Because organic farmers are banned from using common conventional materials such as most synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, the tools available for them to use to tackle common agricultural challenges are limited.  Agricultural technology (AgTech) could provide an opportunity to develop sustainable, organic-compliant methods for addressing organic obstacles, but there is a disconnect between what has been built by the AgTech industry and the needs of organic producers because of a lack of communication and a paucity of organic-AgTech collaborations. Additionally, the diversity of organic farming operations presents the need for AgTech discussions that include issues such as accessibility of technology for small and/or low-income farms, equity around tech use and adoption, and inclusion of marginalized farming communities in the development of AgTech. Specifically, AgTech tools are often developed without farmer input based on what will make the most money rather than what will actually benefit the farming community, use proprietary software that is costly to purchase, update, and/or fix, and collect farmer data for profit without giving farmers access or control over their data.

To explore the potential promises and pitfalls of AgTech and organic, The Organic Center developed an event series including two virtual conferences and a hackathon. The first virtual conference took place on Dec 2, 2021 and focused on how AgTech can help organic move toward the future, while highlighting current technological trends that can empower farmers rather than exploit them.

Dr. Kathleen Merrigan, the Kelly and Brian Swette Professor in the School of Sustainability and executive director of the Swette Center for Sustainable Food Systems at Arizona State University, kicked off the event, with a talk entitled “Organic Ag-Tech: Oxymoron or Golden Opportunity?” Focusing on how the collective community of organic activists can best help shape the next 30 years of organic food and agriculture, she shared current innovations in AgTech that fit within the organic values, concluding that AgTech, when done right, could be a boon for organic. Dr. Steven Mirsky, a USDA Research Ecologist in the Sustainable Agricultural Systems Laboratory at the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center, continued Dr. Merrigan’s theme on the opportunities of AgTech for organic, sharing the perspective that the expansive possibilities of technology when it comes to agriculture. “Organic could see the biggest impact from advances in agricultural technology, because of the challenges and constraints that go into organic agriculture,” said Mirsky. “What technology brings is really transformative, so the future is very bright.” Dr. Andrew Hammermeister, the Director of the Organic Agriculture Centre of Canada and Associate Professor in the Faculty of Agriculture at Dalhousie University, finished the first conference block on AgTech opportunities in organic, discussing the intersection of organic, smart agriculture, and ecological intensification. Dr. Hammermeister noted that the future of organic agriculture should include a coupling of smart technologies with ecological knowledge.

One of the reasons that AgTech overlooks organic is the monetary opportunities available from large-scale conventional agriculture. To discuss organic AgTech funding opportunities, we heard from Revathi Kellegala, the Executive Director of the Regen Foundation, and Dr. Steven Thomson, a National Program Leader with the USDA National Institute Food and Agriculture.

Despite the opportunities of AgTech for organic, there are many potential pitfalls, such as a lack of data sovereignty, which was highlighted by Dr. Sarah Rotz, a professor at York University, who focused on how agricultural technologies and data bias reinforce agri-food inequities. The Gathering for Open Ag Tech Team spoke about how the open source movement could help overcome these inequalities, as open source tools afford farmers' and food stakeholders' ability to exert control over where the data is stored, how it is used, and who it is used by. Dr. Julie Guthman, Professor of social sciences at the University of California, Santa Cruz, extended the discussion to suggest circumstances in which AgTech can exacerbate the economic challenges of organic farming and in which it might mitigate them. “If AgTech means producing corporate cooperation with organic farmers geared toward enabling agro ecological practices cooperatively funded by universities or other nonprofits, and made available to coders or produced with open source technology, then we’re talking,” said Dr. Guthman, highlighting the elements that would organic and AgTech to complement one another.

Dr. Heather Darby, of the University of Vermont, discussed ways that farmers could be supported to make appropriate tech choices. She noted that AgTech tools should be looked at critically to determine if they meet the needs of the people who are expected to use them. “In my mind, technology should serve a purpose,” said Darby. “It shouldn't just be there because it's the newest greatest coolest thing everybody else is doing it.”

Summer Sullivan, a PhD Candidate at the University of California, Santa Cruz followed Dr. Darby’s talk by examining how collaborations between engineers and ecological agronomists and farmers could be developed, highlighting synergies and frictions of agroecology and AgTech using a case study from the University of California, Santa Cruz, which developed an initiative in 2013 focused on AgTech. One of the main challenges that need to be overcome when bringing these distinct groups together is the difference in perspectives: engineers tend to focus in on specific phenomena and processes, while agroecologists see things from a systems-based perspective.

To highlight a couple AgTech projects that included organic perspectives, the conference included talks by Dr. Paula Ramos, of North Carolina State University, and Dr. Dorn Cox, of OpenTEAM and Wolfe’s Neck Center for Agriculture & the Environment. Dr. Ramos discussed projects she has been working on with smart, IoT, and low-cost systems to bridge the technology gap in agriculture, and Dr. Cox spoke about OpenTEAM innovations in collaboration, digital equity & data sovereignty.

The conference concluded with a farmer panel, highlighting the perspectives of five farmers, including Nate Powell-Palm of Cold Spring Organics, Philip LaRocca of LaRocca Vinyards, Earcine Evans of Pure Ciné, Wa Kou Hang of Twin Cities Green Farm, and Jon Bansen of Double J Jerseys / Organic Valley. The farmers spoke about current technology that they found useful, but also highlighted needs for future technological development, such as a focus on usability.


Session Abstracts 

Synergies and Frictions of Agroecology and Ag-tech

Summer Sullivan, University of California, Santa Cruz

Two fields claim their practices can get us closer to a better farming future: agricultural-technology (ag-tech) and agroecology. Yet, it is unclear whether these approaches are compatible. Integrating Western science, indigenous knowledge, and social movements, agroecology is place-based, ecosystemic approach to farming. Ag-tech trends toward problem-solving, scalability, and efficiency, making farming quicker, data-driven, and less labor and resource intensive. A case study of a new initiative at the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC) to integrate the two fields and make them a major priority in programming provides novel insights and avenues to better understanding the synergies and frictions of the two approaches. Based on interviews with 23 UCSC engineers, agroecologists, and social scientists, we found fewer synergies than anticipated, and indeed hoped for, and some significant barriers to collaboration. Our findings suggest that for those interested in undertaking similar collaborations elsewhere, efforts to institute sustained, respectful, and more symmetrical dialogue among all parties must take place before projects are set in motion.


Political economies of organic and ag tech: tensions and convergences 

Dr. Julie Guthman, University of California, Santa Cruz

Over time, many advances in agricultural technology have given rise to the very political economic and ecological problems that organic farmers have sought to redress. These included higher input costs, lower prices, and, of course, environmental blowback from fertility enhancements and toxic pest control methods. Based on social science research on both organics and ag tech, this talk will explore how conventional and organic farming have mostly diverged but sometimes converged in their political economic underpinnings. It will then suggest circumstances in which ag tech might actually exacerbate the economic challenges of organic farming and in which it might mitigate them. Much, of course, depends on what we mean by organic and what we mean by ag tech.


Can Smart Technologies Advance Organic Agriculture? 

Dr. Andrew Hammermeister, Dalhousie University

Organic agriculture must adopt a culture of continuous improvement toward best practice and innovation in order to remain relevant as a sustainable model of food production. Here we discuss the intersection of Organic 3.0, smart agriculture, and ecological intensification. While smart agriculture technologies are often associated with conventional systems of input application, these technologies can also be used to better understand the agroecosystem and thus could support approaches to ecological intensification. The future of organic agriculture should include a coupling of smart technologies with ecological knowledge in order to achieve the features of Organic 3.0.


Challenges of Agtech: Making technology support organic agriculture 

Revathi Kellegala, Regen Foundation
Agtech can require a learning curve and comes with it’s set of challenges for adoption. Can we shift paradigm so agtech can help make Organic agriculture easier and more accessible? What are the pioneering approaches that benefit farmers and reduce the technology barrier? How can the community ensure that technology unites and strengthens the regenerative and organic agriculture movement worldwide? 


Organic Ag-Tech: Oxymoron or Golden Opportunity? 

Dr. Kathleen A. Merrigan, Arizona State University

It has been more than 30 years since the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 became law. A bedrock organic philosophy is the idea that organic standards should not be locked in time but rather be a process of ‘continuous improvement.’ To some extent the law enshrined that principle, but regulatory changes have been slow to keep up with evolving knowledge. In recent years, the challenge has become greater with the next generation of ag-tech upon us (e.g., AI, genome editing, fermentation alchemy). How do we determine what ag-tech “fits” the National Organic Program? In this presentation, Merrigan will share her thoughts on this sorting process and suggest how the collective community of organic activists can best help shape the next 30 years of organic food and agriculture.


How Agricultural Technologies and Data Bias Reinforce Agri-food Inequities 

Sarah Rotz, York University

This presentation will explore how agricultural technologies are deepening inequity, marketization, and concentration, both in the context of data and land itself. I will detail how scientific decisions about which data to collect and how to use them are privileging already powerful food system actors—farmers managing large commodity crop operations and the large agribusinesses supplying them. By economic logic, this bias makes sense as these farms have the money to pay for expensive commercial technologies, but the bias presents significant social, environmental, and land management problems which are crucial to understanding the human impacts of agriculture. I will then connect this with the issue of land itself. We know that ag-tech start-ups are growing rapidly. Venture capital investments have contributed over $2.8 billion in ag-tech start-ups in alone, but researchers and activists haven’t been able to get a very clear sense of the role of digital agriculture in land grabbing, farmland land financialization and assetization. This research aims to better understand how data is being used in farmland transactions, in processes of land valuation, and for land management decisions by farm investors, owners, and renters–and with what consequences.


USDA Funding Opportunities for AgTech in Organic Systems 

Steven Thomson, USDA-NIFA

Many programs at USDA-NIFA are targeted towards developing AgTech for organic farmers.  These programs include:

The AFRI and SBIR Small and Medium Sized Farms, which aims to promote and improve the sustainability and profitability of small and mid-size farms and ranches (where annual sales of agricultural products are less than $250,000 for small farms and $500,000 for mid-size farms).

Engineering for Agricultural Production Systems, which invest in agricultural production research, education, and extension projects for more sustainable, productive and economically viable plant and animal production systems within the priority areas of plant health and production and plant products; animal health and production and animal products; food safety, nutrition, and health; bioenergy, natural resources, and environment; agriculture systems and technology; and agriculture economics and rural communities.

The Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative (OREI), which seeks to solve critical organic agriculture issues, priorities, or problems through the integration of research, education, and extension activities. The purpose of this program is to fund projects that will enhance the ability of producers and processors who have already adopted organic standards to grow and market high quality organic agricultural products.


Radical Code: Open Source Technologies for Organic Agriculture 

Gathering for Open Ag Tech Team:

  • Ankita Raturi, Purdue University
  • Mike Stenta, FarmOS
  • Jamie Gaehring, FarmOS
  • Greg Austic, Our Sci LLC
  • Juliet Norton, Purdue University

There is a significant interest in creating open source hardware and software to increase transparency in the food chain, allow for data sharing among groups, and engage the public and make the benefits of shared data available to all. Open source tools afford farmers' and food stakeholders' ability to exert control over where the data is stored, how it is used, and who it is used by. Though the number of open source projects in food and agriculture is growing, they tend to be small, isolated within universities or small companies, and disconnected from one another. The result is duplication of efforts, hard to find tools, and disconnected parts producing incompatible data. The lack of coordination means that as technology rapidly changes, closed-source companies are locking up the machinery, sensors, data, and varieties of the future. The Organic community faces an additional set of challenges with need for software and hardware designed especially for Organic challenges.

The Gathering for Open Agricultural Technology (GOAT) is an online community of food and ag tech advocates, developers, researchers, and users. We believe that the technologies that produce our food should be open source, lowering the barrier to access fundamental technical infrastructure for a decentralized food system. Information about our food system should be easy-to-share, or public, in a way that respects the needs and goals of humans, plants, animals, and the environment.

In this talk, five members of the GOAT community will share their perspectives on the potential to bring open source technologies to support organic agricultural practices. Via a curated panel discussion format, they will discuss the role of collaborative design of technology in meeting current and emerging challenges in the Organic community, the shared value space between open source and organic communities, and the radical ways in which open source tools and open access data can empower humans, animals, and ecosystems. The group will showcase several open source tools that are already available for use by the Organic community, and describe how these tools can be used to handle record keeping and compliance, supply chain traceability, and tracking of ecosystem service goals. In Spring 2022, these GOAT community members, along with The Organic Center, will co-host a hackathon: an three-ish day event that will bring people together to ideate, design, and develop equitable, open source technical infrastructure that enables research, adoption, and evaluation of organic agricultural practices. We conclude the panel discussion with a call for participation in the GOAT:Hack @ Organic event, with concrete next steps on how to engage in ideation on open source technologies for Organic challenges.

This work is supported by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, AFRI project #2020-67021-33116.