The 21st-Century Farmer

Earlier this year, another tech company set up shop in San Francisco—around the corner from LinkedIn’s office, to be precise—with a goal of completely overturning a staid industry. Two things keep this from being a complete cliché. First, the staid industry is farming, a line of work more associated with grain silos then computer servers. And second, the “tech company” is John Deere, the $26 billion farm-machinery manufacturer that was a startup in 1837.

Indeed, Deere just spent $300 million to buy an artificial-intelligence firm that will help farmers, among other things, identify which plants actually need to be sprayed with herbicides. 

Once the epitome of a traditional, slow-moving, decentralized industry, farming is experiencing a complete overhaul, thanks to the influence of precision agriculture. Farmers are finding that they can use data to help them conserve water, increase crop yields, rotate crops, or institute other practices that can help efficiently feed the world’s 7 billion-plus people.

But while it may seem like a no-brainer for both big farming firms and individual farmers themselves, there have been some “nasty” implementation details around precision agriculture, says Pablo Golfari, Korn Ferry’s sector leader for its Chemicals Materials Agribusiness practice. In a new report, Golfari and colleague Silvia Sigaud, the firm’s global sector leader for agribusiness, detail the industry’s talent challenges in farming’s vibrant tech niche. The tech is there—or nearly there—but there’s a shortage of both farmers and people at big agriculture firms who can use and interpret much of the data that can be collected on the farm.

The more than a dozen agriculture executives Golfari and Sigaud spoke to for the report talked about the challenges and frustrations of finding the right skill sets. “The ideal job description is a ‘hacker plus an agronomist,’” Juan Manuel Vaquer, president and associate general counsel of DuPont Latin America says in the report.

The report says that the agriculture sector probably is going to have to make some tradeoffs in order to find the right talent match. Growers may have to cooperate more with one another, sharing data and potentially even laboratories. “Standardization will be key to the success of precision agriculture,” Sigaud says. Small-scale farmers are going to have to be convinced to both invest in the technology and learn how to use it.

Back in San Francisco, big agriculture firms like John Deere are going to have to learn how to attract employees who would seemingly be more interested in taking engineering jobs at places like their new corporate neighbor, LinkedIn. “We have long hired workers from the farming community that we serve,” says Aaron Wetzel, Deere’s vice president, global crop care platform. “How do we leverage that to also attract tech-industry talent?” 

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