‘This is agtech, not tech-ag’. Is the industry still ignoring the needs of farmers?

By Oliver Morrison

- Last updated on GMT

Image: Getty/FluxFactory
Image: Getty/FluxFactory

Related tags farmer adoption

The term 'disconnect' frequently arises in agtech. How can the industry bridge the gap between technology and on-ground farm realities to retain long-term trust with growers?

Is agtech ignoring farmers? The industry would argue it recognises the importance of farmer adoption and is actively working to address the needs and concerns of growers​ in its attempts to increase efficiency and sustainability in agriculture.  

But the sector is often accused of failing to consider how technology is being developed and deployed by those who actually use it.

For example, the pushback from farmers to efforts to improve farm sustainability in Europe was highlighted in PitchBook’s latest report, which revealed agtech investment​ dropped to a near five-year low in the first quarter of this year. “It is unclear if the EU has a plan to address the economic challenges of transitioning farms to more sustainable practices,” it said.

Some scientists have even argued that if agtech is not designed with inclusive input from farmers, it risks ignoring the complexities of labour inputs and potentially sustaining exploitation of disadvantaged farming communities​.  

Agtech: an elitist echo chamber?

The problem of a disconnect between those offering and using the solutions on-ground was debated at the recent World Agri-Tech Innovation Summit. 

In apanel discussion on the topic of dipping investment in the sector​, Vipula Shukla from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation suggested that the worlds of venture capital and farming will always clash owing to the vastly different timescales they operate in. “I think there is a fundamental disconnect in timelines between expectations in the venture model versus the patience that’s required for both technology development and technology market penetration and scaling in agriculture,” she said.

“The expectations of short-term return, which is endemic in many venture models – is not consistent with agriculture.”

Another telling moment came when Niall Mottram from Cambridge Consultants​ asked a packed audience for a show of hands from those who attended Agritechnica, the agricultural machinery trade fair. Only a few were raised.

‘If you don’t have a farmer in your company leadership, go get one’

The agtech industry definitely needs to bridge the divide with farmers, believes Tim Bucher, a serial, ex-Apple, ex-Microsoft entrepreneur who has worked in technology for over 30 years. He is currently CEO at Agtonomy, which is developing advanced autonomous and AI-powered solutions to help farmers address challenges through integrated hardware, software, and services.

He is also a lifelong farmer. “Remember this industry is agtech not tech-ag,” he tells AgTechNavigator​. Too many startups make the mistake of putting the tech before the ag, he said. “One of the first thing I advise my colleagues at agtech startups is if they don’t have a farmer in their company leadership, go get one.”

By way of example, Agtonomy wasn’t founded to build robotic tractors, the California-based tech and farming expert explained. It was instead founded as a software company to embed autonomous ‘smarts’ into equipment manufacturers’ tractors and implements, thereby accelerating the digital transformation of the brand-name machines farmers already buy and trust.

Copy of Copy of Agtonomy Fleet in Vineyard
Agtonomy is a California-based software, services, and technology company that is enabling autonomy in agriculture to solve pressing problems such as labour scarcity, climate change, and shrinking profit margins for farmers.

The company embeds autonomous capabilities into existing tractors and implements from established manufacturers. This approach, Bucher argues, accelerates the digital transformation of trusted brand-name machines farmers already rely on.

“The decision stems from firsthand farming experience; as a farmer, I questioned whether I would purchase autonomous equipment from an unfamiliar start-up. Farmers prioritise dealers they've long partnered with, with established supply chains and service centers catering to their needs. Such insights are often overlooked in start-up 'echo chambers' lacking farmer leadership.”

“I believe the gap is often between tech developers and farming realities. Start-ups need growers' input day one. At Agtonomy, my farming background provided an edge, using my farm for initial testing. However, our on-farm pilot programmes expanded our reach, gathering feedback from multiple operations. This real-time, in-season feedback from growers is crucial for refining technology and building trust in agtech solutions.”

More inclusive design and deployment of agtech is therefore needed to ensure it benefits all farmers, agrees Bucher.

“Despite complaints about farmers' reluctance to adopt new technology, many start-ups, like Agtonomy, have found success when offering technology that growers want to use. Growers are willing to invest if the value is clear, even during the prototype stage.” For example, Agtonomy's paid pilot programme, launched in 2023, was highly successful, leading to a significant expansion this year. Currently, Agtonomy-enabled tractors and implements are deployed in fields belonging to major growers such as Gallo and Treasury Wine Estates.

Let's remember there are alternatives to VC funding’

He also thinks the industry should stop worrying about dipping investment. Start-ups should instead focus on finding strategic partnerships. More collaboration, he suggests, equals more companies with better solutions for the farmers who use them. “At the World-Agri-Tech Innovation Summit I spoke extensively with founders, primarily in the start-up realm,” he explained. “Raising capital emerged as their main challenge. Some couldn't persuade VCs to invest, while others faced high revenue requirements before securing funding. But why would a start-up need investment if it's already generating substantial revenue?

Copy of Tim Bucher
‘Too many startups make the mistake of putting the tech before the ag’: Agtonomy CEO Tim Bucher

“Start-ups are indeed frustrated, but let's remember that there are alternatives to VC funding. Strategic partnerships, for instance, offer a significant avenue. In agtech, innovation is crucial for major companies' survival, yet they often lack access to the required level of innovation. For instance, top OEMs focus on connected 'smart' equipment in robotics but lack expertise in AI, machine learning, and computer engineering. Agtonomy fills this gap as a partner. Biological start-ups can partner with major chemical input companies, while those focusing on preventing livestock disease can collaborate with animal health pharmaceutical companies.

“Ultimately, my takeaway is that agtech is absolutely needed. Start-ups just need to be creative and smart about bridging the gap between value creation and scale.”

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