Hanging up jerseys in the agtech hall of shame

My dad and I used to go to an improv comedy club called ComedySportz. In this sports-themed improv show, along the lines of the TV show Who’s Line is it Anyways?, the red and blue teams would battle it out on stage for laughs. Throughout the night, the referee would solicit audience suggestions and incorporate them into each “inning” of competition. 

To prevent people from shouting out groan-worthy and overused phrases, the walls were lined with jerseys with retired words. While they might have had their use at one time, suggestions like “jell-o” and “spaghetti” were deemed too cliché and therefore off limits. 

When I saw agtech get some rare play in the mainstream media with this article from the WSJ last week, I realized agtech similarly needs to hang up a few jerseys in its own hall of shame. 

It’s time to hang up a few jerseys in the agtech hall of shame

Most agriculture coverage is limited to commodity prices or fear-mongering. And agtech, despite attracting billions of dollars in venture funding, rarely makes the news. So on one hand, more attention on the sector is a net positive– there are massive challenges creating big opportunities, and attracting capital and talent is crucial. 

But on the other hand, articles like this are infuriating.

Statements like “the average American farmer is about 58 years old, resulting in an overall slower shift to adopting technology” are not only lacking in nuance, but also inaccurate and possibly harmful.

What does age have to do with adoption?

As someone who provided tech support to my grandfather on everything from his MacBook to his fax machine, I get the temptation to cite age as a barrier to adoption of digital technology. But neither the data - nor my personal experience of farmers across Australia, New Zealand, and the USA - support this. 

The latest from Stratus Ag Research (thanks to Shane Thomas for sharing) shows that neither age nor farm size are meaningful in explaining adoption rates. 


We’ve written articles and reports and hosted podcasts about the drivers of, and barriers to, adoption in agtech. The short version is they’re nuanced, and therein lies the opportunity for technology developers (and their investors) to create and capture value

Oversimplified excuses like age are disrespectful to farmers, let agtech companies off the hook too easily, and turn people off from the sector. We can, and must, do better. 

Who else gets inducted into the agtech hall of shame? 

There are a few other jerseys I’d like to see retired. Top of the list is “we must feed the world” (and various derivatives about population growth, feeding 10 billion mouths, etc.). 

This cliché is similarly not true (we have distribution, nutrition, and sustainability challenges, but not a production volume problem), and grossly oversimplified, to name a few reasons. In her newsletter Prime Future, Janette Barnard gives seven others.

I’d also nominate the very outdated, but oft-referenced, 2015 McKinsey report citing agriculture as the second least digitized industry. While perhaps once a useful proof point as a rallying cry for innovation action, I’m not sure it was ever fully accurate (what about the digital technology embedded in agricultural equipment, not to mention the advanced technology used in seed breeding?). And now it’s 8 years old. Time to hang this one up. 

Here are a few more:

  • Farmers won’t pay for technology (corollary: farmers won’t pay subscriptions)
  • Ag expertise makes up for a lack of tech expertise
  • If you’re not a 5th generation farmer, your opinion is invalid 
  • You need to own the data (more on this here)

I’m sure there are others, and I’d love to hear your nominations. 

Sure, don’t let good be the enemy of great… but we can do better

I hope that coverage of agtech in the WSJ and other mainstream media outlets, no matter how much nuance is or isn’t present, overall does more good than harm for the sector. Unfortunately, I’m skeptical.

So just like how, as a kid, I was up for being challenged by the comedy referee to be more creative than “jell-o,” here’s to challenging us all to retire some jerseys and spend more time on where real value can be created.

Thanks to Sachi Desai, Rishi Pethe, and Lindsay McCorkle for the jersey suggestions and the chat that inspired this rant. 

For more bi-weekly insights on innovation in agri-food from Tenacious Ventures, subscribe to our newsletter here.

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Key takeaways

  • Statements like “the average American farmer is about 58 years old, resulting in an overall slower shift to adopting technology” are not only lacking in nuance, but also inaccurate and possibly harmful.
  • There are a few other potential "inductees" to the metaphorical agtech hall of shame

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