5 Things Silicon Valley Gets Wrong About Agriculture

Fail fast, fail often doesn't work for farmers. Here are five agricultural realities funders and innovators need to understand.

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By Michael Gilbert

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"Betting the farm" isn't just a saying. It's something farmers do every year. When a farmer invests in new technology — be it a new irrigation system or a self-driving tractor — they're often, quite literally, betting the farm. If the tech doesn't deliver, it could spell financial ruin.

As startups developing agricultural technology proliferate, too many investors and founders are neglecting this key fact. Farming isn't just another "sector," and there's far more at stake than meets the eye.

To be sure, investments in agtech are exciting and needed. To feed a growing population, we need to double global food production by 2050, but we can't double agricultural acres. We need more food (or more high-quality calories and nutrients) per acre. That's where technology comes in.

Related: How Has Technology Sown the Seeds for Advancements in Agriculture

There's a reason even Bill Gates is buying up farms and bankrolling ag innovation. Agtech helps farmers deliver bigger harvests even as water and land grow more precious and inputs more expensive. Indeed, the value of precision farming is expected to more than double to $14.44 billion by 2027.

But as a scientist and CEO of an agtech company that partners with growers to ensure tech yields practical benefits, I've seen the sometimes jarring disconnect between Silicon Valley norms and the (as yet) inviolable laws of nature. Here are five truths funders and innovators must understand to accelerate innovation and put real-world solutions in farmers' hands.

1. Fail fast doesn't work for farmers

Rapid experimentation is a tenet of lean startup philosophy, embraced by consumer tech companies in a race to find "what sticks." But agtech customers don't have that luxury. Apart from the inherent risks of "betting the farm," there's the fact that a farmer won't be able to assess the value of new technology until after a full season of usage. A glitchy gadget or mid-season product update could negatively impact an entire harvest. That means we must refine tech before putting products in the field.

That's a big shift for companies accustomed to MVPs and incremental updates. It means collaborating with farmers before launch to find out what's needed and thoroughly piloting new tools. Updates are great, but they must work. At my company, for example, we save new hardware and releases for fall and winter to avoid interrupting the growing season.

2. Ag support has to be more than a chatbot

Many tech companies automate customer service to efficiently solve problems with low overhead. But in agtech, chatbots and email tickets don't necessarily work.

Farmers have enough to do without having to troubleshoot hundreds, if not thousands, of sensors, monitors, automations and other systems. They need human help — and quickly. Even a few days' delay can irreparably damage a crop. That's why agtech as a service, complete with boots-on-the-ground support, is key.

To be clear, farmers understand that tech sometimes breaks or malfunctions. But they expect you to show up (often in person) when things don't work.

Related: What Matters Most While Opting for Smart Farming Technology

3. The growth curve looks different in ag

Ag investors looking for the kind of hockey-stick growth common in other tech sectors will be disappointed. Farmers tend to be justifiably cautious of new products, given the extremely high stakes. As one farmer friend recently put it, imagine getting paid 50 times in your career, instead of 50 times a year, and you'll start to understand the impact of every decision.

Growers won't be buying a new gadget because it garnered a thousand positive online reviews. They'll wait for word-of-mouth testimonies and in-field results. Trusted suppliers, conference conversations, friends and neighbors are your best marketing tool.

But once proven, useful tech can take off like a rocket. Take GPS and mapping tools on combines and other large equipment. When the tech was developed 20 years ago, it was largely considered unnecessary. Today, it's rare for a farmer not to use some kind of mapping technology. Ultimately, agtech can achieve hockey-stick growth, but it might take time.

4. You can't A/B test a farm (yet)

Tech lives in a world of easily isolated variables, clearly identified pain points and clean cost-benefit ratios. Farms don't work this way.

A social media platform like Instagram can tweak its algorithm and draw a straight line to the impact on usage and revenue. Plants, like people, are more complicated. Was last year's bumper crop due to those new laser scarecrows? Because of the unseasonably warm spring? Or was it that extra week of rain?

As we amass more data, we're getting better at separating signal from noise, but tracing cause and effect on a farm is still aspirational. Similarly, when investors ask me to quantify the exact value of our services to users, it's not a question with simple answers. When farmers start on our platform and eagerly sign up the next year to expand farm-wide, we know it's delivering value. The exact dollar figure isn't always easy to gauge.

5. Farmers want the latest tech (but it has to work)

The stereotype of farmers as somehow old-fashioned ignores the reality: Agriculture has been innovating since the introduction of the plow. This generation of farmers, in particular, has ridden waves of change and innovation, from robotics and automation to bioinformatics and big data. They are ready and waiting for the next big thing.

But growers aren't obsessed with technology, itself. They don't want the latest gadget. They want results. As we've reached the limits of what technologies of scale — like bigger combines and animal confinements — can accomplish, farmers understand the way forward lies in doing more with less, and that's where agtech comes in. For agtech companies, it's critical to appreciate how sophisticated and discerning your consumer is.

Related: Farmers Need an ROI for Precision-Ag Adoption to Grow

Bridging the divide

So, how do we bridge the divide between tech-sector norms and agricultural realities? Investors and founders must enlist farmers as allies and consultants in product development. These relationships will open up new avenues for innovation. Agtech is the future of farming, but getting there requires respecting the cyclical nature of agriculture, getting comfortable with new uncertainties, building real relationships and finding business models and metrics that work in the fields.

So, if you haven't already, hop in the car, drive past the farmers' market, and head to the country to see what's really happening on the farm.

Michael Gilbert

Entrepreneur Leadership Network Contributor

Founder and Director of the Board at Semios

Michael Gilbert is the CEO of Semios, helping farmers use data to optimize every acre. He is a father, founder and scientist who is passionate about sustainability and having fun shaping the future.

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