

 — The costs of investment to increase profitability are the main problem. The accurate acquisition and analysis of the data — collected from the land with the support of technology companies — this constitutes the second problem. Finally, the third issue is the technical capabilities of the companies themselves.

— What could you advise to agriculturists who want to get started with precision farming?

— I advise farmers not to rush into anything and to assess the changes that precision farming will bring to their business first. It is very important to master the new tools and technologies in which they decide to invest. And when the decision is made, they need to fully dive into the new sphere: take all the risks and implement their plans to the maximum.
Our acquaintance with Herve began with this tweet: "A platform that is likely to disrupt the agriculture and the approach to the environment – Belarusian! @onesoilplatform provides free access to all that is necessary for agriculture - from macroeconomic assessments to support farmers in all stages of work".
— And what are your suggestions to OneSoil? You have indeed tested the web platform on your farm.

 — I did, and the accuracy with which OneSoil determines the size of the fields and crops, and calculates the rate of fertilizers to apply, astonished me. The platform has great potential for growth! It does need some improvements, of course, but it can already be very helpful for farmers in their work and in macroeconomic forecasting.

In my opinion, in order to reach its potential, Onesoil needs to develop local partnerships with other startups or agricultural organizations. The platform has very good prospects in France, not to mention Africa, where the potential is huge but there is no such scientific and technical base as in Western Europe.

On the future of agriculture

— Let's talk a little about the future of agriculture in general and of precision farming in particular. From your perspective, what technologies will develop in the near future?

 — Over the past few years, we have seen an increase in the number of startups in the field of precision farming. They offer a variety of products, from sensors that allow to obtain more and more accurate data to the products that simplify the decision-making process. In 2019, there will be more products based on artificial intelligence, I believe. I also think that there will be platforms for aggregating data on soils, plants, and animals. The newest satellites, like the Copernicus programme, for example, play an important role in precision farming. If one combines information from satellites with data that comes from sensors, we can achieve unprecedented results.

 — How do you perceive the future of precision farming in the long term?


 — The precision farming will be a real breakthrough, provided that it is aimed at improving not only economic but also environmental and social indicators. The combination of these three measures is the basis for the growth of any company in the future, in any industry. Agriculture should supply us with quality food at competitive prices. Farmers are also expected to minimize environmental pollution. In social terms, digital technologies have been already facilitating and protecting the work of farmers and their employees. That is why precision farming is an essential element of agricultural development in the 21st century.

One of the most significant challenges that modern agriculture will have to face is managing climate and epidemiological risks. In addition, despite the fact that it is involved in serious economic crises more or less everywhere around the world, I believe that agriculture has a bright future ahead.
Only a system which is headed by public benefit is sustainable – Herve Pillaud
— You often mention a new model of agriculture in your interviews and in the blog. What do you mean by a new model exactly?

 — I am presently interested in the issue of the public right to have access to agronomic technologies. As you know, land, air, biodiversity — all are public goods. Thus, access to technology shouldn’t be an obstacle to the equitable distribution of products in the agricultural sector. I am sure that there is a third way which is largely based on open data and different from hypercapitalism and the Chinese model. It is Europe’s responsibility to find this third model.

It won’t happen overnight. However, if you think about climate change, the disappearance of species and soil degradation, it becomes obvious that only a system which is headed by public benefit is sustainable. The power of technology lies in its accessibility, in open access to big data. The sooner we understand this advantage, the faster we will move forward altogether.
Sasha Gubskaya
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