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Agriculture Technology (Agtech)
Companies that are using technology to make farms more efficient.
Latest AgriData News
Apr 28, 2021
Carbon Credits, Agtech Investment Trends Among Key Topics Addressed by AGvisorPRO CEO By David Frabotta Editorial Market Development Director | Meister Media Worldwide Share Transcript: Hi, I’m David Frabotta with PrecisionAg.com and The VISION Conference , welcome to this installment of our VISIONaries Series , where we talk to the people behind the future of farming. Our program is divided into past, present, and future, and I’m joined today by Robert Saik, founder and CEO of AGvisorPRO , which connects industry expertise with farmers service providers and other agribusiness professionals. He’s worked in agtech and agronomic consulting for the better part of 25 years, including startups that are now well-established companies, and he’s one of Canada’s 50 Most Influential Agricultural Leaders . Robert welcome to the program. Robert Saik: Thanks David, I’m looking forward to spending some time with you and your viewers, thank you. David Frabotta: You spent much of your professional career at the crossroads of technology and agriculture, when did you know that ag was somewhere you wanted to spend your life, and what led you there? MORE BY DAVID FRABOTTA Robert Saik: Well, I think it really started early on, through 4H, and so I got a good background in 4H and public speaking, and then I suppose it would have been about 1983 that I bought my first IBM computer: 128 K, dual five-and-a-quarter inch floppy drives, nine-pin printer, monochrome screen. I spent $6,300 on that back then, and dad had a conniption. I never really learned how to code, but it was the beginning of me learning how to connect the dots. At that stage of my life, I was one of the first people with a computer at university or in my early Elanco career, and certainly I’ve never been without a cellular phone, so that intersection of practical agriculture and technology has been in my blood from day one. I guess, I always dreamt of going into space as a kid, I built rockets and stuff like that, so that’s where it comes from. David Frabotta: And, of course, you had to be a programmer back then, because there was no mouse, there was no graphic interface, it was all DOS-based, right? Robert: Yeah it was all DOS or before that it was punch cards with Fortran and Pascal and Basic. David Frabotta: So you’ve worked for Trimble, you’ve worked for DOT, which is now owned by Raven. What are some of those experiences you had earlier in your career about ag startups and how those companies were bringing in innovation to market that helped prove and define some of your career and the things that you took away from those experiences. Robert Saik: Well, I think that the culmination with Trimble was the result was the result of us starting Agri-Trend and AgriData. I don’t know if it’s a flaw or a gift, but I’ve always been able to identify some white space in the agricultural sector, and in 1996 I really got thinking: Why is agronomy treated as a as an event during springtime planting? Why is it an event and not a process? So I built a 10-step soil interpretation process that today is used to train hundreds of agronomists all around the world. And then the strategic crop line, which is a year-long agronomic process, and then later on we leveraged that with the Agri-Coaching program and to make that all run, we had to build a data system, and so we built Agri-Data Solution, and we went into the cloud before there was the cloud in in 2000. We were, I think in 2002, Alberta e-business of the year for designing a thin architectural platform to manage farm data way before the word cloud existed, so we called it netware back in the day, and that that organization of providing farmers advice on how to allocate scarce resources, led to the growth of Agri-Trend; we had agri- coaches and agronomy, precision ag people, grain marketing and far business management people all running on a platform. We on top of that, in 2007, one of North America’s arguably first carbon credit trading companies that we grew all of that and then integrated a lot of that through dealerships throughout the United States, all the way down to the Mississippi Delta, with a whole bunch of John Deere dealerships and, ultimately, we made a decision to sell that to Trimble in 2015 with an exit to 2018. I began to think about AgvisorPRO in 2018, but in 2019, I was had some excess capacity and Norbert Beaujot, who was the inventor of DOT, which was named after his mother Dorothy, asked me to give them a hand, and so I served as CEO of the robotics company as we package that up, and it was required by Raven in March of 2020, and so, then I moved over to AgvisorPRO, and I’ve been growing that since March 12 of 2020. David Frabotta: Now this agronomic consulting, this business consulting this connectivity that is the basis of AgvisorPRO, you’re launching it calling it the uberization of knowledge transfer, which I like a lot. Tell us a little bit of why, as you’ve spent all a lot of your life connecting experts, why is this platform something that was missing in the current ecosystem? Robert Saik: Well, through the course of my time, I spent a lot of time advocating for genetic engineering and GMOs, and so I produced a TEDxtalk called “Will Agriculture be Allowed to Feed 9 Billion?” that’s still on TEDx, and one of 165,000 viewers was Bill Gates, and Bill Gates put me in touch with Cornell University, who connected with me, and then later on that led to, on May 2, 2017, I had six hours with Bill Gates talking about what we built in Agri-Trend and AgriData, and it was largely a humanistic connectivity channel, and he said: “You know what you need to do, Rob, is you need to think about scaling that.” And so the genesis of AGvisorPRO was that meeting with Bill Gates, and I was thinking about the merging together of eHarmony and Facetime and Uber and Twitter, and how do we merge all of those together in a brand new software platform which we built called AgvisorPRO. And so today a farmer or anybody seeking advice on whether it’s software or mechanics or veterinarians or greenhouses or agronomy or green marketing, you can go on to AGvisorPRO and we can connect you (eHarmony) instantaneously (Facetime) there’s there’s no phone calls with AGvisorPRO and we can transact. So we uberize AGvisorPRO, knowledge and wisdom with AGvisorPRO connecting seekers with experts, and those experts could be independent, and then we started adding companies, so we have a whole bunch of companies now that farmers can access for free. People like AGI the big grain handling company, or M&P an accounting firm or a Farm Credit Corp, or any number of companies can be connected for free. And then, what we started to do is we’re integrating advisor pro inside of other platforms is called an application program interface or API interface so we’re integrating advisor pro with the likes of the Bosch company equipment support. On Tuesday we just announced the integration of AGvisorPRO inside of the Xarvio scouting application so if you’re using Xarvio scouting to identify a weed or an insect and you want to talk to a human being, either a company or an independent expert, you hit the AGvisorPRO button and bang, we take care of the conductivity so that’s kind of where it came from and where it’s at today. David Frabotta: And how’s it how’s it been accepted so far? Robert Saik: Well, like anything, it’s a new technology. How long did it take people to realize that GPS was needed in the tractor, so the adoption rate was kind of slow at first and then accelerated. But I’ve got to tell you that COVID has been a godsend for AGvisorPRO because we’re doing this right now and this video conferencing has been around forever, but we were still flying everywhere doing all these things. Well now we’re doing things using technology, and AGvisorPRO is an evolution so until we have Star Trek transporters, we have AGvisorPRO, so we can put an expert in the field, we can put an expert in the greenhouse, in the barn, or in the shop without the expert having to be on the farm. So it’s been pretty cool to see how it so it’s taking off. We’re adding new unit new users every week we’re adding new tech direct partners every week and we’re just moving into the US market right now. David Frabotta: Yeah you’ve got an interesting perspective, bringing all these different disciplines together. If we can stay on that theme for a minute, how do you see other ways that COVID has affected the ag ecosystem in in knowledge transfer and in technology adoption and you know some of the other agronomic acceleration that we’re seeing in some places? Robert Saik: Well first of all, agriculture should be applauded during COVID that performed the way it did. People all of a sudden began to realize that holy shit, like, food is important, and if I don’t have it that’s not a good thing. So agriculture needs to take advantage of its success during COVID. The other thing is that it’s a disparate industry and so, by and large, a lot of things really didn’t change that much on the farm. Yes, farmers had to adopt to make sure their crews were more isolated than before or weren’t going to town and stuff like that, but for the most part, farms adapted pretty well. So did the agricultural retail system, it adapted pretty well. At the end of the day, what a lot of people who are not from agriculture but are wanting to play in the ag tech world forget about is that agriculture is a business of millions and billions, it means that we’re dealing in millions of pounds of seed, and tons of fertilizer, and billions of dollars of commodities that need to be moved around and trucks and carts. And the movement of these commodities and these inputs and the outputs of agriculture, mean that we needed to adopt technology that allow a human interface without direct physical contact and still facilitated the movement of these millions of tons of product, so it was kind of interesting to watch. And what’s really interesting right now is like will we go back to the way we were doing things before? Will we really have white pickup trucks driving up and down driveways visiting farmers for a half hour call when really the farmer doesn’t want to get bothered anyways and maybe the best way to deal with that is to book half hour on AgvisorPro to talk to him for free or do a Zoom meeting or whatever it is. But I think a lot of companies are going to think about the costs of windshield time today and wonder if we’re going to go back to that. I don’t think I’m going to go back to jumping on an airplane to fly to St. Louis for a two-hour meeting and wasting three days of my time when this is probably 85 or 90% as good, so it’ll be interesting to see how we come out of this thing. David Frabotta: And, of course at the farm gate it’s all about ROI, right? So you talked about that lost time, perhaps with those meetings and how technology is enabling the acceleration of adoption in some ways. If you look at autonomous vehicles, for example, about a year ago they were saying we could be five to 10 years out still. But COVID really accelerated the adoption and the acceptance of autonomous vehicles on the road where now we’re saying, by the end of the year, it could be possible in major markets and it’s already happening in some markets, so are you, seeing that corollary happening and ag adoption? Robert Saik: Well, I think so David, if you think about it robots are perfect for dull, dirty and dangerous work in agriculture, by and large, is dull, dirty and dangerous and when you think about some of the operations that are going on on the farm today, there’s no reason that we couldn’t farm some of this stuff out to robots. When you think about fertilizer spreading, come on that could be done. I think about in-season crop spraying, especially now that equipment in row crops can be actually guided by vision, so you take Raven’s technology of stereoscopic cameras that can drive. And I was inside of a CASE sprayer is traveling 15 miles an hour down soybean row being guided entirely by vision, so you couple those technologies into some of the real basic type of applications. Land rolling is another one, you know and then another one that’s interesting to me is during the time of harvesting corn and soybeans, You’re harvesting those crops and you want to plant a cover crop at the same time. That time constraint is real problematic when you’ve got to be on the combine or the grain card and on the seed driller and the planter at the same time. Well, through the DOT technology we established that perhaps one of the ideas, was to be able to run DOT and plant cover crops at the same time you’re sitting on the combine because it could seed all day long. There are so many robots now coming out in agriculture, many of them small scale for viticulture or vegetable crops. We just signed a deal with Ecoation and the work that they’re doing inside of greenhouses and stuff. There are two viruses keeping experts that have greenhouses right now, one is the coronavirus, and the other one is the brown virus, these are contagions inside of the plants, so you don’t want people going inside of a whole bunch of greenhouses any more than you want visitors coming inside your hog barn, so this this ability of using robotsnot only is it efficient, but it reduces cap-ex cost, reduces operating costs, and it deals with the number one constraint in agriculture today, and again city people wouldn’t realize that and that, which is the issue of labor on the farm. Most farms are disparate, they’re a long way from anywhere, and finding qualified operators that can run half- or a million-dollar pieces of equipment is no small feat today. David Frabotta: And, of course, a lot of these companies tend to be in the startup phase right now commercialization in some varying degrees. You spent a lot of your life raising capital and in the startup community. What’s it like for startups now, and is there access to capital? What’s the investor environment look like? Robert Saik: Well I’m in an A round, right now, and so, so you know at my age, you can see, this isn’t my first rodeo and it’s really difficult. So you have a young entrepreneur, and you put in your own money, so I put in my own seed capital, a significant amount. And then I went out raised a friends and farmer around, so I got a number of farmers to invest that’d be called a friends and family round so that’s what the next step is for a young investor. And then the seed round, and I was lucky enough to have six agricultural family offices invest in the seed round. Well, right now, as it stands today, I’m in my seed round money, and that money will run out, and so what I need next is I need an A round. And somewhere between seed round and A round is Death Valley. Death Valley is you’re not commercial enough to have enough revenue yet you’re still proving out your concept, you’re assembling the team, and it’s just money out money, out money, out money out. We have a lot of people with good ideas in agriculture, but there are two problems. Number one is we don’t have enough patient capital coming into the business to realize that they need to invest and stick with it for a while. So there’s a lot of money out in the world, but not a lot of it understands agriculture and we need that kind of ethos, we need that understanding that we need that patient capital. And then we need to find a way for these companies to exit at some point in time, and that’s been slow because agriculture, of course is cyclical. You plant one crop a year, it takes couple years to raise a cow, and you know all these things take time so those are kind of the things that go through my mind when it comes to financing. You know it’ll be interesting if we could take some of these startups and move them, mature them and and blow them into the IPO marketplaces we recently witnessed. Maybe there’s some appetite there, there appears to be for the greater investment community to invest in ag. Certainly investing in farmland is too difficult for most people so. There there’s going to be a lot of startups. There’s hundreds and hundreds of companies right now that are trying to crack the code on sustainability and new ways to grow things, and you know carbon and all that kind of stuff. David Frabotta: Is that investment money still coming from non-endemic agriculture companies? Ag was the sweetheart of the tech investment community for a while, is that is that still the case? Is capital is readily available is it is, it was maybe a decade ago? Robert Saik: Yes, and no, I think that there was a great attraction out of the Silicon Valley area to agriculture, thinking about the you know the Climate and Granular time with investment coming in, so that was kind of cool. Today what I’m seeing is a little bit different. I’m seeing family office money, who, for the most part, have a different outlook. The ethos is they want to do something good for the planet and so, if you can identify with those family offices that want to do something good, I particularly like this area because number one is that it is more patient, and number two is it’s a lot nicer to talk to a family office that has capital to invest to make the world a better place than a venture capitalist that wants to try to flip the cash over and turn a profit. So I think that there’s a nice kind of emergence of those, and and I’m sensing more and more consortiums of family offices looking for ways to put money in. That’s not to take anything away from the Fall Line capitals or the Finistere (Ventures) or the Cultivians that have been so useful for the agricultural sector because they’ve been there through the long haul as well, but I think there are more avenues coming in to agriculture than they’ve ever been here before. David Frabotta: Let’s talk a little bit about that purpose-based investment and really the purpose-based consumer mentality that’s working its way into production systems. We talked about carbon credits very briefly. What everyone’s talking about in terms of how to measure, not only make farms more profitable, but to be able to validate production systems that resonate with an increasingly discerning consumer, grocer, and processor. We’re seeing more of this purpose-based investment, how are you seeing this manifest on the farm, and are these carbon credits something that farmers by and large, are able to capitalize on right now? Robert Saik: First of all, there are three streams of data that are required coming off the farm. The first one is farm-management data. Farmers need to have the data to manage their farms better. The second one is what consumers want, which is kind of finicky and it changes and it’s called transparency data, trust data, or confidence data: Show me where things were growing and how they were grown. The third one, is what people are talking about today, which is really sustainability data. And you hear these terminologies being thrown around like regenerative agriculture and sustainability and agro-ecology and organic and all this kind of stuff, and at the end of the day, what’s really important is the outcomes that need to come from this. So if we think about and I think about what is the pinch point today globally in agriculture, what is the pinch point? We see a lot of companies going IoT to data, data to data, data to machine, machine to machine. Who is talking about the intersection of the human being into the equation? Who’s talking about that and what’s the pinch point today. The pinch point today, it always has been, for farmers is the right advice from the right expert at the right time, those are pinch points. Now let’s talk about carbon: What is carbon and what is a carbon market? Well you never trade carbon. You never trade a pound or a ton of carbon, all you trade is data. And so you have to have confidence in the data that’s being created, and so a lot, and I mean a lot of stuff I hear out there is fluff right now, they have no idea about how they’re going to create the credits, and these are some of the keys: You need a registry, someplace to register the credits, you need to serialized those credits, you’ve got to audit the credits, you’ve got to transact the credits, and you need to make sure that when you generate credits off of this field behind me that there’s not a contingent liability, so I got paid for the credits and if I sell the land to you, do you have to live up to my practices, is there a contingent liability, and nobody thinks about these things. However, society wants us to move in a certain direction. They want us to reduce inputs, and I’m all for that they want us to make sure that we’re sequestering more greenhouse gases or minimize methane minimizing nitrous oxide, I’m all for that, and hopefully this will create a new marketplace for farmers, but, at the heart of it is data. We never trade a ton of carbon, we trade the data. And the better and the more robust the data platform is, the more sure you are of what it is you are documenting, the more valuable that that carbon offset equivalent is worth. David Frabotta: There are going to be a lot of companies coming into the space to validate these carbon credits and how they’re being sold, how they’re being managed. Do you have any advice for people looking into this and how to make sense of it? Robert Saik: We went through this in the mid to late 2000s, so we struck what is now Trimble Aggregation, and we’ve traded over $50 million worth of offsets I think today back to farm, so this is this is doable. In that time, I saw a lot of companies come and go, a lot of companies make big promises and leave. From a farmer standpoint, there’s nothing wrong with taking some money if it’s on the table, provided, and this is the big one, provided that you read the contract carefully and there’s not contingent liability. That’s The one thing that concerns me the most is a farmer signing something and then realizing that he has to thou shalt zero till for the next 10 years. Under the protocols we had here in Alberta, one of the things was if you have a wet year and you have a lot of ruts in the field, well, we negotiated as part of the protocol a farmer could till up to 10% of his land in the fall if he had to smooth out the fields and not abdicate his carbon credit standing. You have to think about these things you know and a lot of people are not. I have no problem with farmers taking advantage of a new market that is emerging, so long as they’re not on the hook from contingent liability. David Frabotta: Robert just a couple minutes here left, I know we’re running a little bit over but wondered if you can give me a couple of your thoughts about the next year. How are farmers doing? You do a lot of consulting work with major farms. There are some trends influencing adoption of technologies, such as the changing demographics that we’re starting to see. Give me give me a couple trends for the coming year that you think are playing out? Robert Saik: Well, in my whole extensive career in agriculture, I’ve never seen partial budget analyses looking as strong as they do right now. I deal with 20 power farmers in a peer group and we just finished this exercise last week and when you’re dealing with contribution margins north of $350 to $500 per crop that’s very significant. So this may be the year to be aggressive with agronomy if I’ve ever seen a year, and also to make sure your mitigation risk mitigation strategies are in play. I see divisions in agriculture happening, one is between farmers adopting technology versus those that aren’t, and that that that gap is widening. Our research work back in the day, showed $35 to $55 an acre more profit when you adopted variable rate and precision ag technologies. Over 10,000 acres that’s a lot of money, and after a few years you come and buy back the guy who’s not using technology. The other one is niche marketing for the suburban or the urban farmer target market, where you can sell your products for a higher price based on the story. I think that’s going to continue to grow. I don’t like it, particularly because the marketing often vilifies those who are growing broad-acre crops or raising larger number of livestock, but I don’t think it’s going to go away any time soon. And we have to remember that agriculture has been and always will be a commodity business. I think it was said the best: The sale price will always equal the average unit cost of production, so at the end of the day, agriculture is a breakeven business at best for the average. The only people who are getting ahead in agriculture are those people who are not average. So it’s always been that way, and because the cap-ex side of agriculture and the land side of agriculture is big, don’t look at more farmers in that larger category. There will be more consolidation. However, I think there could be an emerging millennial, that Urban edge type of farming, I think we’ll probably see more of that coming in the marketplace as well, so it’s kind of nice, but the middle is the one that’s kind of dropping out that’s what I see. David Frabotta: Robert Thank you so much for your time it’s been a pleasure to chat. Robert Saik: Yeah I just thank you for this, and it’s an honor to be with you guys, and I’m looking forward to the VISION Conference, and very honored to be part of the PACE advisory council with you guys and best success as we go forward into 21. David Frabotta: Thank you in and to you as well. 0 1 5 Global FieldView Lead Sees Heightened Adoption of New Technology Amid Disruption (PODCAST) Subscribe Today For Subscribe David Frabotta is Editorial Market Development Director for Meister Media Worldwide’s Global Precision Initiative and AgriBusiness Global . He is an award-winning journalist and has worked in agriculture and agronomy for 12+ years. He has developed conferences and exhibitions that advocate and advance crop production technologies throughout Asia, Africa, and the Americas and continues to scour the globe for agriculture trends and insights. Contact him any time to discuss new technologies and adoption trends in your region at [email protected] .
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