By Drew Slattery

The Key to a Robust Data Network is Actually a Robust Human Network

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May 20, 2021

Digital farm-level data collection, use, and sharing rates across the U.S. are problematically low. These low rates create a snowball effect, ultimately hindering the progress of the farm operation itself as well as the sustainability efforts being undertaken by the supply chains  farm products enter. One of the key drivers of low rates of farm-level data capture, analysis, and reporting comes from low levels of support and promotion of digital data solutions by farmers’ trusted advisers. But our research shows there is ample opportunity for agricultural stakeholders to collaboratively design solutions to address this.    

The digital divide is real

Research has shown that, at best, half or fewer food and beverage companies with agricultural supply chains in the U.S. could determine the on-farm production and management practices for their agricultural inputs in 2019.

Why? In large part, it has been attributed to low levels of data collection at the farmgate. If farmers have no detailed digital records of their production, they are unable to pass them along to downstream supply chain actors. 

According to Trust In Food’s recent Farmer Perspectives on Data research report, of the 610 respondents to our survey 62% said they do not rely on a centralized software solution to exclusively collect and manage production data. This means that across our sample pool, only 38% could share the relevant production data needed by downstream supply chain organizations. And that assumes those farmers choose to share the data. 

Bridging the divide is important

Our perspective is that an important pillar of the transition to a sustainable, resilient and equitable agricultural supply chain is the flow of information from the farm. 

This is because when farmers have better and more detailed information about their operations, combined with sophisticated insights and decision-making tools, they are able to improve their environmental footprint as well as the economics of their business. When downstream organizations have better information about on-farm practices, they can more effectively target their investments and redesign programs to  benefit farmers (people) and the planet. Of course, this is not some magic easy button that instantly solves everything. These are incredibly complex, interconnected, and fluid situations and there is no one size fits all fix. But it is a start in the right direction. 

Support systems are lacking

One of the biggest drivers of agriculture’s digital divide identified in the 2021 report is that farmers simply don’t feel they have the support network they need to make the digital transition. Not only does this lack of support hinder their physical transition to digital data collection and management, it also delays the beginning of the change process for many farmers.

In our Farmer Perspectives on Datareport, we found that only 52% of respondents said they have a trusted advisor who can answer questions related to farm software and digital ag. Unsurprisingly, the 48% who said they do have an adviser were 24% more likely to be users of digital farm management systems and advanced data collection methods. Transitioning how your business operates by leveraging data and farm management information systems is not easy. Farmers need the financial wherewithal to afford it, support implement it and advisers to call on when questions arise. As anyone who uses data in any industry will tell you, data analysis and application is an iterative process–technology marches on, and the use cases (and, unfortunately, opportunities for misuse – such as improperly calibrated data-capturing equipment) seem to be expanding at every turn.

Further, there is often a substantial change in mindset required before a farmer even considers making the transition to digital data collection and management. In previous research, we found 71% of respondents said their trusted adviser had never recommended they increase their data collection and digital management. The change process is more difficult to initiate when influencers aren’t promoting the change.  

So then: How can we ensure advisers are willing and able to empower farmers’ digital transitions?

Solutions for supporting the support system

There is a compelling business case to be made for scaling up of digital solutions support by ag retailers, input manufacturers and technical service providers, as previous research by Trust In Food and Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) has shown. Yet there are limitations to how easily and quickly these organizations can scale up their digital ag services. Limited staffing and scarce training opportunities quickly create a bottleneck. 

Leaders and organizations  committed to supporting farmers in their journey toward a more connected–and economically and environmentally beneficial–agriculture system can collaborate to solve these challenges. They can enable more advisers to support farmers in their digital journey. They can:

  • Create & Scale Training Programs
    Developing precompetitive digital ag and data training programs for advisers twill ensure advisers’ understanding is not linked to a single proprietary data management system. Such training could provide the proper context for the rapid technological and environmental opportunities and challenges facing farmers, and the important role advisers play in navigating this transition.It will also allow advisers to serve the broadest population of farmers possible. The better advisers understand the intricacies of farm-level data collection, management and data-based decision-making, the better able they will be to support farmers. 

  • Generate Adviser Buy-In
    Trust is a key factor in the relationship between farmers and their advisers. That trust must be established and maintained, or the relationship will dissolve. Farmers trust their advisers to provide them with the best information and advice. If an adviser is excited about a solution and believes in it,- it is much more likely to capture a farmer’s interest, as well.

  • Streamline Job Functions 
    There are hundreds of different potential data and software solutions any one farm might deploy to meet its needs. This means advisers potentially have to understand and be fluent in hundreds of different data ecosystems, many of which are proprietary and might not be compatible with one another. The harder it becomes for trusted advisors to work with farmers around data collection and use, the less likely they will be to do it. 

We need to make not only advisers’ jobs easier, but also the farmers’. Data networks, are actually built on human networks.

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