By Drew Slattery

Bridging ag’s digital divide

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May 7, 2021

Farm-level production data is no magic panacea for climate change or agriculture’s sustainability problems. But, increased data collection and sharing can play a critical role in addressing the challenges we face reshaping the American agricultural sector to be more sustainable, resilient, and equitable. Increased data collection levels at the farm level empower farmers to make better decisions while increased data flows throughout the supply chain unlock the investments needed to overhaul production infrastructure while catalyzing truly accurate reporting.

The future of agriculture (much like all industries) is a connected future, one that thrives on the flow of data to and from the farm. But every farm is different; not only in production and management methods, but in its needs, challenges, and opportunities. Tack on to this the fact that each of the individual humans (the farmers) making decisions on each farm have vastly different views, experiences, and perspectives and things start to get complex fast when talking about how to scale data work across ag.

Given this complexity and nuance, coupled with the urgent need to solve challenges across agriculture, what can we – as change makers and influencers – do to bridge the digital divide?

My colleagues and I at Farm Journal’s social purpose initiative Trust In Food have been collaborating with The Sustainability Consortium (TSC) since early 2020 to provide the insights and solutions needed to answer this. 

Each spring we survey American row-crop farmers, to hear directly from them on where they stand around data collection and sharing issues – the perspectives they hold, challenges they face, and pathways forward they see. This year we had 610 farmers complete our survey, representing row-crop operations of all sizes across 42 states. You can download the full report here.  

Below are a few key insights from this year’s report, which show a challenging but navigable (with the right approach) road ahead. 

Trust issues exist, but maybe not for everybody
When we asked about trust, 73% of respondents to our survey said they don’t trust private companies with their data and 58% said they don’t trust the government with it (mirroring trends from last year’s report). Supporting this, 65% said their customer (whoever that may be) does not have a right to know how the crop was produced; a sentiment is shared equally among Farm Management and Information System (FMIS) users and non-users. When asked about the barriers that prevent them from sharing data (or sharing more than they already are), privacy-related issues scored the highest with 69% of respondents claiming it. 

If we are to scale the on-farm level of data collection, sharing, and production practice transparency – trust issues must be resolved. Interestingly, 71% of respondents said they do trust their financial institutions with this data. There could be lessons to be taken from the financial sector and applied to production data governance, privacy, and use issues. Farmers (typically and historically) trust their bankers – lessons from that relationship could apply elsewhere.  

Digital farm-level data management is low, and many non-users may be unconvertible  
More than half of all respondents (62%) said they do not exclusively rely on some sort of Farm Management Information Systems (FMIS) to store and manage their farm’s production data. In fact almost a third of respondents (28%) said their primary data storage method is paper or other non-digitized methods. But perhaps most striking, of those that don’t use digital methods, only half have ever considered transitioning to digital. When asked why they had never considered transitioning, the majority of responses to the open ended question involved words like “retire”, “old”, “computers” – signalling that many of these individuals may be simply be too close to the end of their careers to be willing (or able) to change at this point. 

We may have to accept that, for the time being at least, some farmers won’t change their data collection and management practices – no matter what program or incentive they are served. Rather than expending resources trying to convince the un-convincible, perhaps investments would be better focused empowering the next generation of farm management to quickly and easily scale up digital when their time at the helm comes. Customized outreach efforts could help educate and prepare them to shepherd their farm into the digital era.   

Farmer’s advisor networks may not be supporting them at the level needed, though evidence exists of its role
Only 52% of all respondents said they have a trusted advisor who could answer questions related to FMIS and digital ag, mirroring responses from last year’s survey pointing to less than half of advisors recommending increased data collection and storage. But when we looked closer, we found that those who do have a trusted advisor who can answer questions on digital ag are 24% more likely to use FMIS than those who do not have such an advisor. In a similar vein, the respondents who primarily market their harvest to a food or fuel company are 10-28% more likely to use FMIS as compared to respondents who market to other outlets. 

While more research is needed to better understand these trends before drawing final conclusions, it may be the case that those individuals and organizations who have business relationships with farm operations can play a critical role in digital adoption. We should explore how we can empower them to serve farmers better in this regard.  

A farmer’s production and management data can help tell their stewardship story in an indisputable way. It can empower the downstream supply chain to achieve its goals and more effectively allocate resources. By ensuring farmers’ needs are met and concerns are addressed, farm-level data collection and sharing can be rapidly scaled and the positive impact of data-informed decisions on U.S. farm acres can be expanded.

Click here to download the full report

Photo Credits – Lance Cheung, USDA

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