How has growing up in agriculture informed and influenced what you do with Farmers Edge?
I grew up on a farm and worked among some of the top farmers in the world. I think it’s a significant advantage I have over the Silicon Valley startups. Having an agronomy background and an understanding of the culture of agriculture is key. A farmer is a farmer is a farmer. It doesn’t matter if they’re a 2,000-acre farmer from Saskatchewan, a hog farmer from Iowa, a sugar-cane farmer from Brazil or a 1-million-acre farmer in Russia. They all think very much the same and approach their business the same. I find it difficult to imagine starting an ag technology company without the farming background of our team.
Company: Farmers Edge started in 2005 as the vision of two agronomists, Wade Barnes and Curtis MacKinnon. Based in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Farmers Edge focuses on precision agriculture and independent data management solutions.
The company employs 350 people who specialize in data science, precision agronomy, GIS, hardware engineering, software development, soil science and sustainability. Farmers Edge serves customers located in the U.S., Canada, Brazil, Russia and Australia.
Background: I grew up on the family farm. It was a mixed farm with beef and crops. I worked for about eight years as a crop adviser in western Canada before I started Farmers Edge. I was the crop adviser of the year in Canada in 2004.
One book every manager must read: “David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants” by Malcolm Gladwell
Leadership style: I like to lead from the front.
I tend to be very aggressive and fairly hands on.
What are key challenges farmers face with precision ag technology?
The challenges have changed over time. Early on, the challenge was just making technology work on farms at the critical times so data could be collected at planting and at harvest. Now that farmers have become much more confident in their use of the technology, the real challenge is transforming the data they’ve been collecting for 15 years into something that’s usable and creates value for them—moving from precision ag to what we call “decision ag.” Every grower is excited about data and using the information because they’ve heard about it for a long time. I think where they are getting frustrated is seeing the payback in a meaningful way. I don’t think the industry has delivered on that until now.
What is Farmers Edge doing to find solutions to these challenges?
Our focus is on decision ag. If you’re going to get into the business of decision ag, you have to begin with the best information. If you get the right field data, the right weather information and the right application information, you can use it to make accurate decisions that change things for the farmer and the farm community. We’re putting data-collecting devices in every piece of equipment on the farm and making this a plug-and-play system. Because our solutions are fully integrated, it’s not up to the farmer to make five vendors work together. That’s our claim to fame: we’re tech support, data scientists and boots on the ground.
Do your Canadian roots give you an advantage in the marketplace?
We cut our teeth here in Canada, but really the culture of ag around the world isn’t a lot different. For example, in eastern Manitoba the management practices aren’t all that different than in Iowa, Illinois or Indiana. In Canada, we’ve learned how to work with scale and bigger farmers, and we’ve learned a lot about the value of having a low price point. Our product, which includes weather stations, satellites, data collection and analytics tools, costs an average of $5 an acre, whereas some other companies are charging $20 for just one
of those services.
What is your footprint in the U.S. market?
We’re on 1.5 million paid-for acres. The expectation is that we’ll be on 4.5 million acres by the end of 2017. We hope to be on 10 million acres by the end of 2018.
What do you anticipate Farmers Edge will look like in the next two years worldwide?
We’re doubling our business every year. By the end of 2017, we’ll be on 16 million to 17 million paid-for acres—those where farmers are paying anywhere from $2 to $8 per acre, depending on what service we’re providing. By the end of 2018, we stand to double that again. Five years out, as we move further into decision ag, our view is that—once we have a deeper understanding about the data available—we will bring out different products around things like insurance and grain marketing. We will be layering on new tools.
What’s the next agtech game-changer?
I think digital disruption is going to hit ag hard. Big data and machine learning are going to change a lot of the way farmers and agriculture approach things. You hear a lot about autonomous consumer vehicles, but to be honest I’m not sure that will be a big impact or not. I do think autonomous tractors will have a big impact as skilled farm labor becomes more difficult to find. Automation won’t end there. A lot of things on the farm will become digital. Today’s farms will look a lot different in 10 years.