Why aren’t farmers using new tech?
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Agtech, short for agriculture technology, is a growing industry that’s using data tools and software to help farmers improve yields and use fewer resources.
With population growth increasing the global demand for food and climate change hurting crop yields, a swift adoption of agtech may be needed now more than ever. Yet, farmers are hesitant about embracing these new technologies.
What’s in the way of farmers quickly adopting agtech, and how can the industry get more farmers on board?
“Marketplace” host Kai Ryssdal talked to reporter Belle Lin from the Wall Street Journal about her recent article on why so few farmers are using agtech. Below is an edited transcript of their conversation.
Kai Ryssdal: Could we have a quick primer, please? What is agtech?
Belle Lin: Absolutely. Agriculture technology, agtech is really the set of tools — both hardware and software — that enables farmers growers to really get the most out of their farming resources and inputs and up boosting their yields. So that’s really the goal of this kind of current wave of farm technology. But it’s really the kind of larger ecosystem software, hardware, robotics, tractors autonomous maybe that allow farmers to kind of do their work with greater efficiency.
Ryssdal: So two things that you said there one yield and current wave, we’ll get to the yield in a minute. But I want to talk about current wave, because as you pointed out, in this piece, it’s been a decade-ish, that that sort of the bigger picture, agtech thing has been a thing.
Lin: That’s right. So it’s about a decade since data analytics and what’s sometimes known as Big Data came around. So, these massive amounts of data that oftentimes companies collect, can also be collected on Americans farms, where some of the environments where the richest data is to be collected. You can collect it on almost every single specific piece of land on the soil itself on the seeds that are planted, where they’re planted down to the type of pesticide that is applied to a single weed where that weed is located. So you can understand, you know, how specific these things can get. And that’s related to this idea of precision agriculture, where all these like very specific inputs tailored to a specific farm, help a farmer to end up doing their work in a way that’s more informed by that data, and boosts their yields with fewer resources.
Ryssdal: Right, so to that yield thing, that’s the name of this whole game — it’s getting more stuff out of the ground per acre farmed than they did before. And there’s an amazing statistic in here it says, according to the Department of Agriculture in 2017, farmers using digital soil maps, which are part of this technology produced about 49% higher winter wheat yields than farmers who didn’t. Again, that’s USDA data. And yet, the thrust of this piece is that farmers almost have too much data and kind of know what to do with it.
Lin: Yeah, absolutely. So not only is there this kind of challenge of getting farmers to use these tools, but once they’ve used them, they face this kind of data paralysis, which is how a farmer described this to me, he’s farming corn and soybean. He feels like he’s collecting so much data on all these different parts of his farm, that he doesn’t know what to do with it. And so that’s a huge problem as well across sectors where, you know, big data, data analytics has promised to kind of deliver all these efficiencies and productivity gains. But oftentimes, what consumers and these farmers feel is that they don’t have that background to say, “OK, now that I know the moisture levels of all my soil, this is what I should do,” right.
Ryssdal: I do not want to sound by any means ageist here, and apologies to the young farmers out there. But the average age of a farmer in this economy right now, as you point out is like 58.
Lin: Yeah, and that’s a big problem. Those folks are not as accustomed to utilizing technology to help inform their decisions.
Ryssdal: This is perhaps a little bit of field. But there’s an infrastructure part of this as well, right, in that a lot of almost all of this probably counts on connectivity and broadband. And I imagine if you’re out in in wherever you are on the Great Plains connectivity might be bad, you might not have service.
Lin: Yeah, that’s a great point. All of what we’re talking about in terms of agtech relies on having that internet connection, reliable way of streaming the data that you collect. And so connectivity is a major problem on farms that are far flung or not as connected to the internet speeds that people in cities are used to. And so one of the problems that farmers run into is that when they’re driving their equipment over a hill, for instance, you might have connectivity and one side of the hill, but you don’t on the other.
Ryssdal: Not to put a depressing punctuation mark on this conversation, but there are — I honestly can’t remember if it’s 8 or 9 billion people on this planet now — but there are going to be more in the future. And we have to feed them all. And this is part of the way we’re going to do it and adjust to climate change too, by the way.
Lin: Yeah, theoretically, farmers could boost their yields, and that would generate more food to feed the world’s growing and hungry population, and also in a way that they’re using fewer resources. So that’s the promise of it all, but right now it’s falling a bit short.
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