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From stump jump to startup: The one reason agtech adoption hasn’t followed early trends

For a great example of agtech, you can’t go past RB Smith’s revolutionary invention, the stump-jump plough. I say “revolutionary” because

From stump jump to startup: The one reason agtech adoption hasn’t followed early trends

For a great example of agtech, you can’t go past RB Smith’s revolutionary invention, the stump-jump plough. I say “revolutionary” because, while it might seem very old-skool in today’s terms, it certainly caused a revolution back in 1876 when it was invented. Clearing land was tough going, but you couldn’t farm without doing it. The stump jump was that golden solution that changed the course of pastoral history.

Now, that might seem like quite the feat — and it was — but today’s agtech has the potential to have a much greater impact on global agriculture. So, “What’s standing in the way?” you ask. The answer is simple (but not simple to solve): A culture clash.

Before we get to that, let’s dig a little deeper into why the stump jump plough saw such breathtakingly fast adoption. If you guessed it was because farmers could see with their own eyes the impact that plough had, you’re right. I mean, you only had to see it in action to understand the implications for your own wild corner of the country — a piece of wilderness which, of course, you wanted to make as productive as possible. You’d be mad not to snap one up as soon as you saw it working. And snap them up people did, until the plough was spread throughout the entire British Commonwealth, changing agriculture wherever it was used.

Bottom line: the highly visible outcome of the stump jump plough made a good farming decision incredibly easy to make. It was a real-world no-brainer.

So, what’s today’s equivalent of the stump jump plough? I reckon GPS tractor guidance systems are a good bet. Again, we’re talking highly visible benefits — and benefits that stretch beyond reduced input costs and soil compaction, neater rows, and greater yield. GPS guidance means you spend less time in the cab, and hey, you can watch Netflix or check your Twitter while you’re in there. It gives you some of your life back, takes the pressure off, and makes tractor work less of a burden all round. Every farmer can see these benefits for themselves, and they’ve adopted the technology at pace.

But what about other agtech that doesn’t have such obvious, immediately visible benefits? Well, it has a much slower uptake. Farmers like to know an outlay is worth it, and if the return seems sketchy, they’re unlikely to get on board. Slow adoption is the result, and we see it around a range of different technologies that do have a benefit for agriculture — it’s just not so visible.

The solution? For my money, we need to create the conditions so that farm decision-makers can make better decisions more often, and the way to do that is to get the different agricultural technologies talking to each other.

Here’s what I mean. Let’s say you’re a farmer who wants to apply some fertiliser just before the next rain. If you rely on data from the Bureau of Meteorology, the readings and forecasts won’t be specific to your farm or system. So, let’s say you go ahead on the strength of a BOM forecast and apply thousands of kilos of fertiliser… and it doesn’t rain. In this case, your decision wasn’t a great one.

Now, let’s imagine you replace the BOM forecasts with a more precise data collection system — a local weather station communicating with a soil sensor that communicates with irrigation sensors on your property, say. And let’s imagine — and this is the key to it all — that these systems all communicate with one another.

Suddenly, you have a better understanding of the fertility needs of your soil, you have more precise and accurate forecasts of when it will rain. So, when you make a decision based on this interconnected, highly localised system, you’re more likely to be applying the right amount of fertiliser at the optimum time. It’s a good decision, and in this example, you’re in a position to make good decisions, more of the time.

Okay, but what about this culture clash that I mentioned earlier? Allow me to pose a question: where does today’s agtech leave a lot of farmers? Behind a desk, at a computer. Each technology has its own interface and systems, and the farmer needs to spend time in the office analysing that data and cross-checking it against other systems, off their own bat, if they’re ever going to make a good, data-based decision.

I don’t think it should be like that. In fact, I don’t think it will stay like that. In my opinion, the AgTech sector naturally has to move toward integration, so that these independently invented and manufactured solutions can talk to each other and provide real insights, not just data.

Farmers don’t get into farming so they can be data analysts; they get into farming because they love it. The industry; the lifestyle; the wide, green “office space”; the freedom to make their own decisions. The agtech that will succeed will be that which puts farmers back in the field doing what they love — but doing it better, thanks to aggregated insights provided by a range of new technologies working together.

Now this is just my view, and I’m interested to hear yours. What do you see as the other barriers to agtech adoption? Let me know in the comments.