Breaking the Roadblocks to Precision Ag Innovation

A CropLife article titled Roadblocks To Precision Ag Innovation recently caught our attention. Editor Paul Schrimpf discusses some challenges he faced involving farmers in the PrecisionAg Innovation Series event and relates it to the challenges of pushing more innovations to farmers. He summarizes his thoughts well in the final paragraph:

When we started these events, I believed we were ready to bring more farmers into the fold, but the technology isn’t ripe enough yet for most farmers. The technology needs to get simpler. To add clearer value. To move across platforms. As trusted advisors, we help farmers negotiate the complexities of precision farming, but need to urge our partners to make technology easier to use, and value simpler to demonstrate.”

Schrimpf starts to unlock a key insight in this last paragraph – the role of “trusted advisors.” If you truly understand the industry, then you understand that farmers usually operate with some key trusted advisors. Some for finance, insurance or other business related needs. And then others for their field – maybe an agronomist at their local cooperative, a trusted sales rep from their manufacture of choice, or a crop consultant. Like most successful business owners, farmers have a network they rely on for insights and second opinions.

So, instead of “urg[ing] our partners to make technology easier to use, and value simpler to demonstrate” for the farmer – why don’t we simply remove the burden of technology adoption from the farmer and put it in the hands of these trusted advisors?

Farmers are being overwhelmed by new technology. The mid-year report from AgFunder stated $333m was invested in precision ag in the first half of 2016 alone, which shows that the industry continues to grow. What we’re seeing is race to the farm gate. Hundreds of companies are competing for famers to invests in their technology.

However, farmers are cautiously optimistic and very pragmatic. They understand that there is value to be gained from technology but the industry cannot support all of the Silicon Valley start-ups entering the market. They don’t know who will be around in a year or two. Who will be the Blackberry and who will be the iPhone?

And with all of the risks their business naturally incurs (most due to the curveballs Mother Nature likes to throw), why should farmers take on the additional risk of technology? Even when the tool is being offered for free, it demands their time and energy to learn the functionality of the tool and to decipher how best to apply it to their individual operation.

But if we shift the technology up stream, and focus on the trust advisor, the roadblocks become far less burdensome for everyone.

The benefit for the trusted advisor is they have multiple farmers in their network – so the ROI of the technology is spread out amongst many operations instead of just one. This also gives the trusted advisor an opportunity to increase use with the tool and better master the technology in order to help deliver value to the farmer.

GEOSYS recently conducted a survey in Australia in which a number of growers indicated that they liked the tool but didn’t feel like they were using it to its full ability – so they were excited to understand it better so they could use it more.This sentiment is repeated in the CropLife article – growers attending the event commended that “I’m not sure I’m doing as much as I should be,” or “I hope to learn as much or more than I contribute.”

The trusted advisor can also reduce the financial risk as the technology becomes a tool for them to provide a higher level of service to their farmers. We have seen customers successfully adapt this model and the technology has paid for itself as it has increased the amount of business the trusted advisor does with the farmers. The trusted advisor is able to use the technology to bring data to the farmer that can support field management practices, the use of various applications or the need for additional analysis (such as a soil sample). With the support of these new technologies, the trusted advisor can bring more than a valued opinion to the discussion – they can bring unbiased data.

This also addresses the issues of customer support on the technology company side. It is far easier for a company to support 100 customers who each work with ten farmers than is to support 1,000 farmers.

As advocates for the industry, we need to be more focused on finding solutions for farmers. The desire to sell directly to the farmer is easy to understand – there are more opportunities to sell. But their business doesn’t have the benefit of employing an IT guy – let alone a IT department. They are experts in growing plants and managing fields. Let’s start empowering them to do their job better by moving the burden of technology adoption up stream and have it delivered through the network of trusted advisors.
And if a technology company can’t sell their tool to the circle of trusted advisors, maybe they are just the Blackberry farmers want to avoid.