Adoption of AgTech Makes Big Impact
In March, I will be attending the World Agri-Tech Innovation Summit in San Francisco. I’m headed there to lead a workshop about how insights gained by AgTech tools can positively affect behavior, and ultimately impact big problems like climate change. After a two-year hiatus from in-person events, I’m excited to reconnect with some of the visionary people and organizations driving change in AgTech.
Visiting the Bay Area always reminds me of what can be created through innovation. It seems that it is possible to solve the world’s biggest issues if we put our minds to it. I still get energized when I pass the headquarters of many of the companies that shaped how we navigate the modern world. From pioneers like Apple, HP, Cisco and Intel, to those transforming the way we live and work today. There’s no doubt that this tiny slice of the planet, a couple thousand square miles in total, has a significant influence on what the future will look like.
At the same time, whenever I visit Silicon Valley, I can’t help but think of the gulf that still exists between much of the farming community and the purveyors of AgTech. This gulf is something we’ll need to close if technology is ever going to have the kind of positive impact in ag that we’re hoping for, and the planet needs. That’s because technology alone can’t help us meet our biggest challenges. Problems created by humans must be solved by humans.
As CEO of IN10T, and someone who believes passionately in the power of technology to help us solve pressing problems, I know that tech can only help if it’s effectively adopted and used—and meaningful adoption has several important preconditions.
The most important of those preconditions, and the most foundational, is trust. The adoption of new tools and practices can’t happen without it. Tech developers can help to build trust by approaching the challenges of 21st-century farming with a little more humility. The last thing farmers want is to be told how to do their job by programmers and data scientists. Farmers do recognize that change and adaptation are necessary, and that technology can help us navigate it, but they need to be part of a two-way conversation about it.
Every industry that has experienced digital transformation has undergone a period of skepticism, pushback, adjustment, acceptance, and eventually adoption. Ultimately, that form of adoption doesn’t occur at the pace, or take the final form, that technologists envisioned. It requires both the developers and the end users of the technology to build trust, collaborate, and adapt solutions to the real world. It can be instructive to look at how technology has been adopted and used in other fields because it helps us see that while it’s rarely a smooth and linear process, there is a path forward.
When digital transformation came to healthcare, doctors initially pushed back against being told they needed to begin entering their data into and retrieving it from computer-based systems. Even worse in their minds was what they called “cookbook medicine”—computer algorithms that suggested diagnoses or treatment plans based on information in the patient’s electronic chart.
It may seem odd to compare farmers to doctors, but they’re both experts at what they do, and they don’t like being told how to do their jobs—by computer programmers or the algorithms they develop. An interesting thing happens, however, after technology evolves through collaboration and refinement. Users find that it’s really good at doing the “boring” stuff for them and doing it very quickly. When end users begin to trust that technology is not meant to replace human expertise, just support it, it frees them up to focus on the important stuff.
Today, nearly all physicians have successfully adopted electronic records and other computer support systems, and most admit they improve patient safety and help them provide better care. The same thing is happening now in ag. But it doesn’t happen because the technology is great out of the box. The developers and the end users must gradually build the trust necessary to collaborate and develop better solutions. Solutions that actually work in the real world of a doctor’s (or farmer’s) life.
One of the biggest challenges with tech adoption in ag is that many companies have over promised and under delivered. Farmers have actually been fairly open to adopt new tech but in too many cases haven’t seen the promoted return on their investments. The result has been an erosion of trust. This is where collaboration is key. Farmers must be included in the process so they understand and trust the data and insights technology can provide. Farmers aren’t willing to adjust their operations or alter their practices until they understand the key variables, trust how they’re being measured, and see how making small adjustments yields positive outcomes. This is especially true when it comes to asking farmers to change practices that may ultimately impact climate change.
Making Data Meaningful
At IN10T, we think the burden rests with the AgTech industry to build trust with farmers, not the other way around. That’s why our developers and data scientists work hand-in-hand with agronomists and farmers in the field, laying the groundwork necessary to test not just the technology, but also the merit and value of the data collected. The most valuable time we spend is working to understand how to make the data and analysis we provide as relevant as possible to the farmer. We believe that farmers should be driving the development of technology in agriculture. They are, after all, among the very first technologists. The domestication and cultivation of plants and animals was one of the earliest forms of science. Farmers experimented with hybridization, the use of fertilizers and other inputs, and eventually genetics. They have always carefully studied the relationships between the myriad of variables they could detect, and how they impact plant growth and health. Now we simply have better tools to do it faster.
Our solutions help us quickly tease out these relationships, and they do it at scale. This is where technology has its greatest impact. Crunching vast amounts of data to detect patterns and glean insights into the precise relationships between a wide array of inputs and their effect on outcomes. We aggregate huge swaths of data, including soil profiles, aerial imagery, lab data (like tissue sampling, for example), crop ratings, condition notes, and much more. And we collect this data in-season, not just at harvest. All of this allows the companies using our platform to make near-real-time decisions based on accurate and reliable data throughout the growing season, providing great value to their customers—farmers.
Farmers are rightfully skeptical of new technology, so we do more than show them impressive amounts of data. Data by itself is not useful. It must be presented in ways that make it meaningful. Simply put, we need to demonstrate its value, and we need to be fully transparent about how we do it. When we show a farmer aerial imagery of his or her own field, with precise product—and application-specific data layers within field boundaries, they can clearly see for themselves the correlation between their trial inputs and the outcomes in the field.
So, what does all of this mean for the planet and our changing climate? That’s one of the topics we’ll be covering in my workshop at the summit and it’s the most challenging question of all. What can we learn from the powerful data analytics and insights now within our reach to help us have a positive impact on the environment? My belief is that by collaborating with farmers, we can work together to harness the power of data and find the most efficient and sustainable ways to achieve their yield goals with more precision, less waste, and lower impact. It can’t be done by making wholesale changes to all of the variables at once, but rather by making small yet important adjustments to individual inputs, then evaluating their effects and adopting those that are beneficial. Small changes to farming practices that prove beneficial are quickly noticed, adopted, and propagated, rippling across communities until they have a cumulatively significant impact. By continuing to invest in direct farmer feedback, building mutual trust, and demonstrating value, we can make sure that farmers are in the driver’s seat—driving positive change toward a more financially and environmentally sustainable future.