Farmers And Ag Tech: Collaboration Is Key
To be successful, ag tech must do a better job of connecting to farmers—and vice versa.
Recently, I saw an article with the headline “Agtech is Useless if We Cannot Engage Farmers.” It was written by Connie Bowen, Director of Operations at The Yield Lab Institute, and Sarah Nolet, CEO/co-founder of Agthentic and Tenacious Ventures. The premise of the article was spot on. Ag tech as a whole still has a hard time connecting at the most basic level with farmers. Read the original article here: Agtech Is Useless If We Cannot Engage Farmers
This is a problem that in some ways is not getting any better, and many would argue it is only getting worse. One could say it has gotten to be just too much too fast. For many farmers, the onslaught of new tech has almost become the agricultural equivalent of robocalls, email spam and bulk mail. But now is not the time to throw in the towel. In fact, as this particular cropping season commences, one could say that both ag tech and farmers need to come together more than ever. With a fragile agricultural economy that continues to be plagued by low commodity prices and now the dark clouds of a global trade war that are overhead, ag tech needs to be a farmer’s friend instead of a foe.
There are plenty of theories and excuses why more technology is not more readily embraced and, more importantly, exploited at the farmer level. Really, it is pretty simple. Much of the technology as it is currently designed, developed and delivered to the farm today is cold and confusing. It needs to be more personal, and maybe part of that disconnect comes from an extension of the urban-rural divides we’ve grown up with as this country itself has grown up. Those divides can cause us to grow apart from each other.
The distance from Silicon Valley to Decatur, Ill., is a little more than 2,100 miles, but there are times when it may as well be measured in light-years because sometimes the two are worlds apart. When really smart people who have never been on a farm and only flown over ones at 30,000 feet try to solve problems that farmers didn’t even know they had in the first place, their technology sometimes misses the mark. On the other hand, maybe farmers too easily dismiss or are too slow to adopt technology that could prove invaluable in the long run. We’ve all heard, “That’s the way my dad and granddad always did it.” Well, maybe that saying just doesn’t hold as much water as it had in the past.
The article’s author scoped out three areas of focus in order to bring ag tech and farmers closer: awareness, contact and engagement.
I consider the awareness factor the biggest issue of the three. Because technology is being developed so fast and much of it is on the bleeding edge, the biggest missing link to adoption has been an almost total lack of education about why this technology is important, how it works and how it benefits a farm. As far as I know, there was no Precision Agriculture for Dummies handbook ever written.
Maybe there should have been, and we might now be in a better place and much further down the road of true acceptance and implementation. But this is where we’re at, and the industry is finally waking up to address the educational needs with more workshops and webinars and podcasts as a start.
Part of the awareness or enlightenment that farmers also need to realize about ag tech is that it is also much more than just an app—much in the same vein that precision ag is much more than just auto-steer. Technologies such as robotics, blockchain and the Internet of Things are going to physically and fundamentally change how your farm looks and functions.
Contact is critical. To get the tech entrepreneurs and farmers on the same page is going to take some good old-fashioned communication. That means doing more meat-and-potatoes discussions at kitchen tables instead of online surveys, research studies or some social algorithm that’s supposed to tell you what a farmer’s thinking. Instead, that means showing up on the farmer’s home turf for events such as field days and trade shows and maybe even stopping at a local coffee shop or two.
I believe one of the key figures in facilitating such needed collaboration between tech entrepreneurs and farmers will be the farmer’s designated “trusted adviser.” At present, there is not a set-in-stone description of what this person looks like, but think of him or her as a farmer’s “digital Sherpa” who helps both parties ascend this technological mountain together.
The final step up this mountain is true engagement of farmers in the actual conception and continued development of technologies. In simple terms, farmers still make the best focus groups when designing products for farmers. Plus, such feedback and action builds trust between both parties.
One of the ways to improve engagement is through venues such as ag tech accelerators. One of the best examples of such farmer-centric innovation is an organization called AgLaunch. It brings together farmers and ag tech startups in the early days of a technology’s conception. Plus, it outlines the parameters and responsibilities of each party so that there are shared goals and objectives.
And finally, as the author mentions, maybe the best way to personally engage growers into technology is for them to have skin in the game. They use the example of Smart Ag (smart-ag.com), which attracted farmers as early investors, and the firm Automed, which strategically put growers on its advisory board.
Examples such as these show maybe, just maybe, the industry is coming around. Maybe we thought that technology was going to solve all of agriculture’s problems on its own. What we’re finding out is technology doesn’t solve problems, but instead, people who work together do the problem-solving.