I recently had the opportunity to mentor a group of students from Olds College, an agricultural college around 100kms out of Calgary, Canada. With a mission to ‘transform agriculture for a better world’ Olds College launched their Smart Farm in 2018 - reshaping the existing on-campus farm into a ‘farm of the future’. This future-orientation means a focus on implementing and assessing commercially available ‘smart’ connected products, and educating students as well as the general public on the impacts and outcomes of the technologies.
Over the past year AgriDigital had discussed with Olds College how we could work together to improve digital skills across the agricultural industry and specifically farmers. Whilst COVID-19 has presented some challenges to this plan, the opportunity to mentor students was a practical way we could support the efforts of the College as well as learn ourselves.
In late 2019, I was buddied up with three third year students: Martie Blatz, Travis Hunter and Trevor Nyenkamp. Martie, Travis and Trevor were researching how blockchain technology was or should be used in agriculture. At AgriDigital we’ve been working and experimenting with blockchain since 2015. In 2016 and 2017, we completed three blockchain pilots:
These pilots and our wider investigation of blockchain has resulted in the launch of blockchain platform Geora. Geora enables blockchain to be brought to a wider community of users in agriculture beyond the grain supply chains we focus on at AgriDigital.
In the end, Martie, Travis and Trevor focused their research project on the value farmers see in the use of blockchain and how that value is best achieved as part of the digital toolkit that farmers are implementing across their operations.
Agriculture has been fertile ground for science and technology for decades but the impact of digital is still in its early days. On one hand, agriculture is one of the last frontiers to ‘go digital’ and on the other, agtech is a booming industry, with the global market set to reach $22 billion by 2025. At AgriDigital we are at the forefront of digitization in the grains industry and as a farmer myself I can see the value that technology brings to farming but what I was hoping to explore with the Olds research project was about how blockchain specifically was understood, where would it bring the most value and how can we work with our customers to make this value a reality.
In the early stages of the research project, I caught up weekly (virtually, of course) with Martie, Travis and Trevor as they worked on defining their research focus. They then completed an extensive literature review on the use of blockchain in agriculture and other industries and lessons learned around the barriers to adoption. Following this, the students sent an online survey to around 200+ grain and livestock farmers. Some longer form in-person interviews were also conducted so the students could obtain more qualitative data and dig deeper into the survey responses.
Key project findings - the AgriDigital perspective
When Martie, Travis and Trevor presented their findings to the team at AgriDigital there were four that stood out.
1. The industry is (fairly) tech savvy
Almost half (45%) of the respondents said they were aware of blockchain and its use in supply chains and nearly 60% were already utilising some sort of farm business management software. There was an understanding of the need for data collection and analysis as well as the value of digitization of farming operations.
2. Supply chain traceability continues to gain pace
Increasingly, consumers want to know where their food comes from, which is where the survey respondents saw the greatest value for blockchain. Supply chains that can provide food traceability to consumers enable producers to charge premium prices. 84% of respondents saw the potential for marketing benefits from validated traceability of their produce and their supply chains.
3. Product choice is focussed on efficiency and ROI
81% of the survey group stated they’d previously declined digital technologies or products for their business. The major concerns were efficiency and return on investment. This makes perfect sense - technology should simplify and streamline operations, not add to a user’s already busy workload. Agtech also needs to deliver insights or operational results that were practically impossible or very costly to achieve beforehand.
4. Customer support is crucial and drives the experience
Despite being reasonably tech savvy, one of the biggest concerns amongst farmers was being left in the deep end with a product that was difficult to use and without the support to get the best out it. Farmers want to be supported not merely ‘sold to’ as they work their way through the process of identifying, evaluating, purchasing, implementing and scaling technology across their operations. Understanding and creating confidence across all stages of the customer journey is the goal, not just for the farmer but for their entire operational team.
At AgriDigital we are focused on building a grain supply chain platform that enables farmers, traders, elevators, brokers and more to digitise, optimise and grow their businesses. After three years of product in market we know first hand that customer and technical support is crucial. We have not always got this right; and this has led us to invest more heavily in defining the ultimate customer experience we want to deliver all our customers as a win-win strategy for everyone. At a recent company Town Hall, our CX Lead reminded us that 50% of a purchasing decision is made on experience (34% on product and 16% on price). An AgriDigital customer’s journey begins the moment they engage with us, for example via our website, a sales call, social media, digital and traditional media and advertising, at conference and trade shows, reading an article or a blog(!); or in the case of farmers, subscribing directly to our farmer app Waypath. From wherever that starting point is we then double-down on ensuring that from that the experience is a joy and is valuable.
My mentorship has come to an end but Martie, Travis and Trevor are just getting started. All three of them are working in the agricultural sector and are part of an upcoming group of future leaders who bring their experience as digital natives to an industry that is adopting digital at an accelerated pace. Their research project gave us deeper insights into the evolving technology landscape in agriculture and the expectations of farmer customers. There were clear areas of consensus, such as that farming and supply chains must continue to evolve to ensure profitability and to meet the needs of consumers which are largely focused on accessibility and traceability. There was a clear understanding that blockchain can be part of the solution. But ultimately it's not about the technology, or even the product - it’s all about the end to end customer experience. Technology ends up ubiquitous or outdated and whilst product can be a competitive advantage initially, it is customer experience that is the constant differentiator.
Author’s note: I thoroughly enjoyed mentoring Martie, Travis and Trevor and wish them all the best with their future endeavours. At AgriDigital, we look forward to working with Olds College and other similar skills and learning institutions in the future. In an exciting side note, Olds College have just announced their latest Smart Farm initiative - Barley Trail. Barley Trail is a fully traceable lager, packaged with a QR code that once scanned from a mobile device provides consumers with a complete storyline of its journey from growing barley in the field to processing it at a local facility through to the final product being brewed and packaged at the on campus Olds College Brewery. Read more information about the project here