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Technology is Closing the Generational Gap in Agriculture

It’s now a well-known fact that the average age of the farmers in the United States is 58 years old. In Brazil, the average age is a little younger at around 50, but the concerns remain the same in both places. Who’s going to replace the most experienced farmers when they step down in the next 15 to 20 years?

The reason behind this age gap is that many young people prefer to move to cities to find work, deciding that the manual work of agriculture is not glamorous, lucrative, or appealing. This creates a challenge for the technological advancement of agriculture as older generations are less familiar with new innovations.

But recently, at the various field days and technical meetings I have attended, I have noticed an increasing number of young farmers taking seats and I think this means that the transition is happening now.

Younger generations were born and raised surrounded by technology. It is second nature to them to use smartphones, software programs, and other devices that are becoming ubiquitous globally.

Therefore, I think there’s no doubt that technology will help to smooth the transition of agricultural management to the next generation. Not only will technology motivate the new generation of farmers to stay on the farm and in the fields, but it will also help them to transition to the life of a farmer. And hopefully, this way young farmers will feel a softer landing when taking over the rural properties of their predecessors.

The question then becomes: How is technology helping to navigate the generational transition in the fields?

Fortunately, as much as we slowly digitize agriculture, more breakthrough technologies such as precision agriculture platforms and decision tools are helping significantly to retain the new generation, hungry to harvest the benefits of innovations used in the fields all over the world.

Young agronomists who recently earned their degrees, but are not ready to take over entire farming operations, are gradually introducing new tools in their daily work.

I was talking with the young son of a farmer last week who recently graduated with a degree in agronomy. He told me that his father is 65 years old and he is very reluctant and skeptical when it comes to adopting new tools to make their ag business more profitable, efficient, and sustainable. His father’s justification was: “Your grandfather used to manage things like I do today. We do not have to change it. It’s still working well and we do not have to worry about it.” 

Even with that kind of resistance and skepticism, the young agronomist told me that in a very careful way he is updating things on the farm, while always avoiding abrupt changes. I believe this is a smart move.

In an opposite scenario, I met the 25-years-old daughter of a farmer in the southern state of Brazil. She said that her father was very supportive of technology and innovation. She told me that technology was the big reason behind his decision to stay and continue her family’s work of running their farm. She said: “ I grew up watching technology improve our farming operations and it gave me the perspective I needed to decide to become an agronomist and take over my father’s farm down the road”. Her sister left the small town to study medicine in a large metro area.

At another event, I met a sharp young agronomist seeking a career with a large corporate. He had already noticed the power of technology for every stakeholder in the industry. He explained that when it comes to a price dispute among agrochemical companies for a big customer, portfolios offered with technologies associated are easier deals to close. He said:” Companies that are adding technologies in their value propositions are taking the negotiations with customers to a whole new level.”

The average rate of technology adoption in the United States is three times faster than Brazil. That means if I present an ag innovation for farmers in the US,  three out of 10 will adopt it. While in Brazil only one will jump on board. This varies according to the region and the cash crop majority, but you can keep that number at the top of mind as a baseline.

I believe that as long as farms continue to be handed down through families, the rate and speed of the adoption of new technology will rise. It’s a critical matter to prepare the next generation of farmers and give them the technology they want and need. Making farming an attractive career may generate more understanding of its essential nature from society at large.

Editor's Note: The author of this article is Ed Siatti. He is the vice president of sales at Aegro, a Brazilian farm management software startup helping farmers to plan their crops, log their activities, and manage their budgets. He joined Aegro in March from Strider, a decision support software startup. Here he writes about the generational gap in agriculture and how young people feel about starting careers in farming. This story originally appeared in AgFunderNews.

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