Pulse Beat

2019 AgVocacy Forum in Orlando: Future of Agriculture is in Tech, Innovation

Toban Dyck, Director of Communications, MPSG

SHOULD WE URGE young farmers to pursue an education in agriculture? Or, does that thinking need to better reflect a changing ag sector? If the answer was clear to me before, it certainly isn’t now.

A young dairy farmer from Wisconsin pursued an education in computer programming and is now creating software and building apps that has allowed his family’s farm to do things a previous generation wouldn’t have thought possible.

To advocate is to advocate. Full stop. But, apparently, to advocate on behalf of the agricultural sector is to agvocate. I’ve always had trouble with this one. The word doesn’t roll off the tongue and it comes across as suspiciously crafted— as if part of a larger corporate messaging campaign.

I’m biased toward using words in the dictionary, but, that said, the intentions behind the term agvocacy seem good. And you and I both know agriculture needs strong advocates. So, let’s agvocate!

In February, Bayer CropScience flew me to Orlando, Florida to take in their annual AgVocacy Forum. The event, which is routinely scheduled immediately ahead of the Commodity Classic, brought together ag media from across the U.S. and Canada for a day and a half of talks and panel discussions from people across the agricultural production spectrum. It’s easy to forget how large this spectrum is.

And if the sector as a whole feels it needs strong champions, it’s important to be exposed to just how much diversity is captured by the word ‘agriculture.’ Hint: there’s a lot of diversity in our sector. And it’s wonderful. Produce was represented. Vertical farming was represented. Beef and dairy, too.

But, ultimately, technology ruled the day. There was talk of public trust. There was talk of trade and some subtle jabs at the leader many accuse of casting the first stone that set this whole disruption off. But, mostly, the forum was about technology.

The event was hosted by Clinton Griffiths, anchor at AgDay, and award-winning Canadian journalist Sheila MacVicar.

Dan Basse, president of AgResource, was one of the event’s opening speakers. Basse, citing a recent and troublesome trend of decreasing farm revenue, spoke about the need for there to be a demand driver in agriculture, similar to what biofuels were for the U.S. between 2007 and 2014.

Using an equation that considers population and median income growth, Basse predicts that China and India will drive global demand. The higher the income, the more calories they will require. And both China and India’s trajectories are pointing up in both categories.

He also addressed the elephant in the room, referring to U.S. President Donald Trump’s relationship with China as a “skirmish.” He said this with a subtle, nearly undetectable smirk. I saw it.

“I have to admit. I’m a free trader,” said Basse. “I believe free trade has done a lot for the world. We need to bring more people into the middle class through free trade.”

According to information Basse presented, the number of people living in extreme poverty has dropped considerably since global tariff and trade agreements evolved after WWII.

Basse’s statistics were then taken up by the next speaker, University of Delaware economics professor Dr. Brandon McFadden, who added elements of his own research to reach the conclusion that “The challenge for ag producers is to find ways to add value; move from a homogeneous product to a differentiated product while pleasing the downstream pressures of manufacturers, retailers and consumers.”

McFadden said that meeting this demand will be a challenge, as consumers are looking for convenience, though, he argued and this was repeated throughout the forum, they want taste first, then price, then nutrition.

Vonnie Estes is the vice president of technology at the Produce Marketing Association. She took the stage early on day one. “In 2017, Amazon sold $2B USD in grocery products online in the U.S., up 59 percent year over year. Digital shopping will reach saturation faster than other industries.”

According to Estes, the produce market in the U.S. is in need of rethink. Producers need to find ways to implement more technology in their operations, reducing their dependency on a shrinking labour pool and increasing quality and yield.

Estes believes and her data showed that more consumers are buying their food online. Amazon has begun implementing a two- hour grocery delivery service in some test markets. According to Estes, farmers need to be equipped to service this demand.

“What would you say the most important thing is for consumers of the products that they buy?” asked Lynn Dornblaser, the director of innovation and insight at Mintel, a global market research firm. “It has to taste good. In the end, no matter what it is, it’s taste that drives consumer choice. “

According to Mintel research, 62 percent of U.S. consumers say that “the fewer ingredients a product has, the healthier it is;” 44 percent say a general online search is a good way to get health information (53 percent for GenZ consumers); 44 percent eat gluten free for general health— 25 percent because someone they know eats gluten free; and 35 percent believe GMOs are unhealthy.

The data Dornblaser and Estes presented helped paint a full and intriguing picture of what drives today’s consumer.

Carl Lippert is today’s consumer and represents a new generation of agricultural producer. His story is fascinating. He is farmer 2.0. Lippert is the co-owner of Grass Ridge Farm in Wisconsin, and co-founder of the app FeedX. Lippert returned to the family farm as a software developer. He sees skills such as his as paramount to farming and agriculture, in general.

“We need to get away from the red barn romantic stereotype of farming,” Lippert said. “The opportunities aren’t in that. Because that’s not going to exist. The opportunities are in building all the tools and the tertiary businesses that help out with agriculture. It might mean not actually starting your own farm, because that’s hard and I couldn’t in good heart recommend that someone go start a farm today.

“I think that the opportunities in robotics and artificial intelligence, we might have some of the coolest jobs available on the planet coming up. There are a whole bunch of people who care more about the environment; they care more about feeling valuable. Robotics is the opportunity for these people. Ag needs to flex this muscle.”

Lippert was able to develop software tools that aggregated many of the data collection points on his farm onto one interface, or, app. This allowed Grass Ridge Farm to better interpret and implement the information their many devices were collecting.

There were many more speakers than what I’ve referenced here. And they were all interesting.

The veins that connect farmers and those of us working in the industry to a global marketplace are the same once that tie us together domestically. The fruit and vegetable farmers are feeding the world, just like we are. I get the impression that we’d be wise to take their struggles and the struggles of the entire agricultural network seriously.

This event is an important one. It reminded me and everyone else in the room that agriculture changes at a rapid pace. AgVocacy 2018 was very different. While tech was a topic, it was less about the kind of data consolidation that Lippert is doing and more about the seemingly infinite ways the ag sector is able to collect information. It makes sense that the focus would shift to data aggregation and interpretation.

I won’t say don’t pursue an education in agriculture. And no one at the forum would say that, either. But there is clear value in at least acknowledging the role technology plays in the agricultural sector, as well as the role it could play in bridging the gap between consumers and farmers.