The Digital Ag Marathon: Many Enter, But Who Will Finish?

The Digital Ag Marathon: Many Enter, But Who Will Finish?

You are at the starting line before the race, or on the field before the game. You look around at your competitors – can I take these guys? You wonder about your own readiness:  Have I done what I need to do to compete? Do I have the fitness and stamina to even finish this thing?


Anyone who has competed in any sport – team sports, endurance race, or otherwise – has likely encountered that feeling.

It struck me as I drove away from San Francisco and the recent World Agri-Tech Innovation Summit that many looking to serve agriculture with technology are in that same place.  There were more than 1,200 participants at that show –start-ups, tech companies, agribusiness, academics, and venture capitalists – all posturing, posing, and assessing one another at the starting line of their own ag technology race. Which ones will win a place in the ag ecosystem?

Sadly, there was a key classification of participant that was clearly missing from the event: The Farmer.  I didn’t encounter any of the actual individuals all these tech providers want to win over with their new innovations.  This absence of their active participation in the development process and the lack of real-life knowledge gained from that experience with producers has slowed the acceptance and adoption of technology among farm producers in our ag sector.

What’s in ample supply is the desire to create technology, but seemingly only for the sake of that technology, not to bring an actual, beneficial value proposition to the farm gate.  When farmer engagement, or that of their trusted advisors, is absent, it’s too easy for startups to build out their dreams on an unrealistic foundation.  Those pictured as using the technology – farmer or advisor – must be involved as the innovation begins the development process, long before they begin the ag tech product race. Like those at the starting line of the marathon, they had better be fit and ready to roll.

I’m not sure I’ve seen any clear winners in the ag tech race to date, but I have seen a good share of those labeled DNF, or “Did Not Finish.” Some of this may have been prevented if only they had set out with a proper training plan, built up their agriculture business acumen, and perfected the technology under field conditions prior to starting the race.

Here are some questions to consider as you build your own training plan, whether you are involved in a startup or current technology provider releasing something new for agriculture:

  • Is there an actual need/desire for the innovation?
  • How does the innovation bring value to the farm: Ease? Productivity? Profitability?
  • Is there a clear and validated ROI with adoption?
  • Will your tech endure the harsh agricultural environment?
  • Does your innovation work as conveyed?
  • Have you and your investor established reasonable expectations for both market penetration and timetable?
  • Have you surrounded yourself with the right coaching staff?

And here’s a key part of your fitness prep: Farmers shouldn’t be forced to watch from afar, they need to be actively training and coaching alongside the technology providers. This is the only way you will be sure of your fitness and readiness for the ultimate ag tech race. It’s the only way to fully understand the need for your product and the value proposition it truly represents in real life.  Technology adoption can’t be forced, and it will take time for the value to be realized. Yes, it’s true: It’s not a sprint, but a marathon.

When I next go to the World Agri-Tech Innovation Summit, it’s my hope I will see more involvement from producers of all kinds. Engagement with farmers and their trusted advisors can truly help any aspiring ag tech provider to navigate the race and cross the finish line.

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Steve Watts says:

Allan, this is an excellent and well reasoned article. Your years of experience in the real world are clearly evident. Hopefully at least some of your recommendations will be followed. Much of the technical falderah that has risen since corn hit $8/bu. (for a relatively short time) has been developed for “technology’s sake” and in hope’s of turning a quick buck. Such self-serving efforts stand little chance of success and will undoubtedly be shunted to the sidelines one-by-one, just as they should be. The rallying cry for hoodwinked ag technology investors is set to become, “Caveat Emptor”. For complicit ag technology investors it is about time to start looking for a new industry to “shake down”. Steve Watts