Building Digital Solutions for Farmers: the Climate Corporation Shares Challenges, Highlights

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By Liz Slocum Jensen August 13, 2018

I’ve been following the Climate Corporation since 2011 when it was an insurance solution for farmers and was then acquired by Monsanto in 2013. It has since spun out to be a precision agriculture solution and most recently was acquired by Bayer.  I was interested in learning about their latest offering and insights. On August 9, I attended the Girl Geek X event at the Climate Corporation, featuring these speakers:

  • Tracey Ewart - Product Design Manager
  • Fumiyo Conway-Yasuyama - Software Engineering Manager
  • Beth Reid - Lead Data Scientist
  • Maria Terres - Senior Quantitative Researcher
  • Meg Makalou - Chief People Officer

With a diverse set of roles represented, the panelists covered a variety of topics from design to engineering to hiring. Here are the main takeaways.

Relationships drive agriculture business

One of the challenges of on-boarding farmers is the culture clash between data science and farming in which farmers would ask, “What do you know know about farming?!” For example, the Climate Corporation analyzes about 30 years of data in order to advise their customers to plant during a very specific calendar timeframe. Advice like this is not intuitive to the farmers whose families have been working that land for generations. This means that there is push back from the customers. The key to advising the customer is the supplier. The supplier has a deep, long-standing relationship with the farmer and acts as an advisor. Farmers listen to the supplier.

Software planning and development when there is seasonality

With agtech, you build the product in time for the customer (e.g. in time for their corn-planting season) and then you wait a year. Sometimes the weather doesn’t happen as predicted so you have to start over. There are no roll-backs on weather. Unlike consumer web applications, there aren’t not enough analytics to do A/B testing. The product life cycles are long and you have to be careful about making design changes.

Don’t move that button!

Have you ever opened an app or tool for the first time in months and feel like you have to re-learn the whole thing again? Since  their users may only look at their product a few times a year (versus a social media app that is touched daily), the design team is thoughtful about making design changes only when necessary. They want to make sure things are familiar, otherwise their users will feel like they need to re-learn the app each time they open it.

What can happen when you build for all mobile devices?

The engineering and design teams took the resource-intensive approach of developing their in-field product for for all mobile devices. Then they looked at the data to see that very little time was spent referencing the mobile product and mostly for iOS. They’re data showed that customers spent most of their time using their product in the office on a desktop computer, when they were making bigger decisions. Looking towards global expansion for smaller farms in places like Africa and India, they understand that it will be more reasonable to focus on Android and desktop.

Some problems have simple solutions

Weather alerts to SMS are easy, accessible problem to solve that is impactful to rural farmers in places like India who didn’t have this kind of information before. 

Data-driven decisions, the environment, and the bottom line

There was concern about Bayer acquisition. An audience member posited whether they considered using their technology to help farmer become less dependent on Bayer’s chemical products.  Maria gave an example of how her nitrogen fertilizer projects as using data science for efficiency. Using the right amount of fertilizer is better for the environment but it is also better for their bottom line. Their goal is to help farmers be better stewards of their land.

The Climate Corporation prioritizes Diversity and Inclusion

Meg talked about how they are are currently building a structured interview process as part of their Diversity and Inclusion values. They took the time-consuming task of getting feedback from every department in order to create a bank of interview questions. When evaluating candidates, they try to ensure that the interview panel is diverse in both gender and ethnicity. They require robust feedback about candidates. This means that interviewers cannot simply say, “I liked them.” Hiring teams have to explain how the candidate measured to the parameters of the job requirement. The Climate Corporation’s goal is to create a consistent evaluation of candidates in order to remove implicit bias.  

If you’re at the beginning of your career, take chances and don’t be afraid to fail…If you’re in a position of leadership, encourage people to keep growing.

When asked to reflect upon the course of her career, Fumiyo encouraged making goals, taking chances, and helping others grow professionally. “If you’re at the beginning of your career, take chances and don’t be afraid to fail…If you’re in a position of leadership, encourage people to keep growing.”

Looking to the future of agtech

Some upcoming technologies that this panel was excited in agtech include

  • Autonomous tractors
  • Sensors on tractors that can collect data on soil in the fields
  • Drones, which are more helpful than satellite imagery because it can fly below the clouds.
  • Offline functionality.  Internet connectivity will be a challenge for the foreseeable future. To meet their customers’ needs, their products, which include maps, will need to work offline. Since maps are take a lot of data, they foresee a challenge in persuade their customers to buy a tablet just to look at maps.

The lifecycle to agtech data analysis has a different rhythm than the other industries. Teams don’t have the ability to be experimental the same way that web apps can be.  Building agtech products requires patience in testing and design as well as a process-driven approach in order to engage the customer. And even with planning and forecasting, natural variables like weather can create setbacks. Still, 80% of farmers are interested in investing in technology solutions in 2018 so  there is a growing interest in tech offerings. The key to agriculture has always and will always be relationships.