How 2020 Shaped the Future of Ag Tech
In a year filled with unprecedented challenges, I was continually reminded of the resiliency and adaptability of those responsible for putting food on tables around the world. Farmers are no strangers to getting through tough times, but watching them rise to the challenges 2020 presented further inspired and humbled me and the entire Granular team. Playing a role in helping farming families navigate these challenges and giving them the tools they need to continue to grow and thrive is incredibly motivating and rewarding for our team.
From new ways of connecting with farmers, to creating true value from data, to maximizing what farmers get out of sustainability efforts, here are three ways I see that ag tech helped overcome challenges in 2020 and what they mean for the future.
1. COVID makes virtual a reality
The assumption that meeting in person is the best and only way to do business with farmers was turned on its head in 2020. Initially driven by necessity due to COVID-19 restrictions, the appetite for connecting virtually remained, even after government and private industry relaxed those restrictions. This held true for parties on all sides of the table—farmers, advisors and suppliers—as we realized we could get just as much accomplished through technology, over Zoom and the phone as we could in the field.
According to a farmer study conducted by McKinsey & Company in April 2020, farmers rapidly adapted not only to COVID-19, but their preference for digital interactions increased significantly from 2018 to 2020. In fact, the survey showed a 50% increase in preference for digital interactions over in-person or phone when it comes to evaluating a new supplier, and over a 100% increase in digital preference when it comes to requesting a proposal. COVID-19 was an accelerant of the digitization of agriculture. It was happening, but at a fairly slow pace. The pandemic simply put digitization on a different trajectory that we think is here to stay, and the aforementioned study affirms that.
At its core, Granular was founded with the vision that the future of agriculture would be driven by digitization of the farm. Farming has been an on-the-go business for decades, and being connected with the ability to run an operation from anywhere is imperative as farms get larger and more complex and farmers are being asked to grow more with less. In February 2020, we launched Granular Insights, a free, easy-to-use digital tool to help farmers get a clearer view of what drives their farm’s profit, down to field and sub-field level. Since the launch, more than 15,000 U.S. farmers adopted the tool, confirming that farmers are not only ready to add digital solutions to their operation, but are also eager to make use of their data, not just in pretty yield maps, but to really improve their bottom line.
Our customers had a bit of a head start and less disruption on their operation when the pandemic hit compared to others who hadn’t adopted technology on their operation. They were able to leverage our software to connect the work in the field to the work in the office, to collaborate virtually with their trusted advisors to plan the year, identify and treat issues in season and complete post-season analysis. While our customers were attuned to making important decisions for their business with less in-person interaction because they were already using digital tools to connect and analyze their on-farm data, the onset of COVID-19 and the precautions that so many took as a result definitely expedited others’ adoption and comfort level with technology. And we expect that to continue. In a 2020 study led by Corteva Agriscience, nearly 50% of farms who don’t use digital today plan to incorporate it into their operations in the next three years. This farmer awareness and commitment to digital progress is exciting and sets expectations high for our team.
As we look toward 2021 and beyond, we know building relationships and getting to know customers, to some degree, will always be easier in person than virtually, and the act of farming is fundamentally tied to a physical place. So, while there is no substitute for that in-person interaction in our industry, we’ve learned there is a lot more that can be done virtually than we previously assumed.
2. Predictive analytics add certainty to uncertain times
As humans, we had to grapple with extraordinary uncertainty in 2020, much of which was out of our control. While managing uncertainty is nothing new to farmers, using technology to help them make more informed decisions about the things they can control proved to be a win-win for both their business and their mental health.
During the late stages of the growing season, as farmers were turning their attention toward harvest, predictive analytics and yield calculation in Granular Insights helped them make decisions regarding harvest timing, grain marketing and plans for next year’s crop.
That’s not to say analytics can do everything. Far from it. Farming has always been, and will continue to be, a team sport. Technology will never replace the need for trusted advisors, but will allow for more efficient, valuable interactions between farmers and the other members of their teams.
As an industry, agriculture has made major strides in data collection and analysis, but the next frontier for ag tech companies is in predictive analytics like these that offer insights that are only possible with computer models, helping maximize the value farmers get out of their data and strengthening the collaboration with their advisors. This is where Granular will focus significant efforts in 2021 and beyond.
3. It’s time that sustainability meets profitability
In a year when farmers were forced to do more with less, they had to employ ruthless prioritization to ensure their time and energy were well spent. Even efforts around sustainability, a core value for the majority of farmers and the agriculture industry in general, were not immune to being put under a microscope.
For sustainability efforts to have a true impact on farmer profitability, from carbon sequestration to nitrogen management to water conservation practices, transparency is the key to unlock outcomes. And data, data management and advanced predictive analytics will be how farmers show the needed transparency and capture profits.
In 2020, farmers used the nitrogen management solution within Granular Agronomy to hit their yield targets without over-applying, simultaneously helping the environment and their bottom lines. On top of improved ROI from more efficient use of nitrogen, farmers in Ohio, for example, worked with third-party certified services agents (CSAs) to earn additional financial rewards for better phosphorus runoff management through public programs such as H2Ohio, adding even more value to their efforts.
Granular will continue to seek out new ways of leveraging data to turn insight into action and support farmers’ innate desire to keep their land healthy for generations to come.
As we look toward 2021 as an agriculture industry, one thing is certain: farmers will continue to do what they’ve done for generations. The role of technology isn’t to swoop in from on high and tell farmers how to farm. They’re the experts in that arena. Technology’s role is to enable farmers to make more informed decisions, give them tools to run their businesses more efficiently and profitably, and empower them to farm to the best of their abilities.
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