As a nasty nor’easter hammers the Southeast, hurricane Joaquin lingers just off the Atlantic coast guaranteeing many more days of torrential downpour. For Pat Rogers, a fifth-generation peanut farmer running a 550-acre operation in the small town of Blenheim, South Carolina, the rain is unwelcome.
Peanuts, which grow underneath the topsoil, have to be dug up and flipped over to lie on the soil for a week so they can dry out. The last thing any peanut farmer wants to happen after a “dig up” is rain—let alone the one-two punch of a massive storm and a hurricane.
In prior years, Rogers would have been short on opportunities to commiserate with his farming colleagues about the cruel hand Mother Nature doled out. Thanks to a spark of inspiration and a whole lot of hard work, however, Rogers is hoping to change that for himself and other farmers in the business—and he’s using technology to do it.
“I was at the InfoAg conference in St. Louis during 2014. It’s just a whole bunch of farm tech and I was sitting there in the earliest session, looking around, and thinking, ‘This is great!’” says Rogers tells AgFunderNews. “But, the thing about farming is that so much of it is very rural. It’s not like we can all get together and network very often.”
Rogers returned to Blenheim and quickly set to work creating a way to make invaluable coffee shop chatter, tailgate talk, and barnyard business exchanges a lot more accessible for farmers far and wide. What was one of the first sources Rogers tapped to shape his plan? Entrepreneur Eric Ries’ famous book, The Lean Startup.
Over the summer, Rogers and a team of web developers soft-launched a website called AgFuse, a social media platform dedicated to farmers, and designed to help professionals across the agriculture world connect, share tips, show off their crops, pitch products, and keep in touch. Operating in a similar way to Facebook, with a healthy dose of LinkedIn’s business networking savvy, users can create a profile page, join groups, post messages, and peruse their news feeds to see what’s happening with other farmers in their network.
Building AgFuse’s website from the ground up enabled Rogers and the web development team to create algorithms that help members see the information that’s most relevant to their interests, operations, and needs.
While farm-focused message boards provide a flood of information, AgFuse is calibrated so that users only see postings and information from other members with whom they’ve connected.
While the crew is satisfied with its current algorithms, perfecting them is a routine objective. “We have a pretty good system that we are rolling out over the next week or two,” says Rogers.
After observing the soft-launch site and getting feedback from initial users, Rogers, and the AgFuse team, officially launched the site on July 22, 2015. While the platform became an instant hit with Rogers’ local community in South Carolina, he quickly saw users join from around the country and engage with other members.
AgFuse, which Rogers has fully funded himself, has even caught the attention of some venture capital investors. “In the future, that’s hopefully not only a possibility but a reality. Right now we are just focused on building a good product and building our user base,” he says. He also hasn’t ruled out the possibility of monetizing the site to provide members with carefully curated advertisements.
For now, Rogers and the AgFuse team are focused on enhancing the site and building up their user base. They also have some big projects in the work, including a mobile app that is in the final stages of development, and additional AgFuse platforms focused on consolidating farmers’ knowledge around the globe.
According to Rogers, AgFuse is the first farm-centric social media platform of its kind. Although there are a number of message boards dedicated to farming and agriculture topics, he felt they weren’t cutting it when it came to helping farmers make real connections.
“If I sign in from South Carolina and they are talking about crop conditions in Illinois, that doesn’t really pertain to me,” explains Rogers. “You can still learn a lot of general things, but AgFuse’s specific niche is helping farmers find a specific audience.”
Traditional social media platforms haven’t provided a good solution either, tending to involve more talk about play and less talk about business. AgFuse, according to Rogers, is strictly a business affair.
“The content can range anywhere from somebody wanting to show off a good series of coverage crops, to showing a scouting report or weather reports. Somebody just showed a picture of armyworms they found in their soybeans to let everyone know they’ve shown up,” says Rogers.
Although the rain may have dampened Rogers’ hopes for a timely peanut harvest, it’s given him time to work on AgFuse and check in with some of his connections on AgFuse. Today’s news feed was full of reports from other farmers in the region lamenting the weather, with one farmer posting a few pictures of cotton sprouts popping through his plants’ bright white cotton lint—a sure sign that the crop has become oversaturated. Although the news may be a downer, knowing you aren’t the only frustrated farmer in the region has its value.
While agtech is making incredible headway toward helping farmers produce food more efficiently and sustainably, AgFuse is a good reminder not only of the infinite possibilities for technology’s role in agriculture, but of how technology can go a long way towards bringing people together.
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