The farming community and Silicon Valley have built quite the relationship during the last few years as innovators and entrepreneurs continue to identify major opportunities for new technology to disrupt the agriculture sector. But for one South Carolina peanut farmer, simply getting acquainted wasn’t enough; he wanted to launch his own startup, too.
Pat Rogers, a fifth-generation peanut and cotton producer operating in Blenheim, SC, is the creator and visionary behind AgFuse, a social networking site created for farmers that features a variety of crop, geographic, and product-based groups. It operates similarly to Facebook, providing users with a news feed and allowing them to follow other users and groups that pique their interest.
Launched in 2015, Rogers conceived the idea for his farmer-focused networking app while attending the InfoAg conference in St. Louis. Surrounded by many other producers and industry officials, he realized that the rural and dispersed geographic nature of farming made it hard for colleagues to connect, share information, and support one another.
Since launching, he has relied primarily on freelance support to develop and update the website and app, which has recently undergone a major update including a range of new features like group subscriptions, news feeds showing suggested and trending topics, and providing easier access to the info that users want most. Also, AgFuse now offers invitation-only “ghost” groups, which are ideal for companies or organizations seeking a central networking spot that isn’t public.
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“There’s a lot of information on the internet and existing social media networks for farmers, but you have to hunt for it and you can’t always be sure that it’s good information,” Rogers recently told AgFunderNews. “Plus, sometimes those things can be more of a distraction than a tool. I want to build a digital Swiss army knife for farmers, a centralized location where all of the information on the internet is flowing to the user.”
Being able to customize the information to the specific crops or livestock that the farmer deals with is another added bonus to a farmer-focused outlet.
Challenges & Future Plans
Launching and growing AgFuse has not been without its challenges. He decided early on that an app-based platform would be ideal for farmers, who typically lack spare time to spend in front of a computer. Farmers need to consume essential information in the field when the issues arise, not later that day after they get home, he says.
One of the biggest obstacles Rogers faces is achieving a critical mass of users that will cultivate interaction and connectivity on the platform. He’s relied on fine-tuning the interface, a developed marketing strategy, an word-of-mouth to increase the platform’s membership, which now totals roughly 2,000 farmers across 63 countries.
“Many of the users from foreign countries are seeking production knowledge. They want to connect with US-based farmers and learn about their practices,” says Rogers. “Some of our earliest users are from Australia.”
And while this was to be expected, an unforeseen challenge he’s faced is getting a better feel for the production timeline and the amount of time it takes to create, revise, and promote a social networking site for farmers.
“When we make changes, it seems like it takes a lot longer to push out the finished product than we initially estimated. People want to know to expect the update and I have a hard time knowing exactly what to tell them,” he explains. “It’s kind of like farming; it’s a never ending job and there’s always work to be done!”
He has many plans for the future of AgFuse, including a platform for publishing articles that’s similar to Medium, to give industry experts a platform for sharing knowledge and connecting with farmers. He’s also considered doing live Q&A sessions with experts or agtech companies, providing them with opportunities to answer farmers’ questions about each technology.
While diving into the tech arena head first has given Rogers better insight into what it takes to launch and grow a startup, he’s also become a careful observer of trends in the space and how his farming colleagues perceive the plethora of new agtech tools on the market.
“I think in some areas there is over-saturation. There is so much new tech coming out that the average farm is overwhelmed and doesn’t know the best place to spend their money and attention,” he explains. “Farmers are aware of this issue because it happens to them very year in terms of chemicals and fertilizer programs. There is always some new, bigger and better thing.”
Surprisingly, for many farmers, money isn’t always the issue when considering adopting a new technology. It comes down to an arguably more precious resource: time. For farmers, finding spare time or achieving optimum time management is just as precious as a perfectly timed rain or a successful harvest.
“When I think about my own operation, there are a lot of things I want to try, but I have limited funds and more importantly limited time. And, any farmer who has done this long enough knows that the guys who thrive and survive are the ones who know how to allocate resources. A lot of times, that means sitting tight and watching your neighbor.”
This mentality is a common approach to agtech adoption based on Rogers’ observations. Farmers are keen to hear about other users’ experiences with a particular data management platform before they fork over their cash and commit to learning how to use the new tool.
Next to time, failing to recognize a clear value proposition is another common trend among farmers’ perceptions of agtech. He and many of his colleagues would like to see startups providing a clearer cost-benefit analysis on how the product will pay for itself and put more profits in their wallets.
And, as far as education goes, farmers find it lacking.
“It took me a year to figure out my current data management tool and then they changed it,” Rogers says, preferring not to name the company. “If it took me a year and I have been using the product for three years total, you better have a really doggone good product if you expect me to switch to something else and start all over again.”
He would like to see companies offer free trials or use periods in exchange for switching platforms, something to ease the hassle and headaches that will surely result. He also thinks many farmers would prefer to engage with many agtech tools in a service-based relationship as opposed to a purely product-based one.
“If somebody could ever figure out how to franchise a data management company that has local stores or offices that could go around and help farmers pull information off their equipment, run it through a program, and analyze the data, it would be gold.”
Time, once again, is the primary factor in this equation. Many farmers are thrilled about agtech’s potential, but don’t have enough time to master the technologies and glean their full potential. Having someone with serious savvy assist them with the process and confirm their conclusion would help underscore the value proposition while providing confidence that the tool is operation optimally.
“I think farmers have a voice in the agtech sector. And I often think about the famous Henry Ford quote: ‘If I had listened to my customers, then I would have built them a faster horse.’ Sometimes farmers don’t necessarily know what the newest thing is and they don’t know that they need it yet. When it comes to adoption, it’s really about communication of the benefits.”