There’s one thing that every new agtech startup needs when they want to sell their solution to farmers: proof that it works. Traditionally, research on new agricultural technologies — from seeds to fertilizers and now to digital ag products— is done either through networking and personal relationships, land grant universities, their networks or contract research organizations (CRO). CROs are businesses that own farmland or subcontract other farms to complete scientific research on the efficacy of the agricultural input or technology.
Now, FarmerTrials.com is hoping to bring another option to a system that’s remained largely the same for decades. Randy Barker is co-founder of digital agriculture consultancy In10t, the owner of FarmerTrials.com. Since many of his clients needed research as well as business consulting, Barker, who spent nearly 10 years in product management at Monsanto, and co-founder Kevin Heikes, founded FarmerTrails.com. The site invites farmers to participate in paid trials which Barker and his team design and execute in partnership with growers. We caught up with Barker to find out more about this new modus operandi.
How did FarmerTrials.com get started?
It started as a platform and business within In10nt – founded by me and my partner Kevin Heikes – and when we say digital agriculture, we mean everything from field trials to customer experience work as companies try to forge into the digital world. With that in mind, we have a good network of farmers due to our experience, but In10nt is a cute consulting company name, not so good when you’re trying to engage farmers to participate in trials.
So we built FarmerTrials.com for farmers to sign up for various projects that we post. That way we can connect them with the agribusinesses that need their services. The ability to do R&D at a field scale is changing rapidly, and it’s enabled by technology.
Who are your clients?
We work with some of the bigger startups as well as many multinationals.
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What’s the difference between farmertrials.com and a traditional CRO?
We are different than existing CROs because we specialize in field-scale and farm-scale research experiments to embrace variability. We make it easy for farmers to execute research at a field scale. We also include farmers as part of the experiment as their perceptions and behaviors are critical to understanding the customer experience. Our use of current ag technology, our own data systems, and data science tools make it effective and efficient for farmers and research customers.
We are changing how farm research is done, and it fits the needs of an industry that is transitioning rapidly to digital. Our farmers help companies anywhere in the product/service adoption process from pre-commercial development to launch, through maturity, delivering insights that help them optimize their offering at each stage of farmer adoption. It works for farmers because they are part of the innovation process. The current technology and next-gen tech, combined with field/farm/farmer scale research, allows for collaborative innovation with the end customers.
Has the idea of paying for trials always been the way they operate?
There has always been paid research, and it’s usually small plot trials done like they’re done at a university. There have been strip trials, where sales people give away a product for free, or farmers agree to do a trial. Ultimately, what you usually end up with is a pretty poorly designed experiment that isn’t consistent across farms, so the data are not useful.
That’s where we have shifted to standardize these approaches and what we’ve found is that the farmer needs to be paid for their time and their risk.
A lot of our FarmerTrials.com growers see it as a way to introduce a new product or practice from software imagery to a new input. It’s a risk even on a small scale, so what they appreciate is that they’re being compensated for their time and the recognition of their risk. The compensation doesn’t cover everything — it’s usually a pretty modest stipend — but just the recognition that their time is valuable has gone over particularly well. What we find is that we get much better responses and data as we handhold them through the research trial process.
Are you mostly testing inputs or are you also testing software and precision ag tools?
We haven’t found anything that doesn’t benefit from a quality experiment design and being matched with the right growers.
We’ve done software, new uses of imagery, crop protection products, drones, and more. We’re giving farmers an opportunity to engage with many products, and they really appreciate being part of a community where their trials are part of a bigger experiment that they can learn from.
Who owns the data and findings in these cases?
All of our farmers generate large amounts of data in any trial. Before beginning a trial, the farmer decides what data will be shared for anonymous use with the client. The product specific use is only accessed by the farmer in the study, IN10T, and the client. All parties are often bound by confidentiality to protect the client’s interest. The farmers always own their data and only allow non-product/service related information for anonymous use, to improve the product or service at their discretion. We will often share aggregate results among farmer participants in a given study as they are interested in how a product performed for others. All of our farmer partners and clients so far are very pleased with the clarity and professionalism we have brought to handling their data.
How are you finding the trust level regarding growers sharing their data with the bigger corporates?
I think for many of them, the trust level regarding data is good. I think they’re more concerned when there isn’t that discussion we just had. Where is my data going? How is it being used? I think the trust level with Farmertrials.com, and having an independent steward working between the parties explaining what those rights and obligations are, has built trust between the farmers and us because we’re their advocate.
What are the pain points for getting farmers to participate in trials?
Aside from compensation, another pinpoint is the system that manages them through the process and support. A lot of times the sales rep will take product X or software Y and drop it off and then say “let us know how it goes.”
With every farm, we set up a plan with training, and we explain what the objective of the experiment is, how the technology is going to work, and how to reach us. Simple problems like logging in, zipping files – this isn’t overwhelming stuff, but if they get frustrated, you can lose so many customers that way.
What kind of farmers do you work with?
We’ve stayed, so far, in the midwest to the mid south. We haven’t branched out yet into specialty crops, but it’s definitely a place we’re looking at going.
What’s the basis for the compensation for farmers?
It’s difficult because we don’t have an eloquent price list. Usually, we negotiate that with the client requesting the research. On a survey, it could be as little as a $50 stipend for a quick survey, or it could be thousands of dollars for a highly complicated field trials evaluation. Because we do the spectrum of analysis, the stipend of payment varies and is based on what we are asking of the farmer.
What’s your opinion of the IoT startups out there and how they get their baseline data?
It’s better to do a small number of farm trials with high quality and accuracy than it is to do many with bad data. A little data is not a bad thing. Big data is not a bad thing if you build it systematically. Big data is a bad thing if you don’t know what it represents.
I think that is why we see problems with some of the early tries at modeling and why the reliability so low. Prescriptive modeling takes multiple iterations to get to good prescriptive and predictive models.
Do you see farmers getting more excited about individual solutions or full stack platforms?
I think there is a platform play that is evolving. What they’re tired of are more standalone items. They’re gravitating toward simpler integrations with their interface. I have a vision that this will be a few-platform world where you pick from four or five core options and everything is going to need to talk to each other. Just like our smartphones, you can choose your platform, but we all get very similar things through it.
It then becomes a challenge for the developers. I see consolidation and integration coming because it’s too confusing – for the agronomist and the ag retailer too.