As published in Forbes
A lot has changed for farmers in the last several years. More frequent extreme weather events, rising input costs for everything from fertilizer to pesticides and increased consumer interest in where their food comes from.
Meanwhile, a technological revolution is also giving farmers more tools to boost efficiency, increase crop yields and maximize profits.
Last year saw record-breaking investment dollars in agtech startups. But as the number of companies competing for market share has grown, so too have the pitches to farmers. Unfortunately, too many of them lack an understanding of farmers’ unique challenges and needs. As the landscape evolves more rapidly than ever, knowing what drives farmers—and how to help them reach their goals—isn’t something that can be achieved in a head office far from the field.
As the CEO of an agtech company, I’ve spent hundreds of hours meeting with farmers and ranchers across North America. What I’ve found is unmistakable: It’s critical that we invite farmers to walk alongside us as advisors—from concept to development to implementation and beyond. Indeed, building products with this kind of intimate understanding has countless benefits for tech companies and farmers alike. Here’s what I’ve learned about how tech companies can put farmers at the heart of product development—and why it makes good business sense.
Listening Intently To The Folks Working The Field
No two farms are exactly alike, and technologies must account for that diversity. In fact, it is often said, “If you’ve talked to one farmer, you’ve talked to one farmer.” Get to know the breadth of needs by speaking to as many people as possible—and make sure you’re listening. I’ll never forget traveling to North Dakota to meet with a rancher, farmer and leader in the soil health movement. This industry leader has been using regenerative agriculture techniques, including rotational grazing and no-tilling, to raise cash crops, cover crops and livestock. And his success was abundantly obvious as I drove around the area during a drought. What I noticed, among brown out after brown out, was that his was literally the only green in sight. His integrated and strategic use of diverse crops and regenerative techniques resulted in healthy soils that held more water and nutrients, supported climate resilience and produced profits others could only dream of.
Witnessing results like these during our field visits reinforces the importance of tapping into the wisdom of the farming community. A farmer’s needs depend entirely on their unique context, geographic region, type of crops, farming methods and the resources they have access to. We don’t purport to predict every challenge our customers might face—we’re not farmers, after all. So we bridge that gap by listening.
It takes regular interactions with farmers and agronomists for us to collect enough data to build on. And only then can we develop solutions we know will produce the results our customers want and need.
Balancing Farmers’ Current Needs With Long-Held Traditions
Farming comes with centuries-old traditions, and although technology has helped, field practices haven’t evolved significantly in the last hundred years. Family farms, which account for 98% of U.S. farms, have passed down a legacy of knowledge. So, it’s not surprising the community is sometimes wary of taking chances on new solutions.
Each year, farmers literally “bet their farm” on the success of their crops. One misstep can send a year’s worth of work—and revenue—out the window and can jeopardize a farm’s survival.
It’s important to build solutions that respect the legacies, practices and financial considerations that are critical for farmers. For us, that means looking at existing soil health and farm management practices and building on them. We work to ensure the adoption of our tools is seamless and easy for farmers. That involves helping producers make informed choices. With a better understanding of the nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium and carbon in their soil, farmers can make informed decisions on how to improve the efficiency of the fertilizers they apply to maximize their profit and yields. Helping farmers focus on ROI in this way arms them to make the best decision for their farms.
I often refer to Peter Drucker’s management principles when it comes to building relationships with the farming community. Drucker believed in a people-centered approach to management, where a nourishing environment based on mutual respect is key to fostering productivity and positive results. I’ve found this approach has merit, regardless of whether your collaborators are in a boardroom or in the field.
Creating An Ongoing Feedback Loop
Like any relationship, working with the farming community requires ongoing communication. We can’t simply stop engaging once a solution is in their hands. That’s why it’s important to not only offer ongoing support but also collect feedback regularly.
Asking for feedback isn’t revolutionary, but taking action on it is where the real magic happens. We’ve learned that launching with a minimum viable product—rather than waiting for a full suite of features—allows for feedback to be incorporated along the way and for users to see we take their comments to heart. As much as iterating has become a buzzword in tech, it is an essential part of ensuring that an ongoing feedback loop with customers results in meaningful solutions.
We know we won’t win everyone over, no matter how hard we work to establish relationships. But by treating farmers as valued partners and advisors, we have found tremendous benefits.
What it all comes down to is a commitment to achieving better farming outcomes—both for farmers and ranchers as stewards of the land and for all of us who depend on the food they produce. As climate change threatens the world’s food supply, the need for agricultural innovation is greater than ever. And if I’ve learned anything from my many farm visits, it is this: To make big changes, you have to start in the field.
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