3 Things Farmers Need to Embrace Innovation

Many farmers are at the breaking point, but innovation to help needs to arrive on their terms.


Farming has never been easy, and 2023 won't break the pattern. Skyrocketing input costs, supply-chain headaches and unpredictable weather will make feeding the world seem a nearly impossible feat.

Against this tough backdrop, however, is a potential bright spot: innovation.

The rapid growth of the agtech sector — estimated to double in value to around $40 billion by 2029 — has given farmers new tools to do more with less, from smart irrigation systems that slash water usage to autonomous tractors that can safely operate night and day.

There's one problem: agtech only works if farmers are comfortable investing in and using new technologies. And right now, that's not happening fast enough.

Despite the substantial benefits of precision tools and data-driven practices, growers continue to be cautious about agtech. That's not because they don't want to reduce costs and increase productivity. Much of the lag is due to the sectors' failure, so far, to establish trusting relationships with growers, ensure problems with tech will easily be remedied and make it easy for growers to embrace new tools.

I'm a scientist and founder of an agtech company that works with thousands of farmers cultivating hundreds of millions of acres. Here are three things farmers need from agtech companies to jumpstart the agtech revolution in 2023.

Knowledgable, Trustworthy Agtech Advisors

First, farmers need trusted tech advisors who can provide unbiased recommendations and insight into the dizzying array of tools at their disposal and the new tech coming online.

Farmers have limited time to research tech solutions or evaluate individual products. Unfortunately, the people farmers typically turn to for advice about key inputs like chemicals, seeds and equipment may not have the technical expertise or resources to fully understand agtech options or capabilities. Some may have a conflict of interest.

So what's the answer? Attempts have been made to build two-way online marketplaces (think of Amazon but for agtech), but with stakes as high as a season's harvest, growers need more assurance than strangers' 5-star reviews.

As the agtech sector grows, farmers need knowledgeable and trustworthy advisors who understand growers' unique needs and geography and aren't compromised by conflicts of interest. These could be academics at university ag programs, government agents at county extension offices or commercial vendors with special expertise in the overall agtech landscape. What matters is that they can help growers identify solutions that meet their unique needs and that actually work.

Agtech Support When It Counts

Knowing the tools is half the battle. Farmers also need reliable agtech support when it counts.

To put it bluntly, farmers don't have time to play "IT guy." With so many other daily pressures, maintaining new technology is untenable for busy growers. Traditionally, however, agtech providers have offered limited support, leaving farmers to their own devices.

An important first step is selling agtech as a service rather than a collection of gadgets. This model takes inspiration from industries like telecommunications or energy, where consumers pay for a monthly service rather than just hardware or software in and of itself.

Since most farmers use tech from various companies, there is also a growing need for a "Geek Squad" to provide boots-on-the-ground support and maintenance for various equipment. Just as computer users can take any model laptop into Best Buy and have an expert diagnose and fix a problem, farmers need a single source for support when a temperature sensor goes wonky, or a smart irrigation system is on the fritz.

This is a shift from Silicon Valley norms, where the focus is on developing new products rather than maintenance at scale. But service is crucial for the long-term success of any industry, and agtech is no exception.

Confidence To Try a Better Way

One of the biggest barriers to agtech adoption is also one of the least visible: inertia.

For good reason, farmers tend to be conservative. Playing around with new solutions carries significant risk when you have a once-in-a-season window of opportunity.

The result is that farmers cling to practices and models that — even in their own experience — may not yield optimal results. One common example is reliance on decades-old guidelines for timing farm activities like fertilizer applications and pest control. These one-size-fits-all models, never very accurate to begin with, are growing even less so in light of climate change.

New networked sensors and smart software can provide farmers with far more accurate and reliable models — not on a typical farm but on their farm. By gathering granular data over a wide area over multiple years, it's possible to optimize growing conditions right down to individual fields or rows. We have the technology to do this; it is simply a matter of adoption.

The solution: show farmers the ROI. Agtech companies must better document and quantify the bottom-line benefit to individual growers.

For example, we used data to develop a farm-specific spray schedule to protect against codling moths on one orchard in the heart of Washington State. At the end of the season, we showed the grower how that approach halved the number of sprays — with all their associated costs — while yielding an even stronger harvest.

Of course, farms are complex biological systems, and quantifying the impact of one tool or approach is rarely easy. But as agtech companies, it's incumbent on us to find ways to use personalized models and calculators to draw a straight line between farmers' investments and results in the field.

Ultimately, agtech can answer farmers' growing pressures to feed a growing population with fewer resources, but only if the industry does the work to convince growers to take the leap.

Farmers need reliable information from trustworthy advisors, ongoing support, and to see data that connects field conditions with real results. As the agtech industry matures and consolidates in 2023, we'll see more companies stepping to the plate to solve these challenges. The stakes — for farmers, consumers and the environment — are too high to let this powerful technology go to waste.

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