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Farmers have been burned by agtech too often. Here’s how to win back their trust

November 29, 2021

Michael Gilbert is the founder and CEO of Semios, a precision agriculture company based in Vancouver, Canada.

The views expressed in this guest commentary are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of AFN.

Visiting farms these days, it’s not uncommon to see the ghosts of agtech promises scattering the fields. Abandoned weather stations stretch out like metal scarecrows. Forgotten soil moisture meters are nothing more than tripping hazards. The companies that installed them are long gone and the tools remain as a reminder of a failed investment.

As farms face increasing pressure in an era of unpredictable weather and tenuous supply chains, agtech can help improve sustainability and resiliency. But there’s a big problem: a growing trust gap between farmers and the tech companies trying to sell them on the next big thing.

The good news? This problem isn’t insurmountable. Farmers are still willing to listen if these technologies can actually save them time, money, and risk. Agtech companies are busy earning trust, and the successful ones are those who understand why the gap existed in the first place.

Trust is hard-earned

There are a number of reasons why farmers have been leery when it comes to tech companies with big promises. But the biggest one is the most obvious: they’ve been burned before.

Some of this stems from a failure of agtech companies to understand their target audience. Few farms I’ve visited have an IT department. Usability and reliability are paramount, especially for farmers stretched thin and beholden to a timetable set by mother nature. In a profession where about 45% of people are already facing high stress levels, managing a complex tech stack of multiple platforms — each with their own reliability issues — isn’t an option. That means products sold without continuing support are destined to die in the field.

Other companies come in with good intentions, but put their focus in the wrong place. Even great products can fail if they only offer heaps of data and don’t dive into specific, actionable steps a farmer can take to solve a problem. I’ve seen so many platforms that provide insights farmers simply can’t act on – either because the data is too granular, or because the timetable is too condensed. A real-time alert about a mildew outbreak, for instance, means little to a farmer who requires days (or weeks) to mobilize the resources to fight it.

Then there’s the biggest challenge of all: a lack of humility around the dizzying complexity of farming. Overpromising from agtech companies is endemic, with founders touting the power of data and AI to solve anything and everything. But there is arguably no more complex biological system than the modern farm. And there’s also little margin for error. Test and iterate — the classic Silicon Valley approach — isn’t an option on farms where you have one chance a year to get things right.

That also means limited chances for an agtech company to succeed – and many don’t. About 90% of startups fail, and this industry is no exception. This all amounts to a crucial need to understand your customer long before putting products in the field.

Bridging the gap

Restoring trust is never easy. On one level, it’s about meeting farmers where they are; but it’s also partly a function of time.

Shifts in payment models are a step in the right direction. In one study on farmer stress, a participant said one mistake could be the difference between turning a profit and losing money for an entire year. Shelling out upfront capital for new technology can be that mistake. A better approach is to take a cue from subscription services, where there are no upfront costs – and a single monthly fee covers installation, maintenance, and ongoing support throughout the relationship. This model has revolutionized how we get software — think Salesforce, Dropbox, or even Spotify — and is now being popularized as ‘precision-agriculture-as-a-service,’ where farmers pay per acre on an annual basis for new tools and support. Best of all? If the farmer doesn’t see value, they can cancel. It puts the onus on the company to prove their value, or they get dropped like a bad cable provider.

Another critical step forward is consolidation. Recent surveys have counted thousands of agtech companies currently in operation. This is part of any blossoming industry; but farmers have been left with a complex array of options, including some fly-by-night flops. Thankfully, we’re already beginning to see clear winners emerge and consolidate others into one-stop platforms. I’ve witnessed this up close building Semios, and the result for our customers is less fumbling between different systems, and more reliable tools from a company that’s in it for the long haul.

Above all, bridging the trust gap with farmers comes down to showing results. Agtech companies need to provide more than after-the-fact data or showy visualizations, and give farmers actionable insights and practical forecasting. It’s little use to warn a farmer that a swarm of insects is just about to decimate their orchard; but being able to warn them well in advance can save their season.

These systems must also be accessible to everyone on the farm, regardless of how tech literacy varies from one person to the next – otherwise they could become yet another scarecrow in the field. Ultimately, the most effective UX integrates a 30,000-foot view and action plans, with the ability to drill down for more fine-grained information.

So why do I have hope we can bridge this gap? This quote from Walt Duflock, a fifth-generation farmer and 30-year veteran of Silicon Valley, springs to mind: “The coolest technology is only really cool when it solves that problem, the one problem that causes farmers to sleep poorly. That’s when they are willing to work with you to test and evolve your product.” While I’d argue there’s more than one problem keeping farmers up at night, I’m buoyed by the fact that so many companies are succeeding in finding those solutions. Be relevant, be reliable – and trust will build from there.

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