While most Kiwi farmers are keen to adopt digital technologies onfarm, a sizeable minority don’t. Phil Edmonds reports.

New Zealand farmers have a long-held reputation for innovation. But a recently released report shows a large proportion of farmers are not yet convinced by the merits of the latest available, innovative farm technologies.

In September AgritechNZ published a ‘baseline’ report of Digital Adoption in Primary Industries, the purpose of which was to better understand the motivations, pressures and barriers faced by farmers and growers in adopting digital tools.

In many ways the initiative was needed as a way of ‘putting to bed’ common but unscientific stereotypes around why farmers do or do not engage with digital technology in NZ. As chair of AgriTechNZ Bridgit Hawkins identified in the report’s introduction, falling back on stereotypes and generalisations are easy but not helpful when trying to support positive change. It was a necessary step to take to help the fledgling agritech sector understand what it needs to do to most effectively serve farmers.

The top-level findings show 59% of farmers lean towards the adoption of digital technology, with 41% not seeing much value in using it to run their businesses. This latter stat represents a sizable chunk and is higher than outside the primary sector, but not unexpected given knowledge levels are low.

In terms of farmer motivations, there were few surprises identified in the survey (efficiency and ease of use are key determinants). The barriers were also predictable – cost, a reluctance to move from manual systems that still work, and (lack of) proof of return on investment.

But several of the considered conclusions and lessons drawn from the survey of 1000-plus farmers revealed under-recognised truths. These included:

Farmers struggle to see the value in the onfarm data and particularly the value of sharing that data; 77% of farmers would be happy to share data if it benefited them, but the fact that only half of farmers do so indicates the benefits are not widely appreciated.

Use of digital technology is prevalent in farm business management (accounts, payroll etc). But there is lower uptake in operational, onfarm solutions. In fact, farmer investment intentions for the shiny gadgets most often associated with ‘agritech’ is low.

Farmer interest in digital technology is not ultimately determined by farmer age, but farm business stage (whether a farm business is growing/ expanding vs. declining/existing).

On the first lesson, Rezare Systems Farm Systems specialist Graeme Ogle confirms failure to see value in data is driven by a lack of belief in its ability to create practical improvements.

“There’s a huge amount of data that is flowing around and there to be captured, but the data that will have an effect on production is pretty scarce. Too often developers assume their challenge is just to make sure farmers get the ‘value’ a particular solution will create, and the improvements that flow to a farmer’s business from adopting it.”

Rather than trying to convince farmers on the value of a digital innovation, they should recognise farmers are most likely going to view agritech as a cost. When it comes to software, farmers are probably going to see it as having problems, Ogle says. Using it is going to take longer than the system they use and will require a lot more effort to get used to using it. As a result, farmers will attribute a discount to its nominal value, and determine whether it is worth putting their time into this technology.

“If agritech developers ask a farmer if they’d be interested in their new software, what they are actually doing is asking for a big commitment in time.”

Federated Farmers board member and rural connectivity spokesperson Richard McIntyre not only shares concerns on the time cost of adoption but also the ability of those tasked with using new technology to be willing to do so.

“As an employer, the tech we choose to uptake will be determined by our employees’ willingness to use it. There is no point having technology if no one will invest themselves in learning how to use it.”

Any increase in acceptance that farm data holds value will only come when it can be captured efficiently, Richard says.

“Farmers are frustrated having to input data for reporting requirements but unsure how it is used. There are cases where the same data needs to be entered into different software three or four times. Fertiliser applications are a good example of that. Farmers wouldn’t mind sharing data if they could enter it once. The frustration comes from the inefficiency.”

As noted in the baseline report, efficiency is one of the key considerations in adoption.

Part of the still suspicious view of digital technology among a large minority of farmers is that for many, they have started their journey of adoption by coercion. A good example of this has been the emergence of farm environment plans in parts of the country.

“Being confronted with a need to use a digital portal is a massive hurdle for farmers who might have a computer but have only ever used it for email,”

AgFirst consultant Erica van Reenan says. “There haven’t been a lot of resources available to provide education on digital technologies. This contrasts with other countries where governments have proactively subsidised adoption. When this happens, the chances of adoption will be higher.”

The second lesson identified above (business software yes, onfarm gadgets less so) should be no surprise. The baseline report found that where farmers are willing to engage with digital technology is when it has already been ‘de-risked’ by other sectors (desktop-based admin, for example) and where there are people on hand to support its use (accountants, farm advisers etc).

The successful uptake of the latter can be attributed to having a human able to offer advice and service rather than be at the mercy of a list of frequently asked questions to scroll through. Graeme Ogle says farmers are well accustomed to using financial software but that’s because they feel supported doing so. Richard McIntyre makes the same point.

“Farmers are experts on cows and grass. We don’t intimately know how software works; we just want it to work. If the support is not there, it is going to be so much harder to adopt and bring people on the journey.”

To this point it’s easy for developers to forget that farm businesses are generally family businesses that don’t have HR or IT departments that can be called up by dialling 0. If farmers can’t easily troubleshoot problems, then it’s going to struggle to fly. In terms of the relatively modest appeal of shiny gadgets in the field compared to those in the office, there is a sense that the agritech industry has failed because it has focused on ‘disruption’ where the most successful technology advances are about continuity. Ogle says about 1% of technology is about disruption, and about 1% of that succeeds. If you have 100 disruptor innovations in NZ, one might succeed.

Some of the most talked about agritech advances are those that require whole system changes, van Reenan adds. But what has most appeal will be those innovations that can be built into existing systems to make life better – automatic cup removers being a good example, rather than large-scale revolutions, such as shifting your whole operation towards virtual farming.

The other ‘truth’ demystified in the baseline report survey around a farmers’ age determining their interest in agritech points to farmers being far more pragmatic than they are given credit for. Ogle says it’s misleading to think of farmers as laggards. It’s more that agritech is not often top of their minds. When it is, they’ll be open to listening irrespective of age. But not all farmers are in the market.

“In my experience, a large proportion of farmers are busy with other hurdles in their business, such as farm succession, farm maintenance, health issues and so on,” Ogle says. “It’s only when these types of pressing issues are taken care of that farmers will be able to seriously consider the value proposition of new technology.”

All told, there are plenty of good reasons why farmers are cautious about adopting new technology. And the baseline report documents what might be obvious to most – that there remains a disconnect around developers understanding farmers’ motivations. But perhaps we need to accept that the agritech industry has still got its trainer wheels on, and it is unrealistic to expect it to have got everything right. A couple of years ago an Australian AgriFutures report on the challenges and opportunities for effective value proposition design in agtech was published, which (possibly reassuringly) identified many of the issues presented in the AgriTechNZ baseline document. It showed there is nothing unique in NZ farmers’ perceived reluctance to see value in digital technology.

It pointed to inherent challenges in gaining trust when an industry such as agritech is new.

“New industries often experience a flood of new products hitting the market simultaneously, and often in unpolished states, because of the potential commercial rewards that come from being first to market. Also, because of how new the industry is, entrepreneurs entering for the first time lack information about their users.

“Further, they are trying to build never-made and never-seen-before products, rather than incrementally better versions of existing products. Therefore, by definition, there is no knowledge about what makes a product good or bad, or what is desirable.

“Entrepreneurs lack the time and budget to go slowly and carefully to ‘get it right’ on the first try. They deploy products rapidly and adapt based on customer feedback: a ‘get it out and see how it goes’ approach.”

With this in mind, farmers might not have more sympathy for obvious agritech industry failings, but it could recalibrate expectations. The disconnect that farmers see between what an innovation says it does on the box, and how easily it is operationalised effectively represents industry growing pains. A lasting, slightly suffering lesson might be ‘give it time’.