The Importance of Farm Advisors in the roll out of Digital Technologies

Farm advisors are important actors in the roll out of digital technologies.  Dr. Teresa Hooks of H2020 project FAIRshare discusses the farm advisors’ role and how the project is directly addressing the need to engage advisors.

The advance of digital technologies has grown substantially in recent times and this has become even more apparent during COVID. Digital technologies encompass many different realms of low and high tech applications giving us the ability to do things better, more efficiently and to support better and more informed decision-making. We have all become more reliant on digital technologies. Whether that be for simple communication (e.g. using Zoom) or for more sophisticated purposes such as doing online tax returns or ordering goods online. What is for certain is that digitalisation is not going away, but rather it is advancing all the time and stretching into many components of the everyday lives of more and more people.

The very same can be said for the agricultural and forestry sector. Over the years, there have been many technological advancements within the sector including developments in remote sensing, artificial intelligence, and the use of specialised equipment such as GPS (Global Positioning Systems) trackers. A whole range of digital tools and applications, or apps, have also been made available to track nutrient management, grass measuring and growth, finances, among a whole host of other elements. Such tools enable farmers to manage their enterprises better by providing them with real time information so that they can track and measure what is happening on farm at the touch of a button. This can have numerous benefits from a sustainability perspective in relation to cost savings and the more efficient use of resources, and these outcomes align directly with the policy goals of the EU Green Deal and the new CAP.

However, the level at which farmers have engaged with digital technologies to date has varied, generally with younger farmers engaging at a much larger rate. Often we hear about the ‘digital divide’ and a number of reasons why digital tools are not as widely used among farmers. These can include reasons such as cost, connectivity or internet access, data security issues while there are also issues around awareness, lack of time, and knowledge about how to use and find different tools and technologies. So the question is how do we bridge this divide and ensure that digital technologies and tools are actually engaged with and implemented more widely at farm level?

The FAIRshare H2020 project aims to address this issue directly, not by focusing directly on farmers, but rather on farm advisors. The farm advisor is one of the main key actors in the Agricultural Rural Knowledge Innovation System (ARKIS), which is essentially a web of all the different actors that produce and use knowledge within the agricultural sector. They are identified as crucial, given their unique and close relationship on the ground with their farmer clients and families, as well as their knowledge and insights of their clients’ enterprises, abilities, goals and motivations. Farm advisors are often tasked with bringing research and practical knowledge to farmers and effective farm advisors help to build farmers capacity and motivation to adopt new technologies in line with their needs and goals. This can be true of digital technologies also and so we believe that farm advisors are integral to the roll out of digitalisation at farm level.

While the digital divide is evident among farmers, this is also often true among farm advisors with often more newly trained advisors more willing and engaged with digital tools. This has an impact on advisors capacity to share digital technologies with their farmer clients and engagement levels among farmers. This is the reason why FAIRshare targets farm advisors and aims to equip farm advisors with the skills and knowledge about digital tools that they can use in their everyday roles. They will then be best placed to influence both their peers and their farmer clients to adopt digital technologies going forward.

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FAIRshare Project Overview:

The FAIRshare project is a 5-year (2018-2023) H2020 funded project, which aims to empower farmers to participate in the digital age. To do this FAIRshares’ key focus is to first bridge the digital divide that exists within and between our farm advisory services.  It is envisaged that by targeting advisors and empowering them to use digital tools, that they will then be best placed to advocate their use among their peers and at farm level with their farming clients.

About the Author:

Dr. Teresa Hooks is the project manager for the EU funded FAIRshare H2020 project. Prior to this Teresa completed her undergraduate and Master degrees at the National University of Ireland, Galway and her PhD at the Rural Economy and Development Programme in Teagasc and University College Cork. Her PhD focused on the potential of producer organisations in the Irish beef sector to address its viability and sustainability challenges. She has since completed a post doc with the school of Business in University College Dublin in the area of public perception, and has spent some time in a more policy-orientated role working with the Irelands National Rural Network to promote and maximise engagement with Irelands Rural Development Programme.