Farmer Feedback Loop
Can Agile Approaches Get Farmers Up To Speed On Technology?
The pitch to farmers was much the same as in every other industry: The power of big data, analytics and remote technologies could improve productivity and avoid waste. Armed with tools like weather apps, soil sensors and drones, farmers would have the real-time information about plant health, soil conditions and temperature they need to make more precise decisions about planting and harvests.
“Most of the startups that failed tried to scale their projects too quickly and spread themselves too thin.”
—Nikhil Krishnan, CB Insights, New York, New York, USA
So began a bumper crop of new projects by startups—and the birth of the agricultural technology industry, dubbed agtech. That, of course, piqued the interest of bigger players. And the deals continue to roll in: In August, DuPont agreed to purchase Granular Inc., a startup provider of agriculture software and analytics tools.
“Farmers want to be more efficient, and technology enables that,” says Paul S. Miller, PhD, chief science officer at Agrible, an agtech company in Champaign, Illinois, USA.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the farm. Many tech companies failed to win over their primary audience, raising fundamental questions about the industry's ability to deliver projects that truly answer customer needs. In 2016, investment in agtech startups fell to US$3.2 billion—a 30 percent year-over-year drop.
It's not that agriculture doesn't have a huge need for data-driven innovation. It does.
Shrinking margins, dropping prices, short shelf lives, labor shortages and the need for more efficient farming and supply chain practices are all driving growing interest in agtech, says Nikhil Krishnan, tech industry analyst at CB Insights, New York, New York, USA.
The need is particularly keen in emerging markets like India, where yields are below global averages and demand is on the rise. Produce shortages across Europe and erratic weather patterns—which can make or break crop yields—are also driving interest. “Supply chain shocks from these kinds of natural phenomena have put agriculture in the spotlight,” Mr. Krishnan says.
Done right, agtech projects can mean a dramatic uptick in productivity. Projects that provide farmers with highly localized data, as well as new developments in areas like robotics and remote drones, are increasing the efficiency per person on farms. “That means less people can manage more crops,” he says.
But this can only happen if companies deliver the kind of tools farmers will actually use.
Despite all the buzz and big investment, some agtech projects have posted less-than-dazzling outcomes.
“Most of the startups that failed tried to scale their projects too quickly and spread themselves too thin either from a geography or product standpoint,” Mr. Krishnan says. “Building strong products one at a time and growing in a sustainable fashion is probably a smarter move in this space.”
Project teams must focus on creating products that are cost-effective and easy to use, says Dr. Miller.
In many cases, new streams of data were supposed to help farmers make fields more productive, yet most digital tool users found them to be too complicated or time-consuming. Others balked at the price of adding digital technology in an industry where margins are already slim.
“Considering all that farmers do every day, the technology has to integrate into their existing routine and solve problems as they come,” says Dr. Miller. That means providing real-time data via mobile devices unique to each farmer's crop, location, weather conditions and other related factors, he says. Providing such hyperlocal data adds layers of complexity that have stymied many a project team.
“Even on a single farm, a farmer may have hundreds of fields on different cycles,” he says. “You need to take that into account when developing these tools.”
Meeting their unique demands—and getting them to see a project's value—requires working with local farmers and integrating customers with project teams.
To make sure its projects meet the needs of customers, for example, Agrible's development team includes growers who help guide feature design. The company also relies on agile approaches, including daily scrums and iterative prototypes it shares with key customers.
Internal quality assurance testing and user feedback help further inform product iterations. For example, the company is currently building an agronomic file importer it recently prototyped. An agile approach helped the team test different strategies for getting grower and user data into the system at the same time. “Agile allows us to rapidly develop these prototypes over a few sprints,” Dr. Miller says.
A look at some leading-edge tech projects out to revolutionize farming and ranching:
The internet of cows. Brazilian company BovControl rolled out the latest version of its livestock management app in August 2017. The software helps cattle farmers track inventory, vaccinations, nutrition needs and other data in real time.
Catch my drift. U.S. agtech company Agrible is developing Crop Health Insights, a program that will provide 15 different indices to measure crop health. The software, scheduled to be released in March 2018, will link to the organization's Spray Smart app, which offers real-time data on wind conditions.
Drone farmers. BioCarbon Engineering is working on a drone-based planting system for quickly and cheaply replanting forests. A data-gathering drone first scans the topography to create a 3-D map and develop a planting strategy, then a planting drone fires seed pods into the ground at a rate of one per second, or about 100,000 a day. The U.K. project team is currently testing the technology and has demonstrated growth for a number of crop types in indoor and outdoor trials.
“Agile allows us to rapidly develop these prototypes over a few sprints.”
—Paul S. Miller, PhD, Agrible, Champaign, Illinois, USA
But the most important step of every sprint is gathering feedback from test users.
“Growers are involved at every stage of our development,” he says. They provide a constant stream of feedback, which helps the team hone the next iteration and rapidly adapt the tools for different communities and crops.
“If you want to build an agtech product that's useful, you have to understand the market needs,” Dr. Miller says. “The only way to do that is to incorporate growers in the project development process.” —Sarah Fister Gale