What I learned about agtech from 3 hours with 35 farmers
I had the opportunity to spend a few hours this week with the 35 farmers in Rabobank’s Executive Development Program. The group, Rabo’s 20th iteration of the program, ranged across ages, farm types, geographies, and technology literacy (and skepticism) levels. With increasing concerns from the tech world about farmer adoption and lack of exits, it was great to dig in to the realities vs. hype of the sector with the real experts. Here’s what I learned.
Three common challenges
If you could wave a magic wand and change anything about the way technology works on your farm, what would you pick? I asked the room this question, and, not surprisingly, heard various versions of, “I wish all of my devices and data sources would just talk to each other”
Data silos are a huge issue for both agtech companies seeking to leverage the power of big data sets from multiple sources, and farmers seeking value from the decision making support such information could provide.
But then when you talk about all of the data living in one place, ownership and security concerns arise immediately. For example, the farmers in the room expressed concern over the power that retailers have to sell more products when they also own the data sets that “supposedly tell them exactly what we need to buy: more.”
The third most common challenge I heard is another that is also often discussed, but too often overlooked, in the startup world: usability and serviceability. One farmer explained his frustration: “when a computer product stops working, and I have no idea how to fix it, and neither does anyone around that I could call, what am I supposed to do?”
Agtech companies like Observant and Arable provide good examples of products that solve this problem: they were built with the operational environment in mind, they’re easy to use right out of the box, and they provide simple diagnostics to help when something goes wrong (e.g. a blue light on or off to indicate connectivity). Putting the customer user experience first will continue to be a differentiator, especially for hardware products.
What about connectivity?
You can’t go to an agtech conference or workshop in Australia without talking about connectivity. And it indeed is an issue. But farmers and local small businesses are increasingly taking matters into their own hands.
What are they doing with ubiquitous internet? Some are setting up cross-site monitoring systems for equipment and animals. Others are tracking their employees with Find My Friends, or building up their followers on Twitter in between tasks. And many are using their smartphones to get information right when they need it, from weather to prices to quick answers from Google.
The other thing that connectivity provides is the ability to use apps that most city dwellers take for granted, like the suite of basic business apps from Google: spreadsheets, calendars, and documents.
Spreadsheets are King
I asked the room to come up with a list of technology they are using right now on farm. The number one most common response: a spreadsheet. One of the younger farmers in the room explained, “with a spreadsheet, I know exactly what’s happening and why the results are what they are. With an app, I just have to trust that what it’s telling me is true, but I really have no idea how it got to the answer it’s giving me.”
The price, flexibility, customizability, and transferability (many farmers talked about using Google Sheets or Docs to share information with their staff or accountants) of simple spreadsheets is a hard value proposition to beat for new entrants. Software providers that build trust with their users, for example by letting them tweak parameters and explore how algorithms work, will have a better chance of getting over this hurdle.
The ag and agtech divide
The farmers that I met this week have self-selected as innovative: they are forward-thinking, and clearly willing to invest in their businesses and themselves. I heard examples of apps they built, businesses they’ve sold, and profitable investments they’ve made. When we did a quick poll to ask about sensor adoption, 90% of the room raised their hands. And 90% of those kept their hands up when we asked if their sensors were making them more profitable. This well above the industry average data that I’ve seen. Similarly, almost everyone in the room is using a cloud-based accounting software package.
But there’s still a gap between the agtech world of startups, venture capital, and emerging technologies, and the agriculture world of farms, soil, and animals. I got only one hand raised when I asked if they had heard of agtech regulars like AgFunder News, Farmers Business Network, or SproutX.
There’s still a lot of work to be done to bridge this divide and help connect farmers and agtech companies in ways that add value to both sides. I have lots of ideas for how to do this, and will continue to work on it at AgThentic. If you have any suggestions or want to help, please reach out!