Just as Covid-19 began to spread in the U.S., farmers across America’s rural communities were beginning to plant crops. We highlighted some of the challenges that farmers are up against during Covid-19 in our recent white paper. Field labor shortages, food nationalism and crop trade restrictions, excess food waste from a collapse in food service, and concerns about receiving agriculture inputs on time, have created an even more difficult environment for farmers to be successful.
Last week on our podcast, Where We Grow From Here, we explored the current state of farming in America. We spoke to two 5th generation farmers, Justin Bruch, Founder and CEO of Clear Frontier Ag Management and Ryan Weeks, Owner and CEO of Weeks Family Farms. Our conversation highlighted the importance of technology in farming today, the diverse skills required to operate a profitable farming business and how farmers are handling the implications of Covid-19.
Family farmers rely heavily on technology to run their businesses too.
“Just like every other business, farmers are grasping technology and using it and it's helping us through tough situations, through expansion and to manage labor shortages and all of the challenges we face with or without COVID-19. It's allowing us to continue to expand and run our businesses and run them efficiently.”
- Justin Bruch, Founder and CEO of Clear Frontier Ag Management
Permanent crop and row crop farmers are leaning on technology to handle the implications of Covid-19, as well as to manage and expand their businesses over the longer term.
Drones and on-farm sensors gather data from the field and fuel analytics platforms that help farmers optimize yield and improve supply predictability and forecasting. These types of technologies are especially important as we enter an economic recession and a time of increasing pressure on farmer profitability.
In the produce space, we are seeing autonomous robots help transport crops enabling employees to harvest more per day. Farmers are navigating the complexities of social distancing and ensuring the safety of essential workers with the added strain of potential labor shortages due to visa constraints.
Shelf-life extension technologies can help farmers reduce the risk of food waste, especially important as they navigate the impacts of channel shifts due to restaurant closures.
These are just a few of the technologies that have changed the farming landscape in the last 5 years. According to AgFunder’s 2020 Farm Tech Investing Report, “Investment in Farm Tech startups has grown consistently since 2013; 370% to be exact.”1 And the industry is expected to continue to grow. The USDA cites that, “The landscape of digital agriculture is rapidly evolving and estimated to be a $254 billion to $340 billion global addressable market.”2
As one example of farming technology, Ryan Weeks joined and recorded our podcast from his tractor where he was in the midst of spring planting, This video provides a brief glimpse into just some of the technologies that farmers use to optimize their production yield.
These new technologies have the potential to improve farmer profitability through increased efficiency, higher yields, and long term cost savings. In addition, many technologies such as soil biology and chemistry analysis can help farmers adapt to the effects of climate change, improve soil health and reduce future environmental impacts. But is it enough, soon enough?
There are hurdles to mass adoption.
While new technologies offer the potential to simplify many of the complexities farmers face both during Covid-19 and beyond, there are hurdles to mass adoption. According to a study by the United Soybean Board, farmers point to two key reasons for not adopting data-driven technologies - slow connections or lack of internet access and costs.3 The cost concern may be addressed by new financial products aimed at helping farmers de-risk new technology adoption. But farmers are increasingly dependent on internet connectivity to run successful businesses and many face less than ideal options and coverage. There is a lot of talk in Washington about the importance of rural broadband and our hope is that this talk becomes action.
Also, many of the technologies with the potential to transform the farm are in early stages of maturity and need further investment to be more widely adopted. We are seeing good progress, but unfortunately, Food and Agriculture remains under-invested as compared to other sectors. In 2019, Food and Agriculture represented between 15% - 20% of GDP but only 6.7% of VC funding, as compared to Healthcare with a similar GDP but approximately 11% of global VC funding.4
Farmers deserve a more data-driven future.
While advances in technologies such as genetics, soil health management, automation, and imaging help farmers manage their businesses, the complexities of farming still require them to make hundreds of decisions that can impact the yield and profitability of their harvest.
"When I went to school, I never imagined that I would use every single class that I took every single day of my life farming. But I do. Whether it's algebra, whether it's geometry, whether it's science, biology, chemistry, we use all of it all day, every day.”
- Ryan Weeks, Owner and CEO of Weeks Family Farms
We see opportunity for technology and innovation to further increase profitability and help farmers manage the range of decisions they face on a daily basis. We imagine a more digitally-driven future, where farmers have a comprehensive view into their business via a end-to-end digital farming platform providing data and insights across all phases of farming from choice of crops and seed, to soil, water, weed and pest management, to harvesting and crop sales.
At S2G, we believe that building a healthier and more sustainable food system will require a drastic shift in the way we approach food. And that starts with supporting the farmers that are the heart of the system with tools they need to do the essential work of feeding a growing population. We hope by sharing our vision of the future with you, you will be inspired to join us in the journey towards a better food system.