Why Precision Ag Has Been Slow to Take Root

Precision agriculture—the application of remote sensing technology and big-data analytics to sub-field crop management—has been praised as the coming revolution in agriculture since the early 1980s, when the military’s global positioning system (GPS) was made available for public use. It was widely believed that farmers could use new technologies to make life easier and produce more food.

Here we are, three decades later and the field of precision agriculture now encompasses a wide field of applications and inventions: GPS-guided tractors, drones and satellites that render data-rich field imaging, and smart soil sensors that allow farmers to fine-tune the way they distribute seeds, water, fertilizer and pesticides. Yet the innovations in precision ag are not driving the drastic industry change so desperately desired. The data-driven dreamers of precision agriculture are waking up to the realities of sluggish adoption and mediocre results.

The Problem: All Tech, No Market

At the heart of this disappointing reality is a contrast between the cultures of the tech and ag industries. Tech startups and tech-focused VCs are used to operating in a world where attractive technology creates its own market, and where the best algorithm more or less automatically facilitates adoption. While this might hold for business-to-consumer apps, ag operates differently.

The ag investor community hears pitches from hundreds of startups. At TechAccel, we have talked to more than 40 drone companies purporting to do something in the ag space, yet we have not invested in any. We are not convinced that any of them have the right formula for delivering value to the actual farmer. We see too many tech-centric, rather than user-centric, approaches.

The Process: Improving Product

Farmers want to be sure they can trust the data and the insights derived from using new technology. Farmers aren’t conservative adopters of purported solutions just because they’re stubborn, they’re conservative because every growing season is a high-stakes game of chance in which a host of variables interact in ways that can’t always be predicted.

It is only natural that agtech startups offering new products need time and proven results to gain a farmer’s trust. For any startup looking to breach the gap and provide a meaningful and enriching product, user experience needs to be central to the product offering. While having coffee at 5 a.m., a farmer wants to be able to look at their iPad and see a dashboard that delivers overall status updates, recommendations on what to go about doing that day, followed by projections on how these particular actions may impact the probability of having a good season and turning a larger profit.

Agtech has faced sluggish adoption rates simply because farmers don’t want to have to wade through complicated data, analyze imagery and fiddle with technology—they want to cut to the chase and farm to the best of their abilities taking into consideration evolving elements such as weather, market, resources and time.

The Payoff: Ag Takes Time

The would-be innovators of agtech planning a march from from ideation to market in months need to adjust to an agricultural innovation cycle measured in years. It’s a fact of life in an industry that has to rely on field trials—going from seed to seed, across geographies—to establish what works and what doesn’t with certainty.

And yet, even if the fast ROI isn’t always there for agtech startups and VCs, no other field will better reward patient, thoughtful investment in products that meet farmers’ needs.

After all, 7.5 billion consumers are demanding that the agriculture industry grows at an unprecedented rate, by any means necessary, including the long-awaited precision ag revolution. While originally slow to take root, now is the time for productive agtech germination that delivers on farmers—and the expanding world’s needs.

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