By Drew Slattery

Digital Ag is Sustainable Ag

May 10, 2020

The on-farm digital transition is central to achieving supply chain sustainability goals – here is how we can accelerate it.

According to research produced by The Sustainability Consortium (TSC), nearly 50% of food and beverage companies report having no visibility into the on-farm practices that produce the inputs they use.

Think about that for a moment – almost half of food and beverage companies can’t identify how their raw inputs were produced.

Why is this? TIF research shows that in 2019, 62% of farmers did not use farm-level data software, and 46% stored and managed their data primarily on paper records. Without digitized production records in an easily accessible and usable format, it becomes difficult to quantify farm-level production practices.

This presents a significant problem for downstream supply chain sustainability efforts. Without any baseline measurements on production practices, there is no way to identify where change is needed,  track progress over time, or inform improvements to change program designs.

But this isn’t just a problem for supply chain companies beyond the farm gate. For a farm, production data is business data, and it plays a critical role in farm-level sustainability. Without easy access to historic production data and meaningful ways to use that data in decision making, a farmer’s efforts to improve their environmental footprint and financial bottom line remain hamstrung. Production decisions on farms get made a few times a year; if the data needed isn’t available at the right time and place and in a usable fashion – production changes may have to wait for another year’s cycle before they can change.  

Understanding Farmer Perspectives

In 2020 we began a research collaboration with TSC to understand the farmer’s perspective around the collection and sharing of production data. Here are three ways organizations can empower farmers to increase their data collection and sharing digitally.

Adapt and overhaul data solutions to provide equitable financial benefits and satisfy farmer information needs.

  • Provide farmers with direct financial benefit, equitable to what downstream actors receive as a result of increased data flows. Ensure all data solutions provide farmers with actionable information outputs they can use to make improved operating decisions; use farmer’s strong connection to family legacy to motivate digitization of records. Prioritize privacy, address farmer’ fears and trust issues, and establish demonstrable control measures that limit their real and perceived exposures to risk.

Remove, reduce or otherwise provide solutions to the various access barriers farmers face to collecting/sharing data.

  • Build robust rural data networks and increase farm connectivity levels. Improve access to the equipment farmers need; provide free training and technical support. Develop cost-sharing, loan or other financial programs that enable access to the capital needed to begin or scale data collection and sharing.

Cultivate a business and normative culture among farmers that understands, values and trusts the critical role data collection and sharing play in both their operation’s success and that of U.S. agriculture as a whole.

  • Better connect the farmer to the value created and provided by the relationship between conservation agriculture practices, data collection and data sharing. Use the important role of data to farm operation profitability, stewardship, and legacy as a foundation to build understanding and buy-in from farmers about the necessary and beneficial role of data. Equip farm operation staff with the tech and data literacy as well as the knowledge, skills and abilities needed to utilize emerging farm-level data solutions and continuously improve their operation’s data efforts. Minimize fear and build trust with farmers regarding data sharing by clearly and openly communicating with them; provide transparency into how the data is used, what profits are generated through the data and who has access to the data.

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