We are pleased to have Drew Slattery publish his article on Dirt to Dinner. Drew is the Human Dimensions of Change Lead for Farm Journal’s Trust In Food, where he applies human dimensions theory to empower agricultural producers in the U.S. to continuously improve their operations’ environmental, financial, and social outcomes.
A lack of transparency into food production is one of the fastest-rising concerns among U.S. consumers. Plenty of people want to know they are buying food products that were ethically and sustainably produced – and for good reason. General Mills, Walmart, and McDonald’s are just a few of those companies whose sustainability reports are showing transparency in their supply chains.
But building this transparency from grocery store shelf to farmgate isn’t as easy as it sounds.
What you might not realize is that asking farmers for data about how they produce their harvest is akin to asking someone to show you their family’s detailed medical records. Would you be comfortable if your friends and neighbors had access to a detailed report on your health? Even if farmers are willing to open their record books, the supply chain systems that rely on agricultural products are incredibly complex, and that data can be lost along the way.
Enter: Agriculture’s digital transition.
By collecting data each season through digital tools and managing that data through a software platform, farmers are helping make transparency easier for the supply chain to achieve, all while improving the efficiency of the decision-making processes for their operation.
The companies involved are significant. As an example, Project Mineral, formerly Google X, has a robotic buggy that roams the fields capturing data to enhance farm productivity.
And John Deere has a field-sharing data management system to fully integrate equipment used for tilling, planting, and harvest.
And then there is Descartes Labs which has geospacing technology that consolidates information such as crop yields in certain parts of a country. And this is a very short list of companies in an ever-expanding industry.
Balancing Transparency With Privacy
Privacy is a major concern for the American farmer – and really, for the vast majority of all Americans. In Trust In Food’s most recent survey of farmer perspectives on this topic, 73% of respondents said they don’t trust private companies with data on their farm’s production while 58% don’t trust the government with this data.
Those perspectives closely mirror average Americans’ data concerns – in a 2019 study, for example, 79% of Americans expressed concerns over how companies use their data, while 64% expressed concern over government use of data.
In many farmers’ eyes, the details of how they manage the production on their farms is private. Trust In Food’s research has shown that in certain cases, up to half of producers don’t think consumers and supply chain actors have a right to know how their farm products were managed.
For many farmers, this data represents proprietary business plans and trade secrets. In the Midwest where the farmland market is incredibly competitive, there have been reports of farmers who implement regenerative soil health practices yet have their land scooped up by others who want to benefit from their years of work to build soil health. So for many farmers, it feels safer to keep their cards close, especially if they have good things to share.
Challenges Abound With Agriculture’s Digital Transition
More than half of the farmers we surveyed this year (62%) said that they don’t use a digital (software) platform to manage their farm’s production data.
Put another way, only about 38% of those we surveyed are able to consider providing the transparency the food supply chain requires in today’s connected world.
Without digital collection and management of farm-level data, there is no way for the supply chain to provide transparency for the final product consumers purchase.
In addition, many farmers could be missing out on insights available to them through a digital platform. Although this is an incredibly complex environment for farm businesses to operate within, here are three of the key drivers that might explain why farmers aren’t using digital tools more universally, based on our research:
- The cost associated with setup is too high, especially since there is not always a guarantee of a return on investment for farmers. Oftentimes, these data and insights don’t provide farmers with any benefit, such as a financial premium for providing greater transparency into the food products they grow or raise. Instead, organizations downstream in the supply chain reap the benefit.
- It is a technically complex process, and many farmers lack the training and understanding to do it alone.-At the same time, the support network of advisers and service providers to help farmers transition to regenerative practices using software systems to capture data illustrating that transition, is limited as well.
- Trust is a challenge. Farmers don’t want to see their detailed production data fall into the hands of groups they don’t trust.
Patience Is A Virtue
What does all this mean? Consumers are pushing for more detailed transparency into on-farm production, and as a society, we are transitioning by focusing our buying power more and more on sustainable products. Yet the data bridge onto the farm remains hard to cross. In a way, we can’t blame them. Going back to the example of sharing your medical data – how farmers farm is as personal to them as sharing our cardiovascular report would be to our community.
The encouraging news for the public and for farmers is that many producers are embracing digital ag and rushing into the future because they are in agriculture and food for the long term. They see a future in which incentives will shift and farmers will indeed be rewarded for their stewardship and transparency into farming practices, in a responsible, safe and privacy-protected way. Additionally, many organizations are working to support them, ensuring farmers don’t bear all of the costs for outcomes that benefit our environment and society at large.