Farming has been around for many millennia more than most industries, but when it comes to digital adoption, it’s running a bit behind. Farming is undergoing a digital transformation, but it’s taking time. In fact, some agriculture companies are finding their investments are less than successful. And while massive advancements in machinery over the last half-century have scaled productivity, climate change and population growth are demanding ever higher production.
At Planet’s 2021 user conference, Explore, I met with four leaders in digital agriculture to talk about how to reap a strong ROI from digital transformation. While these leaders were from different parts of the world and in different niches in agriculture, they broadly agreed on what matters most today in their field. Here are my top five takeaways from the conversation.
#1. Dialogue with farmers, and the rest of the ag value chain, is key.
Globally, about half of all habitable land is used for agricultural production. Over all that varying terrain, there’s an astonishing diversity of climates and soil types, crops, and practices, and a serious challenge in bringing agri-tech to growers. There’s also huge diversity among farmers themselves, such as how they view and use technology and how they run their businesses.
According to Przemyslaw Zelazowski, founder and chief development officer at SatAgro, directly talking to farmers gives insight into what’s challenging and motivating them. He believes it’s also essential to speak with other businesses in the agriculture value chain. “This is critical because understanding what [other businesses] have been doing with the farms for decades allows you to map where you can help and where you cannot,” Zelazowski says.
#2. Farmers need fast and frequent access to data to address issues in the field.
During the growing season, most farmers are out in the field, not tied to a computer. But to make the best decisions for their farms, they need access to frequent data that’s actionable and easy to use. In the recent past, a grower might get PDF reports once a week. Today, that’s not often enough.
“With our shift to mobile-first comes a complete change in how we look at turnaround time,” explains Ofir Schlam, president and co-founder of Taranis. “Before, we worked from the time we flew over a field or captured a satellite image until we had an analytical result to share. Today, turnaround time is from the moment something happens in the field until action is taken to resolve it.”
Hovav Lapidot, CEO of Manna Irrigation, has noticed this shift as well. “We also heard from customers that they want more frequent data,” said Lapidot. “This was one of the reasons why we connected with Planet – to increase the frequency of the data that we provide to users.”
#3. The cultural barrier is real, but digital ag companies can overcome it.
Because they know their land and their crops, farmers employ what’s worked well for them in the past. That can pose challenges to digital agriculture providers, who are asking their customers to fundamentally change their approach.
“We’re giving them a method to leverage data and information to make better decisions and improve their efficiency,” says Tanzer Bilgen, co-founder and CEO at Doktar. “But their day-to-day working habits do not require data. So there’s a cultural barrier.”
Lapidot sees the same thing in irrigation. But while he believes we need to respect the experience and knowledge gained through farming’s rich traditions, he also says change is essential. That said, “growers are not the first to adopt new technologies,” he notes. The solution? Providing the simplest and most usable technology to growers.
Manna Irrigation does this by offering a straightforward software app that helps growers decide when and how much to irrigate. “If you don’t need to install, manage, and maintain delicate hardware in the field, then you have a much better way to have it adopted,” Lapidot says.
Ofir Schlam has another solution. Farmers are used to buying products from agricultural retailers and trust their recommendations. “If we generate enough value for [retailers], they help [with product] adoption and can absorb the market education with us,” Schlam says. Since the retailers act as the distribution channel, selling through dealers and retailers can also extend the reach of startups who operate with lean teams.
#4. Digital agriculture has a major role to play in sustainable agriculture.
“There’s a big push to increase the role of farmers in climate mitigation,” says Zelazowski. Farmers manage a huge proportion of our planet; therefore, digital agriculture can help make their practices more profitable and more environmentally friendly at the same time. The aim, Zelazowski adds, is “helping the farm to survive from season to season, and then not necessarily [getting] the biggest yields possible, but to get yields good enough to go safely into another season. Quite often, it’s not the highest yields that are linked to the biggest profits.”
Tanzer Bilgen believes digital agriculture can push farther. “First, you create data, then information, then actionable recommendations,” Bilgen says. “This is fully automated currently. The last step, execution, is done by humans. It’s a kind of human-robot cooperation. That’s probably the only way to solve the climate crisis, but it’s extremely difficult.”
#5 The future is satellite imagery.
All of our experts talked about how critical satellite imagery is to the future of farming. Taranis pairs drones with PlanetScope monitoring, but is also considering higher-resolution data from SkySat. Together they can provide the complete picture.
“We really think satellite is going to be the best way in the future to monitor the full field,” says Schlam. “We definitely look forward to better resolutions with the same daily revisit times. For the full field, that would be the killer app.”
Lapidot agrees. “I do believe in satellites rather than the logistic constraints of drones and manned airplanes,” he says. “So satellites are the way we want to use data going forward.”
Zelazowski says he’s seen a lot of changes in how customers think about new digital technologies; for their part, solution providers need to continue providing valuable market education. To learn more: