Editor’s Note: Connie Bowen is co-founder and director of operations at the non-profit Yield Lab Institute, and a principal at the Yield Lab North America, an early stage VC fund/accelerator in St. Louis, MO. Sarah Nolet is a partner at agrifood innovation consultancy AgThentic, and cofounder at Australian agtech venture capital firm Tenacious Ventures.
Agtech 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 agtech 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, agtech 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 agtech entrepreneurs- most of whom are still on the coasts of the US 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 agtech making it worse?
Improving the engagement model between agtech and agriculture is a critical challenge that, if solved, will benefit both communities. The folks on the agtech 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 agtech 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, agtech entrepreneurs have been forcing half-baked products on farmers. Nothing good comes of this; farmers are left frustrated, skeptical of agtech, and feeling they have been burned. Agtech 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 agtech 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 agtech, 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 agtech community can improve to more effectively bridge the gap between agtech entrepreneurs and farmers. There are already commendable efforts being made in all three of these areas, but there’s significant room for improvement.
The first step is improving awareness of, and trust in, the problem-solving potential of agtech products.
Farmers already know that there are a bunch of precision agriculture tools out there. They know that 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 agtech 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. Agtech 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 agtech and get to know the entrepreneur behind it or hear from other users who are getting value.
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 agtech 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 advisors who are knowledgeable about both tech and agriculture can, in theory, understand the perspective of both the agtech 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 agtech conferences exclude farmers, or include them simply as a second thought or featured speaker. We’re not suggesting that every agtech conferences include farmers – as mentioned previously, farmers are busy! But some agtech conferences should include farmers, and all, at the very least, need to highlight the importance of farmer inclusion.
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 advisors or even investors. In this way, farmers can participate in the entire upside of agtech, and incentives are aligned so that both sides benefit.
How do we improve engagement?
Agtech accelerator AgLaunch is probably the best example of farmer-centric innovation. They both help to curate and connect farmers and agtech startups, as well as provide specific guidance around structuring the engagement so that both parties benefit.
Agtech startups individually have also found meaningful ways to involve and reward farmers. Examples include SmartAg [Disclosure 3], which attracted farmers as early investors, and Automed, which has growers on their advisory board.
Technologies are coming to agriculture, driven by entrepreneurs with new perspectives and skill sets that agriculture has ever seen before. To harness this potential for the benefit of both agriculture and agtech, we must meaningfully include farmers early and often.
1 – Connie is a co-host of the Agrifood Conversations webinar series through the Yield Lab Institute.
2 – Sarah is a co-host of the AgTech…So What? podcast.
3 – SmartAg is a former client of AgThentic.