Busting the “Fire from the Natives” Myth

modern farmer

When Rob first came to me with the concept of a hub to foster tech-based solutions for farmers, to say I was skeptical is a polite understatement. To say I was cynical is even more polite! 

Imagining my local olive farmer using an iPhone to ascertain the needs of far off olive orchards based on real-time microclimate data seemed a technological idealist’s fantasy. Further, imagining an app developer honestly caring about the nitrogen input onto a farmer’s fields seemed equally as unlikely and, to be frank, appeared as another money-making ploy off a farmer’s hard work.

Somewhere in me I hold a picture of a farmer as a live-by-the-sun reactionary, uninterested in the technology of today, and tech developers as profit-driven and misinformed on what it really takes to foster sustainable food systems.

My prejudices were revealed to me within minutes of the “Food IT: Soil to Fork” Conference in late June.

“Farmers are price takers, not price makers,” was a redundant theme throughout the “What are Farmers Data Needs?” panel. Dewey Holliday of Mercer Canyons Inc. stated that if a given technological innovation could save him 1 cent, even if the intervening entrepreneur made 99 cents for that one cent, it would be a good day for Mercer Canyons. My categorization, which I believe is shared with much of society, of small farmers as conservative, technology-averse, and skeptical did not hold as expected.

Farmers have been technology mavens since day one. Secondary to fire, agriculture arguably stands as the most evolution-altering technology humans have ever developed. To assume that because current day technological innovation involves megabytes and LED screens means an uninterested farmer is a backwards prejudice that might just endanger our ability to feed ourselves in the 21st century.

Microclimate data from far-off fields may very likely never replace a farmer’s intuitive knowledge of the health of his crops based on smell of the land and feel of the soil. However, this type of data can certainly save a farmer time–time that is needed to ultimately secure the future of that farmer in his invaluable role as steward of the land.

My take-home message from the conference? Building farm and agriculture IT innovation is going to take a lot of open communication, the same species of communication abounding through the conference halls.

Technological innovators cannot simply approach farmers and sell them on their programming because for programming to be truly effective and trusted, it must be developed in partnership with farmers. Farmers must know that technological innovators have their best interest in mind, a relationship that will take clear and honest communication to establish. A premier example of this type of work is by Alvaro Ramirez of eHarvestHub.

Alvaro has responded to growing retailer case labeling and food traceability requirements by offering food traceability technology to mid-to-small growers for free. The uniqueness of eHarvesthub is their positioning as a technology partner to growers. Alvaro has open, trusting relationships with his customers, and understands fully that his results must be proven before any buy-in. Developing this type of technology takes two-sided and open relationships with farmers.

The reason that technological innovation may be most suited for the agricultural realm, even over the car industry or fashion, is because of the technologically savvy spirit of the farmer. Innovators at heart, farmers are not to be fooled. They are aware of every penny entering and exiting their fields, are constantly inventing new systems to increase farm productivity, and therefore will not be keen to adopt a technology that wastes time nor money.

As David Termondt of Puresense stated during the Farmer’s Data Needs panel, “There have been a lot of salespeople who have gone into the farming community…with the attitude of ‘We are bringing fire to the natives, I will be worshipped as a god’. Disrespecting your customer base never really works well.”

A comprehensive platform for farm management cannot be created without data from farmers. The role the farmer plays is integral to program success. Ask Christine Su, of start-up Summer Technologies who has revised her cattle ranching app multiple times through partnerships with cattle ranchers throughout our region.

Take-home advice to anyone developing farm tech is the same advice resounding throughout the local food movement… get to know your farmer!