Editor's Note: Agri-Pulse and The Chicago Council on Global Affairs are teaming up to host a monthly column to explore how the U.S. agriculture and food sector can maintain its competitive edge and advance food security in an increasingly integrated and dynamic world.

Farming has always been a tough business and the challenges are only increasing. Weather is more extreme than ever before, arable land is reducing, consumer preferences are rapidly changing, trade policies are more contentious, and rural communities are urbanizing and aging. These issues face farmers around the globe. At the same time, there are opportunities in this turmoil.  Increasing demand for foods that are local, sustainable, and nutritious provide new opportunities for US and global agriculture. Tapping into this rising demand will be critical for smallholder farmers in particular. Working on less than 5 acres, they represent more than 90-percent of the 570 million farms that exist globally.

Many farmers rely on their own intuition and their close family and neighbors to navigate these challenges. For over a hundred years, agricultural extension has recruited experts, or extension agents, to meet with farmers where they are and provide advice to help them achieve what they want to become. From building trust to translating the latest research, government and university extension agents from the American Midwest to the Indian Gangetic Plain have boosted farmer productivity around the world. Companies often provide extension alongside their sales and marketing of inputs to educate those they are sourcing from to meet the quality and volume needs of their supply chains. From posters and radio shows to more sophisticated mobile apps and sensors that provide site-specific advice, technology is changing the way these public and private reach even the most remote smallholder farms.

All of this comes at a price though and many extension providers have begun to question the returns to these investments. Many farmers also find themselves inundated with data and contradictory sources of information to sort through. Extension agents have realized that they cannot be instructors for every issue and often now serve as brokers who triage issues and determine whether they can respond to them or if they might need to call on someone else.

Of course, the ultimate goal of extension is to empower rural communities. As those in the U.S. know, when farmers have the capacity to make their own decisions to grow their businesses and ensure their food and nutrition security – and be resilient to the dynamic environment in which they operate -- they will no longer need to depend on it. Farmers then would have the tools and wherewithal to determine how they connect with one another, researchers, markets, policy-makers, and even extension agents for themselves. 

Extension and technology, when combined, are key catalysts to bringing farmers back into the center of our food and agriculture system. Where extension has suffered from being prescriptive and intensive, technology can provide a mechanism to raise farmer voices and streamline the delivery of information. Where technology risks exacerbating social inequity, extension can engage with rural communities, especially women, more inclusively.

At Digital Green, we’ve partnered with governments across South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa to increase the efficiency of their extension service by 10x to reach more than 1.5 million smallholder farmers, 80-percent of whom are women, using videos produced by farmers and for farmers. As fellow farmers feature in these videos, individuals who watch the videos become more confident to make the best farming decisions for themselves. This sometimes changes how farmers, particularly youth, see their own careers as a source of prosperity rather than as vocations of last resort.

Other agtech startups, like Farmer Business Network (FBN) in the U.S., are also empowering farmers by crowd-sourcing data like input prices to allow farmers to benchmark the farming operations with their peers and increase their ability to negotiate for the best deal in ways like cooperatives did in the past. By bringing together a virtual social network of farmers, FBN recently introduced mechanisms for its community to apply for financing and production contracts too.

As a recently released Chicago Council on Global Affairs report on modernizing extension recommends, extension and technology can serve as the pillars for a revolution in agriculture that places smallholder farmers at the center both in the U.S. and abroad. This promise of revitalizing extension to transform the lives of smallholder farmers brought together representatives from more than 50 public and private organizations to Washington D.C. last week for Extension Week. Participants shared how though the context of rural Illinois to the hinterland of Ethiopia are very different, common frameworks can still be useful to share knowledge and data on what works – and what doesn’t.

Extension itself has a long history of being exchanged from one side of the world to another. U.S. land grant colleges and the cooperative extension system have inspired the establishment of agricultural universities and extension programs from India to Kenya. China’s public extension system’s support to private agribusiness informed the Government of Ethiopia’s new market-oriented extension strategy.

This cross-pollination from the U.S. to the world and vice-versa are key to meet the needs of the interconnected food and agricultural system in which we live. Pest and disease outbreaks on one side of the world travel quickly to the other. Import and export policies in one country have cascading effects on commodity prices in others. This is precisely why extension needs to forge relationships among rural communities and why digital technology can bind them for farmers to ultimately reap their own best harvest.

Rikin Gandhi is the Co-Founder and Executive Director of Digital Green, an organization that promotes the integration of technology with agricultural development efforts and has served more than 1.5 million farmers globally.  He has a Masters in aeronautical and astronautical engineering from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and a bachelors in Computer Science from Carnegie Mellon University. Rikin began his career at Oracle, where he received patents for linguistic search algorithms that he helped develop. Later he joined Microsoft Research India’s Technology for Emerging Markets team, where he researched ways to amplify the effectiveness of agricultural extension systems. In 2006, he co-founded what has become Digital Green.