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Ag Tech Is Useless If We Can’t Engage Farmers

Ag tech is useless if we cannot engage farmers. That seems pretty obvious – a product without a customer is of little value, and including customer input into the design and development process is best practice in every industry. But the question of how farmers and the ag tech community of entrepreneurs, investors, and accelerators can work together to build great products is much harder to answer.

Why is farmer engagement hard?

We’re all busy, but farmers have it especially tough. On top of relentless workloads, farmers are constantly managing uncertainty. From weather to disease to trade policy, they are subject to variables outside their control. So how can we expect them to also spend time helping eager (but often naive) entrepreneurs and innovators?

At the same time, ag tech entrepreneurs are often up against the rural-urban divide. Though an entrepreneur might want to get input from a farmer or set up a trial to get feedback and refine the solution, she might not be able to. Especially for ag tech entrepreneurs – most of whom are still on the coasts of the U.S. and in cities around the world – who didn’t grow up on farms and lack networks into the ag communities, even calling a farmer for a 30-minute chat can be a challenge.

Is ag tech making it worse?

Improving the engagement model between ag tech and agriculture is a critical challenge that, if solved, will benefit both communities. The folks on the ag tech side of the equation have been trying, and will continue to try, to solve the problem because it is critical to their businesses. It doesn’t take very long for an ag tech company to realize that they need to engage with experts and users in the agriculture industry. Whether for feedback, expertise, trials, or as customers, involving farmers is a must.

Unfortunately, in many instances, ag tech entrepreneurs have been forcing half-baked products on farmers. Nothing good comes of this; farmers are left frustrated, skeptical of ag tech, and feeling they have been burned. Ag tech entrepreneurs fail to receive valuable feedback that will help them build better products. And, perhaps most significantly, the common misrepresentation of farmers being resistant to new technologies is perpetuated.

The good news for ag tech is that this is indeed a misrepresentation of farmers. Sure, farmers are frequently working with thin margins and trying to manage a huge list of risks, but generally speaking, the progressivism and hunger for solutions in the farming community is understated.

Despite a hunger for solutions, a disconnect remains. Until we find a value proposition for farmers to get involved in ag tech, they will (rightly) remain largely skeptical of the new products claiming to revolutionize agriculture, and the entrepreneurs bringing those products to market will continue to lack critical feedback from the users they’re trying to help.

Three ways to involve farmers early and often

Though there’s no magic bullet, we suggest that there are three broad areas that the global ag tech community can improve to more effectively bridge the gap between ag tech entrepreneurs and farmers. There are already commendable efforts being made in all three of these areas, but there’s significant room for improvement.

1. Awareness

The first step is improving awareness of, and trust in, the problem-solving potential of ag tech products.

Farmers already know there are a bunch of precision agriculture tools out there. They know their expensive combines have a bunch of fancy apps, and that there are myriad products claiming to solve all sorts of problems with digital technologies. Unfortunately, experience has shown these apps to be frustrating in several ways, including: the apps don’t all integrate together, they tend to require redundant inputs, they’re constantly being updated, they’re sold before the kinks are ironed out, they lock you into subscription services. The list goes on.

But ag tech isn’t just apps. Entrepreneurs are also building physical solutions to save labor, opening up new markets, shortening value chains, increasing margin, and helping with diversification. It’s important to note that entrepreneurs who start companies hoping to make a quick buck are unlikely to pick agriculture as their market. Ag tech entrepreneurs are working in agriculture because they believe they can have a positive impact by building a valuable product for their customers. Investors, for all their bad reputation, are the same: We exist to invest in good businesses that create value. 

How do we raise awareness?

Examples include educational content, such as events and workshops. Digital formats can also work well, such as the Agrifood Conversations webinar series (Disclosure 1) and the AgTech….So What podcasts (Disclosure 2). These formats allow farmers to opt in to subjects that they’re interested in, and they can join remotely. In about an hour, anyone around the world can learn about a new development in ag tech and get to know the entrepreneur behind it or hear from other users who are getting value.

2. Contact

Beyond awareness, we need to support actual contact between agrifood tech entrepreneurs and producers. Working together to build new products takes time, and these collaborations will be built on relationships. Getting both ag tech innovators and producers in the same place is a critical early step in bridging the gap and building trust between these two communities. How do we encourage and enable more contact? 

Translators of some form are critical here. Consultants and advisers who are knowledgeable about both tech and agriculture can, in theory, understand the perspective of both the ag tech entrepreneur and farmer, and then convey necessary information to both parties.

In addition to individuals and entities serving as translators, more formally organized events such as field days, trade shows, and conferences can enable contact. Right now, the vast majority of ag tech conferences exclude farmers, or include them simply as a second thought or featured speaker. We’re not suggesting that every ag tech conference includes farmers – as mentioned previously, farmers are busy! But some ag tech conferences should include farmers, and all, at the very least, need to highlight the importance of farmer inclusion.

3. Engagement 

Finally, farmers must be actively and appropriately engaged in the development and progression of new technologies. Critically, this must be as more than customers of solutions. Farmers have a powerful role to play in suggesting features and giving feedback as products progress, for example by engaging in trials or validating early concepts and prototype. For early-adopters especially, this is a great way to get involved.

Beyond engaging to give feedback and to help ensure that valuable solutions are being developed, farmers can add, and receive, huge value as advisers or even investors. In this way, farmers can participate in the entire upside of ag tech, and incentives are aligned so that both sides benefit. 

How do we improve engagement?

Ag tech accelerator AgLaunch is probably the best example of farmer-centric innovation. It helps to curate and connect farmers and ag tech start-ups, as well as provide specific guidance around structuring the engagement so that both parties benefit.

Ag tech start-ups individually have also found meaningful ways to involve and reward farmers. Examples include Smart Ag (Disclosure 3), which attracted farmers as early investors, and Automed, which has growers on its advisory board.

Technologies are coming to agriculture, driven by entrepreneurs with new perspectives and skill sets that agriculture has never seen before. To harness this potential for the benefit of both agriculture and ag tech, we must meaningfully include farmers early and often.

Editor’s Note: The authors of this article are Connie Bowen and Sarah Nolet. This story originally appeared in AgFunderNews. Bowen is cofounder and director of operations at the nonprofit Yield Lab Institute, and a principal at the Yield Lab North America, an early stage VC fund/accelerator in St. Louis, Missouri. Nolet is a partner at agrifood innovation consultancy AgThentic, and cofounder at Australian ag tech venture capital firm Tenacious Ventures.

Disclosures:

  1. Connie is a cohost of the Agrifood Conversations webinar series through the Yield Lab Institute.
  2. Sarah is a cohost of the AgTech. . . So What? podcast.
  3. Smart Ag is a former client of AgThentic.

Want more agriculture, technology, and investment news? Visit AgFunderNews.com for daily news and interviews with ag tech start-ups, investors, and more.

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