Technology isn’t just a young man’s game, particularly in agriculture.
Farming technology has evolved drastically over the years, with GPS and autosteer and now drones that can fly over a field and identify problem spots.
As technology has changed, the ag workforce largely hasn’t. Farmer ages continue to rise. Farmers have needed to learn new practices over the years, and Laura Bleill said companies are trying to make it as easy as possible.
“It’s an important consideration to think about who is using these products,” said Bleill, director of external engagement and communications with the University of Illinois Research Park. “User experience has become a much more important detail, when it might have been an afterthought in the past.”
She said there are many startups that focus on who their customers are, rather than the end goal, and know that to be successful, there has to be buy in.
“They aren’t just thinking about if it’s a cool feature or technology,” Bleill said. “It may be cool, but if nobody adopts it, you will fail.”
Bleill said many of the people developing these new technologies aren’t just “young people in hoodies.”
“Graduate students aren’t all just 22-year olds,” she said. “A lot of them are 35 or coming back to a second career. It really has to be an intergenerational approach to innovation. A lot of people throw around the term diversity as it relates to ethnicity or race, but I think it relates to gender and age as well, so having a well-rounded ecosystem is really what makes it work.”
She said one of the chief goals for most technology is making things easier for farmers who seem to have more and more on their plate every year.
“I can’t speak on behalf of all the different entrepreneurs, but there’s a huge emphasis in ag tech to solve and address a lot of the pain points of agriculture, and one of those is workforce,” Bleill said.
Particularly for older farmers, having technology is going to help.
“A lot of farmers are getting older and don’t want to do these manual tasks and save their energy and expertise to make higher-level decisions that can really impact their productivity,” she said.
Ease and accessibility for farmers adopting new technology is increasingly important, Bergman said.
“We have someone who helps our entrepreneurs with that very issue,” she said. “Her approach is described as an empathic design and is much more about creating a product anyone can use. We aren’t just developing technology for the sake of it. It has to be something that is used.”
Bleill said people can help developers by giving feedback on any technology they are using.
“Understanding who the customer is has become very important to a lot of ag-tech startups,” she said. “They are recognizing the need to work hand-in-hand with farmers is really important. If any farmers are looking to get engaged, there are technologists that are really interested in working with them. From carbon to drones, there’s a lot of room for collaboration.”