Move Over, Farmville: The Future of AgTech

During the Vietnam War, US Marines were trained to locate underground enemy tunnels through an ancient method called dowsing, or divining — a highly debated practice in which people use Y- or L-shaped rods (called “divining rods” or “witching rods”) to locate underground water, minerals, or other subterranean objects. The practice dates back to the 15th century, and it works like this: you walk along an open area holding each end of the rod, pointing it straight ahead. If the dowsing rod dips, inclines or twitches, you’ve found something.

While some argue that this practice is pseudoscience and operates under the ideomotor effect (ie, the body reacting reflexively and subconsciously, a la the Oujia Board), many people, particularly in the farming community, still employ this technique. One of our MBA ‘18 classmates, for example, presented to our class last year on how he uses these methods at his family farm in Ireland, and there’s even an American Society of Dowsers still in operation today. 

Dowsing rod

Many agricultural traditions, such as dowsing, continue to exist today, despite controversy.

 

What’s my point here? Well, it’s that farming and many of its associated techniques and values constitute a unique industry, one entrenched in tradition and pride (even misconceptions and stereotypes). Agriculture is almost synonymous with the birth of civilization, beginning with the domestication of animals, yet its presence transcends a functional role; philosopher and farmer Masanobu Fukuoka, for example, saw farming as a spiritual act, a way to transform oneself and the world. Author and Poet Wendell Berry has spent his entire life writing about agriculture’s links to the individual and society. And farming’s influence in the arts is undeniable, particularly in the pastoral literature and art of the Romantic era. Thus, it’s fair to say that farmers have a strong sense of identity rooted in their work (or arguably, livelihood). They value autonomy and answering to nothing but nature, and there is a sense of pride and grit in this independence.

So add newcomers, innovation, automation, and technology, and what happens? Well, it can be a delicate situation, one not without debate. But given the fact that by 2050 nine billion people will live on the planet and only 40% of the world’s land is arable, those both inside and outside of the agriculture sector are sensing the impetus to turn towards more technology — especially given the fact that farming is a $3 trillion industry.

According to Forbes, experts are comparing this agricultural era to the early stages of the internet: there are many players trying to own the agtech space, but not one clear leader. So what are the major areas of technological innovation in agriculture?

Animal Data

Agtech-Market-Map-V32

Courtesy of Seeds&Chips, a Global Food Innovation Summit

Next Generation Farms
Farm Management Software
Precision Agriculture and Predictive Analytics
Agricultural Marketplaces
Robotics and Drones
Sensors
Smart Irrigation
Plant Data/Analysis

Without going into a more detailed explanation of this breakdown, most areas aim to use data (bioinformatic or otherwise) and technology to improve decision-making on farm issues related to efficiency (waste reduction), optimization, and risk management. For example, companies like Bovcontrol use cloud technology to help livestock farmers keep track of their herds, and Trace Genomics uses machine learning and genomics testing on soil to maximize yields. And these are just two examples — there are hundreds more companies making waves in the space.

61c8c5fdd2a84532baf9b338e1fa6fb6After all, farmers know that, especially in light of the current presidency’s effects on the farming industry, as well as climate change, they’re going to have to learn to do more with less — and technology is the best way to accomplish that. However, the average age of a farmer continues to rise (to now almost 60 years old), and there are fewer new farmers. So even if many seasoned farmers know they need to adopt technology to survive, who can they turn to in order to learn how?

The answer, again, may lie in technology. Technology has allowed the agricultural community to reach new, younger populations — and this appeal is key to growing the industry’s workforce, as well as consumer base. Take, for example, online CSA (community-supported agriculture) programs, which are growing in popularity among millennials (who, as research shows, do more of their shopping online) and even warranting new sales software such as Farmigo. Outside of the US, Japanese tech company Rakuten (famously now the sponsor of the Golden State Warriors) just launched Ragri, a smartphone platform where users can choose vegetables, the farmer to cultivate them, then follow the progress of their crops until harvest, when they’re delivered straight to their doorsteps.

images.jpgThese programs allow younger people to connect with local farms on a more involved level, connections that are reinforced by the growth of online identities within the farming community. Baby Goat Yoga? Farm-to-Table Feast? Weddings with llamas? Yeah, you’ve probably heard of them, thanks to social media. Whereas farms were once (and in many cases, still are), icons of a bucolic escape from the outside world, a growing number have chosen to connect through the digital world through social media. Not only does this offer a more accessible platform to grow interest (and revenue), but it allows each farm to communicate its identity and personality — a critical strategic component in reaching a younger audience that demands authenticity.

And while awareness is the first step, technology is also allowing younger people to experiment and learn (virtually, and in reality), with agriculture-related industries. Beerbot, for example, while not without controversy, helps first-timers and veteran brewers alike create a foolproof batch, and Terroir is a new SIMS-like virtual reality game that allows users to create and run their own vineyards (the game is getting rave reviews from actual vintners, too). Whether or not these virtual simulations actually impact career ambitions remains to be seen, but in perhaps more intentionally educational platforms, African start-ups such as Farmerline and UjuziKilimo are using technology and big data to create knowledge communities for beginning farmers. A Bangalore-based app called Farmizen even lets users play a real-life version of the popular game Farmville.

In closing, the farming industry knows that there are a number of challenges at hand as the landscape (figuratively and literally) continues to change, from environmental concerns to financial ones. Trying to combine an industry that embraces failure as central to its ethos (tech), with an industry where even a small failure can leave a complete year’s work unrecoverable (farming) has been a challenge, to say the least, especially given differences in cultures and measures of success (and we’re not even talking about the ideological differences within the farming community itself, with factory vs family farms). But as these communities continue to work together and educate each other (as well as prospective techie farmers), we can only hope that the future of agriculture is bright — divining rods or not.

7 comments

  1. Really great post. Ironically, I was just talking to a friend just the other day about dousing (he was buying a new house and needed to drill a well). When I asked if he believed it, his response was “non-crazy people that I respect swear by it.” Anyway, I do find the whole topic of ag tech to be fascinating. It’s a business that is absolutely becoming highly transformed by digital technologies.

  2. Really interesting article! It is incredible how the world is changing, and how fast and one of the things that hasn’t been touched that much is the agricultural business, despite such being a huge business. Its really interesting how you point out that through technology, younger people are being connected to farms for things such as Yoga with goats. It might be a little weird yet I find it good for society because I feel that as time passes, people are more discounted of the countryside.

  3. This was great and such an interesting post! I actually used to do sales for a business journal, and was in the agriculture section. It continuously blew my mind, when talking with owners of medium to large ag companies, the technology being used by farms. I think that as a city-dweller, I naively never really thought about the intersection between farming and tech. But I think you raised a great point: that there exists this tension between the legacy of farming and the advent of technology, as well as the rising global population levels. And it will be interesting to see how that plays out. I agree that the rise of social media/millennials and the love of local eating may help make the transition less fraught. Maybe Instagram, Facebook, etc. will help bridge the connection between the old traditions and new technology.

  4. I, like @lwennbie, also never gave much thought to developing digital technologies and the agriculture industry. Throughout history, farming was at the forefront of emerging technologies but now there is a certain strain between keeping tradition and identity that is paired with farming and continuing to develop and increase efficiencies, through the use of new digital tech. Very cool to see big data and technology startups hitting ag, a seemingly aging industry. It will be interesting to see if social media will make an impact in engaging younger people in agriculture in the longer term.

  5. Wow this post is awesome! I had no idea about the technology that has developed within the agriculture industry. I really agree that it will be interesting to see how the family vs. factory farms change with this new technology. My second cousins own a farm, and they still do things the way they did 30 years ago, and are honestly hesitant to chance. However their situation is unique and their strategies still work for them because they live in a small town in Colorado – but I can see that without further adaptability they could get crushed by factory farms who are leveraging this new technology!

    1. Yeah — cool thing about tech here is that I think there’s an app/platform/service/technology for every size/type of farm, and it’s mostly about educating farmers about these opportunities/teaching them how to use them (if they’re not already). Would be interested to see how branding/marketing is being used in agtech!

  6. It’s amazing to see how tech of today (cloud) is helping the industry. I loved that company Bovcontrol. It will be interesting to see how farmers in the next 10-15 years start creating more technology and using big companies to help them innovate. I think it’s the next big step and opportunity. Earth will be home to more than 9 billion people by 2050. Will there me enough food for all of us? But at the same time, everyone wants farm-to-table or organic. What is the trade-off

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