The Future of Ag Tech in the Midwest

February 20, 2018 03:39 PM
Rural blacktop

The U.S. House Small Business Subcommittee on Agriculture, Energy and Trade discussed problems surrounding rural communities in the Midwest and solutions agricultural technology can continue to provide on Feb. 15, 2018.

The areas of improvement sought for Midwest ag tech include reaching young people, increasing funding and developing products that are acceptable to both farmers and consumers.

According to Sam Fiorelli, COO of the Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis, the development of new technology in agriculture has helped encourage young people to stay in or come back to rural communities.

“Young people who are tech savvy now have an outlet to put that love and understanding of technology to use in their communities,” says Fiorelli. “Imagine a kind of ‘Geek Squad’ in rural communities across America that can be deployed to help get a tech heavy piece of equipment up and running again in hours rather than days.”

Fiorelli says farmers and small businesses are also supported by ag tech innovation through open access to research centers’ core facilities like the Danforth Plant Science Center’s greenhouses. This helps small businesses gain access to research that would be costly for them to conduct on their own.

In order to continue improving rural communities, Kevin Kimle, director of the agricultural entrepreneurship initiative at Iowa State University, says there is still work to be done.

Kimle says improvements can continue through exposing more young people to the concept of entrepreneurship in high school and college and helping them find mentors who have done similar things.

Kimle also says developing more early stage funding and venture funds is crucial to furthering ag tech in the Midwest.

Outside of funding and education, a key part of getting technology in the hands of farmers is helping them see the value it brings to their operations says Peter Nelson, vice president of agricultural innovation at Memphis Bioworks Foundation and president of AgLaunch.

“Farmers have traditionally been at the forefront of developing & implementing new innovations and technologies,” says Nelson. “Over time, the role of the farmer in adopting new technologies, and this is key, has been one of customer rather than one as partner.”

Nelson says this change has created a disconnect between developers and producers. One solution the Memphis Bioworks Foundation has developed to solve this issue is the AgLaunch 365.

The program provides startup companies direct access to unbiased feedback through participating farmers. This helps improve products on the farm and ensures startups have greater success by solving technical issues early on.

However in order for ag tech to be successful in the future, new products must be acceptable to both farmers and consumers says Michael D. Fernandez, senior fellow at George Washington University Food Institute.

“The first generation of genetically engineered products was geared more toward farmers than to end consumers,” says Fernandez. “Consumers are evermore focused on food, what’s in it, where it comes from, how it’s produced and that trend isn’t going away. So the best way to build acceptance is to offer products that provide tangible benefits that consumers can embrace and be transparent about it.”

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