Focused debates, audiences taking notes and raising questions – these were the sounds and sights at Crop Science’s headquarters in Monheim during Bayer’s Future of Farming Dialog 2017. The location, Bayer’s Tropicarium palm house, was filled to capacity. Up to 200 global participants ranging from farmers, scientists, entrepreneurs, journalists and nutrition experts accepted the invitation to exchange ideas about the future of agriculture.
Dialogue to Thrive
The invited panelists discussed a variety of topics, whether it was building consumer trust, the importance of innovation or the need for sustainability. As importantly, the Future of Farming Dialog 2017 provided a platform to exchange diverse agricultural perspectives. In his opening speech, Liam Condon highlighted the importance of this collaborative spirit to his guests: “Food is an emotional topic, and agriculture requires a variety of stakeholders to foster the innovations that will shape the future of farming.”
Four of the panelists – two farmers, one entrepreneur and one nutrition expert – share their observations about what’s happening in agriculture and give direct talk about the challenges that need to be addressed.
Maintaining discussions with consumers
“Maintaining open dialogue with consumers is a priority,” says Marcus Holtkoetter, a farmer from the Muensterland area of northwest Germany. For Holtkoetter, who has been passionate about agriculture since childhood, farming is a calling. To do this work best, he regularly engages with the public to answer their questions – and to provide them with accurate knowledge about farming.
Holtkoetter says the public often has misconceptions. “Many consumers don’t know about the basics of agriculture, such as the amount of crop protection used within a field. This can lead to public prejudice against farming.” Through his social media platform ‘Frag den Landwirt’ (Ask the Farmer), Holtkoetter discusses the public’s questions and provides them with information. “We started this because we often receive private messages and questions after publishing general social media posts. We realized that we needed to clarify the basics of agriculture, such as the purpose of crop protection products.” This first-hand communication pays off, he says. “We communicate directly and honestly. Many followers tell us they’re glad we provided information and the reasons behind our work. That’s our main goal: Engaging in dialogue to earn the public’s understanding of our actual farming practices.” To make this communication happen, Holtkoetter respects the public’s questions and their concerns. “We can’t make everybody like what we’re doing, but we still seem to make most people feel like our work is not so mysterious and certainly not ‘dangerous.’ We can support them in understanding why we are using crop protection products, for example.”
That’s our main goal: engaging in dialogue to earn the public’s understanding of our actual farming practices.
Supporting consumers’ food choices
Retail dietitian and nutrition expert Karen Buch also aims for transparent communication with the public. “My goal is to educate people about food choices that can help them feed their families nutritiously.” While working as a director for a US-based regional grocery retail chain, Buch helped create programs and services to guide consumer decision-making about food right at the point of purchase. “By teaching consumers about food, farming practices and production, consumers gain a better understanding of where their food comes from.” Through her consumer interactions, Buch regularly notices misconceptions: “For example, people may have a perception that no form of crop protection products has been used in organic food, but this is simply not true,” she says. “My role in the food supply chain is to add clarity, not confusion, regarding food and to amplify food truths while dispelling food myths.” Buch also sees a chance for farmers to counter these misconceptions with transparent communication. “The more that the farmers can tell the story, and the more their story is known, the better informed consumers will be. Then, misconceptions will not drive food choices.”
My goal is to educate people about food choices that can help them feed their families nutritiously.
Data and tech talk
As important it is for farmers to communicate with consumers, they should also engage in dialogue with tech experts to develop their agribusiness, stresses panelist Allison Kopf, a young start-up entrepreneur. “Farmers need a baseline of technological knowledge: what’s happening on the innovation scale, and what technology is working to have a real return on investment. And technology companies need to know from farmers and the agricultural industry what’s needed,” she says. “I believe that we have a really exciting opportunity for our future food system that involves people who are not just farmers but dietitians and tech experts and scientists are really all encompassing the food system.”
Kopf speaks from first-hand experience. Awarded the 2016 Changemaker of the Year by the Association of Vertical Farming and Entrepreneur of the Year by the technology news organization Technical.ly Brooklyn, she is the CEO of Agrilyst, a management and analytics platform for indoor farm based in Brooklyn, New York, and founded in 2015. On a fundamental level, says Kopf, farmers need to optimize data analysis in order to reach and maintain profitability. “Many farmers operate on narrow margins. It can take seven years for new farmers to become profitable, but data helps them reach profitability in one to two years, which means more of them can continue this valuable work.”
Data is also crucial, Kopf continues, to maximize profitability. “If farmers aren’t using ten percent of available space, that could equal anything from tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost revenue,” she says. “Understanding how to best use their available space can make a crucial difference in the ability to stay in business.”
On a fundamental level, farmers need to optimize data analysis in order to reach and maintain profitability.
Data and tech talk
She also says there is a clear message: Farming has gone past the point of making data optional. “Any company that doesn’t have a data strategy will lose. Farmers need data strategies to react faster, to improve their crops and increase their profitability.” For example, says Kopf, farmers need to know of consumers’ needs, nutrition and behavior. “The data stream of who these people are and how they are consuming food helps farmers to adjust their crops and their crop cycles. Then it affects the input stream of farmers as well. They can address what and how they are growing crops, at what prices the crops are selling at and what they are able to supply.”
The preconditions for digital farming
Another panelist convinced about digital farming’s importance is third-generation farmer Marco Parzianello. His company, Parzianello Agro, based in Sorriso, Mato Grosso, Brazil, grows 11,000 hectares of grains and 10,000 hectares of eucalyptus. Freshly graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in agriculture and consumer economics from the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, Parzianello is committed to developing his business by using new technology. “Digital farming tools would allow me to farm more precisely, which would provide more planning security,” he says. However, before these tools can be established in Brazil, another challenge must be addressed, he adds. “In contrast to many developed countries, our big problem here is connectivity. Not all of the farms in Brazil have access to the internet yet.” Just as Brazil’s digital infrastructure must be developed in general, so must its physical infrastructure. “Many roads are unfinished. This means logistics gets affected, which leads to wasted crops.”
Some of the countries represented here, such as the US and Germany, are digital farming pioneers.
Still, for Parzianello, the Future of Farming Dialog is an important opportunity for knowledge exchange about digital farming’s potential and its challenges. ”Some of the countries represented here, such as the US and Germany, are digital farming pioneers,” he says. “It’s invaluable to learn about their digital farming applications, knowing I might apply them at my own farm one day.” Parzianello stresses that it’s essential to overcome the current technical restrictions in his country. “We need an intense information exchange with providers who might support farmers, so we can use digital technologies that could work in, and around, existing infrastructure problems.”
Ultimately, the 2017 Dialog panelists showed that sharing insights and explaining how agriculture works will develop knowledge and trust all along the food chain. As Allison Kopf observes, “All in all, there’s so much opportunity for innovation along the entire agricultural system, from consumer down to producer, and vice-versa.” Driving this innovation is a lot easier when different experts in agriculture look for collaboration and direct communication.