Superstar Snippets | Brooke Sauer’s secret formula to building great relationships with farmers and agronomists

Finding and talking to farmers can be really hard and breaking into these tightknit communities requires a strategic plan. If you’re an agtech company, this is a challenge you will likely face at some point in your career.

So what’s the secret formula? How do you get in front of farmers, contractors or agronomists and get their buy-in to help shape your product?

Who better to help us find the answers than all around Superstar and GrowLab mentor Brooke Sauer? With more than 15 years experience in digital agriculture, Brooke has worked out the best ways to bring tech to farmers and agronomists. Over the last couple of years Brooke has gained a reputation for being the go-to expert for agtech startups, bringing real-world experience in adopting and using agtech. Brooke is valued for her cut-to-the-chase, brutally honest approach to mentorship and guidance.

Before we get to Brooke’s Superstar Snippets about how to approach these key industry stakeholders, there are a couple of very important questions that all agtech companies must ask themselves first: who will benefit from your product the most? Or asked another way, who actually wants to pay for your product?

Defining your first market, your target customer is key. Are you chasing massive cropping operations? Or market gardens producing leafy greens? Get this part right because there’s no point making a great product if no one is going to use it. It sounds so simple but you’d be surprised at how many startups get carried away with their amazing idea only to find out far too late that no one sees it’s value and therefore won’t pay for it. Too often, great ideas in agriculture fall into the category of tech looking for a problem to solve when really, all great tech should start with a problem in mind.

Once you know the problem, the way to solve it (with your awesome idea) and who your target customer is, it’s time see what the market thinks.

SNIPPET #1: Use Agros to get to Farmers

Once you have decided on the types of customers you want to develop your product with, the real work begins.

Agronomists are a great multiplier — one agro (know the lingo!) will work with at least 10 farmers. The agro is the most trusted advisor external to the business unit — few farmers are ready for a “tech inspired agronomist replacement” so it will be harder to approach them direct. For these reasons, Brooke’s advice is to make your life easier and start with agros. Getting an agro on board will get you much closer to farmers, and faster.

Cold-calling agros isn’t easy, but it gets results. Once you know the types of farmers you want to involve, look up all the local agronomy firms and beg, borrow or steal to get a list of private crop consultants and farm contractors in an area. Then get on the phone and dial, dial, dial!

Handy tip: Private consultants are probably more likely to take the time to engage with you.

Brooke warns that although this is the best way to start, realistically your response rate will be low… really low. 8 out of 10 won’t call you back. The one that does call will be hard to impress. Hey, we never said this would be easy.

If you have the budget, attend some popular agro haunts. For example Grains Research and Development Corporation run a series of forums yearly targeting consultants and agronomists. Get your confidence up and find an innovative and interesting way to get them to take the time to talk to you.

Another possible avenue is the extension arm of the Primary Industries / Ag departments in your state — use these to trial out your idea and be prepared to tweak it as you get feedback.

SNIPPET #2: Build credibility. Increase engagement.

Building credibility is a tough thing to do, especially as an ‘outsider’ to agriculture. Here are some tips to make you appear credible in the early days and make cold calling as effective as possible:

  • Do you have some existing credibility to build on? If you have an agricultural R&D background (especially from an organisation like the NSW Department of Primary Industries) this will be well respected and make those initial conversations easier.
  • Having a social media footprint creates some ‘digital breadcrumbs’, giving the people you are approaching some added insight into how you think and how connected you are with the ecosystem. A Twitter account with a few posts, a simple but well structured website and a LinkedIn page go a long way.
  • Also handy to know is that Agronomists and farmers are very active on social media, with a preference for Twitter. Follow these conversations, get involved in the debate and use hashtags like #agchatoz to get a sense of what the ag community currently care about.

SNIPPET #3: Build empathy. Don’t sell!

No one likes to be muscled into buying something, which is why the best salespeople are the ones who don’t go in with a sales spiel rolling off their tongues. Instead, they have an open conversation, listen hard to what their potential customer needs and look for gaps their product could easily fill.

So when you’re talking to potential customers, whether they are farmers or agronomists, use the opportunity to build empathy and really understand the problems they are experiencing. Your conversations should be casual, open and and honest. You want to avoid being seen as someone who thinks they know better, or someone who is trying to push your product onto your customer whether they want it or not.

When you do talk about what you are building, ask how the product you are building can offer value. Ask for their feedback, make your customer absolutely central to your conversation and listen intently to what they have to say.

Instead of dictating how helpful your product will be to them, ask them how they think your product will be useful.

SNIPPET #4: Don’t oversell how ready you are

Startups, by their very nature, have to approach customers before they have a product.

Working closely with customers to build and shape products is an essential part of being a startup.

Brooke has seen a lot of startups speaking and engaging with agronomists and farmers, and has found that being honest about where you are up to with building your product is critical.

The wording you use when you frame your questions and conversations with customers is important, Brooke cautions. She gives an example of saying “we have a robot that will remove weeds autonomously” — this implies to your customer that your robot is ready to go, ready to be deployed as soon as they want it. Big mistake! The last thing you want to do is get customers excited about a product that has a long way to go before they can see it and use it. Brooke suggests re-framing your comment as a question instead — “If I were to develop a robot that picks weeds autonomously, would that be useful? When and why would you use it?”

This echoes advice from Tristan Shannon from a previous Superstar Snippet — build hype around a vision not features! You definitely want customers excited about what you are doing, but setting realistic expectations is critical to retaining those potential buyers and building lasting relationships with them.

SNIPPET #5: “Expect people to think you are full of shit”

Did we mention Brooke doesn’t mince words?

(Almost) no one will believe you can do what you claim so be prepared to deal with healthy doses of skepticism. Be open to learning that you are approaching the problem in completely the wrong way — and make sure you get this kind of critical feedback as soon as you can so you can use that information to pivot your focus if you need to.

The Ag community is used to seeing products develop with time and are great believers of trying and testing several times over before getting it right. So naturally, a lean startup turbo charging an idea will naturally be met with raised eyebrows.

SNIPPET #6: The power of trusted networks

Finally, if you can, get involved with someone that already has a powerful network. Ideally having someone (like Brooke!) coach you on how to prepare yourself to get the most out of your customer interactions will yield much, much better results. You want someone who has been on this journey before, made those mistakes and come out the other side to be met with success. The great thing about the startup ecosystem is that there are a lot of founders and experts out there willing to lean in and help ambitious young startups if they spot the right ingredients of vision, hustle and promise. You just need to know where to find them.

The rich, deep networks like the ones GrowLab has expanded and nurtured over time can be leveraged to help founders by opening doors to agronomists, retailers, farmers and other experts. If you’d like to learn more about the GrowLab community and how we can help your startup, get in touch!

Cicada Innovations

Australia's Home of Deep Tech.

George Peppou

Written by

Cicada Innovations GrowLab agrifood accelerator Program Manager | Design Innovation PhD Candidate @ USyd | Startup Mentor

Cicada Innovations

Australia's Home of Deep Tech.