There are Apps for Everything . . . But Do They Really Help Farmers?

Chris Bodnar

In 2008 Patricia Bishop of Taproot Farm in Nova Scotia needed some technological support for her Community Shared Agriculture (CSA) program. But there weren’t a lot of products for farmers looking for CSA management software.

“The costs were really high and there weren’t a lot of options. And none of them did everything I wanted them to do.”

So Bishop decided to create her own software. Working with Michael Caplan, a member of her CSA, she set out to develop a tool that would help farmers access the CSA marketplace while spending more time farming and less time on CSA administration.

Bishop and Caplan developed Harvest Hand, a CSA platform that integrates a farm’s website, member sign-up, payment, email communication, orders and delivery logistics. The system became the backbone of their farm’s CSA management and then they were ready to offer it to others.

The Rise of Tech in Agriculture

Bishop isn’t alone in her desire to find technological solutions to farming challenges. Agricultural technologies have caught the attention of venture capitalists on a global level where investments have increased four-fold from $2.3 billion in 2013 to $10.1 billion in 2017.

Over half of that investment last year—$5.9 billion—was in online marketplaces (e-groceries, restaurant ordering, meal kits), home technologies (smart appliances), and other retail technologies. Of the remaining investment, $4.2 billion went into production-related technology ranging from farm management software and robotics to biotechnology, cultured meat and indoor farming.

Many farm management software products rely on the app to lead farmers to buy certain products. Others involve locking farmers into a management product that will be difficult to leave, and may also increase in price. Yet others end up with the app being sold to a larger tech firm or, more likely, going out of business when investment funds are used up.

This interest in agtech is no accident. In the case of apps and software for farmers, it’s instructive to understand what is behind such products.

“A lot of the tools you see out there are digital extension services,” explains Zia Mehrabi, a Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at the University of British Columbia’s Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability.

“For governments that have pulled out of extension services, the space is now filled with seed, fertilizer and technology companies,” says Mehrabi. “What has happened that’s concerning is that companies provide the full suite of technology and inputs. Basically you have this situation where there is a potential conflict of interest between farming advice given and what is actually best for the farmer. There is also clear technology bias towards particular types of farming, and that means that many types of farmers, particularly small-scale ones, recive little if any extension at all.”

To develop their digital technology apps, many ag companies use farmers as the source of their market research.

“There is survey fatigue where people exploit farmers for information and farmers answer all of these questions without getting much back,” says Mehrabi. “We need more participatory design in ag tech, not exploitative design, and that is just not happening.”

In response to these trends, Mehrabi is involved in a project that aims to put small-scale, diversified vegetable farmers at the centre of an app development. The farmer-led app design project is being used to create a process for engaging with farmers and to develop an app that responds to their needs.

So far, the project has identified common needs around tracking labour and cost of production as well as information about soil health. Working with programmers, the project has developed a simple app prototype that helps farmers assess which crops are losing money and the environmental benefits of their diversified operations. The app is now being tested with farmers to collect feedback for further development.

Mehrabi’s interest goes beyond developing an app. It’s about putting farmers’ needs at the centre of the design process and developing standards for managing and governing open-source technologies and the data they generate.

“It’s really a challenge of the commons, how people gather and govern themselves and how we maintain the commons for the long term. To do that, you need a plan.”

Individual apps come and go quickly as technology changes. Engaging farmers and managing data requires transparency and long-term plans as to how projects will be developed and maintained, says Mehrabi.

Planning around farmers isn’t always easy

While Bishop’s work on Harvest Hand was inspired and informed by her on-farm experience, bringing a number of farmers to the table can be challenging.

Darcy Smith understands the challenges in creating a technological solution that meets the needs of farmers and organic certification bodies. She recently completed the development of an online system by the Certified Organic Association of BC (COABC) to manage the organic certification programs for British Columbia’s nine Certification Bodies.

The project involved the creation of a standardized online organic certification application for farmers and a system to manage the certification process online, from review at the administrators’ level through to auditing by Verification Officers.

“This particular project had so many stakeholders who were doing things and had their own processes and systems and ways of delivering the same objective—the certification—and that was a huge challenge to develop a product that met the needs of everyone,” says Smith.

Smith explains that, despite developing forms that captured information required by all Certification Bodies, there were larger challenges with training and helping people adapt to the new system.

“I think that with any tech product, no matter who it’s serving, it’ll work really well for some people and not at all for others. We’ve had feedback from some people saying these forms are perfect, that they are built for users, while others just can’t use it.”

The BC online system was developed specifically to help Certification Bodies better manage their certification files and to allow farmers a more user-friendly experience.

“One of the benefits of our development process was that the structure of the organization allowed us to consult extensively with the CBs and I don’t think that would be as easy in another app development.”

Smith has some key takeaways from her experience on the project that would be useful to the development and adoption of new digital technologies.

First is the role of change management. “The social science piece and understanding how people respond to language cannot be overlooked and is extremely important . . . but almost always is overlooked,” says Smith.

She says it’s crucial to focus on understanding how people will interact with the technology and respond to the way questions are asked, but it’s not always the obvious starting point. For the online certification system, questions had to be framed in a way that helped people understand how to answer them.

Change management requires allocating adequate time and resources for teaching new systems. “It’s always going to take longer than you think it will. People need time to learn and do things in new ways. Breaking things down into bite-sized pieces is important so that people can learn new parts and then move on to learn the next part.”

The second piece of learning concerns longer timelines, post-development, and longer-term maintenance.

“For anyone who is looking to develop any kind of technology tool for farmers, having a ten-year plan for what the financial support for the tool will look like is important,” explains Smith. “That way you have ongoing development, so that you don’t end up with an obsolete tool that can’t be updated and that farmers have their data in but can’t use effectively.”

Thinking about technology in the long-term

Long-term development and maintenance is something Bishop has thought about as well with regard to Harvest Hand.

“The development phase was exciting,” explains Bishop. “The programmer had a lot of talent to take my ideas and make them work within the software. I started to understand what it took for him to make things work and how to think through problems from his point of view. It took a lot of time to make it work and to think about all the eventualities.”

Taking Harvest Hand to the marketplace was an entirely different challenge. “Roll-out was really challenging. We had a really hard time deciding how much to charge. Sales didn’t work and just didn’t feel right.”

In the end, Bishop decided to make Harvest Hand open source and available to anyone to use on a pay-what-you-can basis. She hasn’t done any development of the product for two years, but makes it available to anyone who would like to work with it.

“It costs a lot to maintain and develop software,” says Bishop. In the end, her objective is to help give other farmers a better chance at managing their business. “We just want farmers to be able to make it.”

She says other models, such as a farmer-owned co-operative, might be a solution to maintaining the software in the future. In this model, farmers would invest in the product and ensure it was developed to meet their ongoing needs.

Keeping farmers and their needs at the centre of the design process is ultimately what Bishop, Mehrabi and Smith’s work has been about.

“We need to look at on-the-ground needs and perhaps there’s a simpler solution,” says Smith. “Are you developing a product because you have an idea and some money? That probably isn’t the best place to start.”

Instead, focusing on the design process and developing tools that help farmers succeed on their own terms could lead to a better outcome for growers—and help keep them in control of new technologies.

Chris Bodnar operates Close to Home Organics in Abbotsford BC and teaches in the Sustainable Agriculture program at Kwantlen Polytechnic University.