Photo by Benjamin Davies on Unsplash

Soy checkoff’s Tech Toolshed is gold mine for understanding how farmers think about tech

January 20, 2020

Farmers are inundated with information: prices, weather forecasts, promotions for inputs, news updates on trade wars, and more. According to soybean and corn grower Tom Oswald, technology is adding to their fatigue.

Oswald is a farmer host for the United Soybean Board’s Tech Toolshed, a multi-faceted resource intending to provide farmers with a neutral and objective forum for learning about and discussing various ag technologies. It features a blog, newsletters, a twitter channel, testimonials, and a recently-launched podcast. 

The United Soybean Board — also referred to as the soybean check off — manages funds that soybean farmers are congressionally mandated To contribute as a sort of industry membership. The funds are used to conduct research regarding soybeans as well as promotion and outreach. US farmers producing soy are required to contribute 0.5% of the price they receive for each bushel to the program.

“It became clear in conversations we started having that there’s a need for an unbiased product that allowed farmers to ask questions, and even give them ways to filter their own questions with their vendors,” Oswald told AFN. “Farmers often don’t know what questions to ask. No one wants to ask a question and sound dumb. Tech Toolshed allows farmers to find a comfortable entry point for learning about agtech from the comfort of their own homes.” 

The goal of Tech Toolshed is to encourage farmers to get more value out of the technology that they already own while determining if there’s new technology that would benefit their operations. Some farmers have inherited equipment or bought second-hand equipment without understanding the technology it provides, while other farmers may be curious about cutting edge innovations.


AFN caught up with Oswald to learn from his sage experience and wisdom as a farmer and host on Tech Toolshed. Here are some of his biggest takeaways for startup and VCs.

Farmers aren’t worried about the best-case scenario, they’re worried about what’s going to happen if your technology doesn’t work during the only five days they need it to work.

“One of the most nervous days for me in Spring is when I have the planter hooked up and I go to push the start button for the first time and see whether the gadgets and electronics light up,” Oswald explains. “I’ve had my planter for five years and even after five years I am still nervous about whether it will work.”

All too often agtech tools are marketed with fancy bells and whistles touting the maximum possible value that they can add to a farmer’s business. But what farmers are more interested in hearing about is reliability. This defensive posture is born out of many farmers’ unfortunate experiences with technology that failed on game day, which Oswald

has experienced himself.

The nervousness that technology will malfunction or that a farmer won’t be able to work it, causes many of them to consider technology not from the position of how much value it can add, but from the position of how much damage it can cause. What is the worst-case scenario that will happen if a farmer spends money on new technology that prevents him or her from completing a critical, time-sensitive task? For technology to win farmers’ approval as a killer app, it needs to provide information when the farmer needs it consistently.

One of the best ways for startups to soften farmers’ fear over malfunctioning equipment is through five-star customer support, Oswald says. And while the rate of technical malfunctions is declining, according to his experience, it’s still a common-enough occurrence to make farmers rethink investing in new gadgets

“There is nothing worse than having a bright, shiny Saturday and you get the dark screen of death. You want to get to the field, you call tech support, and they say please leave a message, our office hours are between Monday and Friday. That’s bad, bad, bad.”

Win farmers over with technologies that make their lives easier, which usually involves some pretty basic tasks.

Just like average consumers, farmers are eager for technologies that do away with those pesky little annoyances from day-to-day. From calling a car through Uber to navigating traffic with Waze or even finding your date through a matchmaking app, “killer apps,” as Oswald describes them, are so valuable that living without them is nearly unthinkable.

“We are continually looking for killer apps. Yield monitoring has a lot of potential value; knowing where your best yields are. Autopilot makes my life better. It expands my time in the field, allows me to better manage other pieces of equipment, and provides accurate GPS readings. It’s a killer app. Once you have it, it’s so important to you that if it’s not working, you almost don’t want to go out and drive. If the other bells and whistles don’t work, you’ll still go out and plant.”

In addition to tackling basic tasks like keeping the tractor on course, helping farmers take advantage of upcoming trends and finding ways for their data to bring additional value would be welcome. As traceability becomes a bigger trend, farmers are eager for ways to use the data to verify some of their production practices and to demonstrate that their soybeans or corn were grown using various sustainability-focused practices.

Show them, don’t tell them. 

Farmers may have a reputation for being cost and risk-averse, but considering the staggering debt that some of them have taken on to become farmers and the fundamentally fickle nature of growing crops, they’re some of the most risk heavy businessmen and women around. For many of them, this translates to having little patience for puffery and lofty promises about what something can do. There’s also a relentless sense of urgency for many farmers who only have so many opportunities in a year to test new technology or to correct major mistakes from tech investments gone wrong.

“Farmers have a very strong ‘show me’ attitude. You better have a good demo of why you should be trusted,” Oswald says. “Conversations with farmers are key. Just because someone says something is great and grand, doesn’t necessarily make the sale.”

Another way to garner farmer interest is by helping them understand opportunities for the massive amount of data they generate to provide extra value. Farmers know that the devices they’re adopting are creating more data and insights than ever before and that there are quite a few folks interested in getting their hands on it. 

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