Can the Midwest own innovation in Big Agriculture?

 

As the innovation ecosystem in the Midwest expands with almost breathtaking speed, we are establishing ourselves as best-of-class in fields such as nanotechnology, robotics, digital and financial tech, material science and advanced manufacturing. I want to add one more area in which the Midwest can be recognized as the world’s leader in innovation. It is perhaps the most obvious and least recognized of all—agriculture.

This region has obvious advantages in terms of both tradition and the vibrancy of its innovation ecosystem. Leadership in agricultural innovation on a large scale is there for the taking. But we are not the only ones to know that. The race is on to become the AgTech home for Big Agriculture (or Big Food), with creation of an enormous number of jobs and value up for grabs.

As an entrepreneur, I look for opportunity. Big Food presents some of the best opportunities in the last few years. Here are some reasons why. The International Association of Agricultural Economics projects worldwide population will grow 35 percent by 2050, leading to a 59 to 98 percent increase in demand for food. There are two ways to meet this hunger. Cut down more forests to open more arable land—an approach that is both unwise and unsustainable—or find new ways through bioengineering and precision farming to increase yields from existing farmland. Without a doubt, the trends and impact have enormous implications for everyone.

The latter is where opportunity lies for the Midwest economy. We have the talent, the resources and tradition as the breadbasket of the world to emerge quickly as the leader in new approaches to production-scale agriculture.

I live in Chicago where most of my urbanites friends relate to disruption in agriculture largely through farm-to-table distribution or the vertical urban farming movement. This is rather a narrow view of agriculture. Let’s recognize where the big opportunity lies—production-scale agriculture, which already represents such a huge segment of the Midwest economy. Just a 1 percent increase in production driven by innovation in sustainable precision farming, bioengineering and supply chain systems would trigger enormous change that would impact generations to come. Others agree. Here are just a few people who see the big impact in the industry: David Friedberg, Michael Pollan, Norman Borgaul.

But if we are going to do for innovation in agriculture what Silicon Valley is to tech and New York is to media, we must act now. The Midwest trails in early-stage investment capital in this industry. There must be more with a specific focus incubating production agriculture startups. That suggests the rest of the innovation ecosystem, especially the VC community, should ramp up before others emerge elsewhere. Rest assured that I’m not the only person involved in the future of agriculture who recognizes the potential for leadership in the growth of production-level agriculture. If we don’t seize it, another region will.

There is no greater need in the world than sustainable ways to feed the growing number of people on earth. There is no more logical place for Big Food research, entrepreneurial activity, systems development, to take place than right here.

 

GAIN Panel at Invest Midwest

Earlier this week, I had the pleasure to sit along-side 25 early stage investors in an Ag leader panel about agriculture technology trends, industry challenges and opportunities ahead. Moderating the panel was Claire Kinlaw, Director of Agriculture practice, LARTA Institute. The other panel participants were Pete Nelson, President, Ag Innovation Development Group; Blake Hurst, President, Missouri Farm Bureau; Garrott McClintock, Director of Operations, Oxbow Agriculture and Jude Conway, Executive Director, Ag Venture Alliance.

Not surprisingly, several eager investors asked the same question almost in unison: What disruptive technology do you anticipate or want to see next? Is there a fundamental big problem to solve?

The panel’s first reaction was a vote for incremental innovation rather than disruption. However, this did not stop each panel from offering their own big innovation ideas. Here are the top themes from the discussion:

  1. Targeted super herbicides for super-weeds (pigweed, waterhemp and other pesky weeds can really impact yield and there is no easy way to contain them)
  2. Better animal diagnostic tools
  3. Better vaccine, in particular for avian flu in swine
  4. Grower operating financing. The risk has to shift from a grower only into participation along the supply chain, especially if we want growers to have long term outlook to their business.
  5. Retrofit older tractor equipment with new automation technology. There is a glut of big iron sitting in many farms given the relaxed financing terms in recent years. New equipment sales are significantly down and now there are more opportunities for manufacturers to offer upgrades and accessories to drive incremental value to older models particularly in precision implement components and auto steer.

Garrott said it best… you can no longer rely on yield and soil maps to drive higher yield value. Learning from this panel reinforce that we are on the right track.

Efficient farming helps everyone win!

Brazil had the highest deforestation rate in the world. In the 1960s, deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon became more widespread as policies were introduced to eliminate hunger and to pay off its debt obligations. Much of the new arable land in the region had poor soil, which made plantation-based agriculture unprofitable, especially for corn and soybean crops.

In February 2017, the Aker team visited one of the largest Ag retailers and grower network near Palmas in the Brazilian Para region to explore how high resolution imagery can help improve crop management efficiency, increase sales and drive higher yields across their grower network. We learned that Brazil has very talented agronomists with deep knowledge of soil and traditional fertilizers. Farm and field sizes are much larger than US average and so equipment and input logistics is a premium concern in these area. As first to plant crops go into the ground, there are big basic input deficiencies. Not unlike the Midwest, this region in Brazil has similar soil acidity problems which requires significant lime to raise the soil pH to optimal levels for local crop production.

Our focus was a large plantation with soybean crop near maturity. The most common in-season crop stress problems in Brazil are crop-munching caterpillars, aphids and soybean rust. Crop monitoring is largely done via manual field scouting, which is insufficient to adequately treat pests and diseases, especially in such a large area.

Aker was able to bring its drone service to scan and process – in 35 hours – over 3,500 acres across two local farms. Much of this region has no Internet access and Aker’s offline processing and mobile scouting capability was the only viable solution. Farm agronomist and local operations managers were impress with Aker’s image details and mobile directed crop scouting which guided them quickly to impacted crop zones particularly with affected caterpillar infestation, soil erosion from sandy soils and other fertility issues. Growers can now use and improve their variable seeding prescription and enhance their productivity for crop scouting across variable planting and maturity date fields which are affected by a variety of environmental issues.

Needless to say, improving the input to yield ratio supported by imagery will lead to increased efficiency and profitable farming, which will stimulate forest preservation.

We are eager to see what the future brings as Brazil continues to embrace precision farming and better crop monitoring practices.

Lets connect! Send your questions to info@aker.ag or call (507) 893-4545.

What we learned in 2016 will help generations of growers.

The digital transformation in agriculture is bringing new frontiers of possibilities and efficiency. In our first year of service, we collected thousands of acres in over hundreds of fields.

Our agronomists went to work early in the season as they reviewed every single image for high impact financial threats, which is a core part of our service. To attempt to find relevant environmental variability, our team relies on more than just imagery as we load SSURGO soil type maps, customer provided as-planted and as-sprayed maps, elevation maps and other indications to ensure that we can suggest areas that matter for in-season action.

We found 12% of all acres were impacted by a range of fertility, disease or equipment issues.

As a diagnostic tool, we need to work hand in hand with our customer to help mitigate high impact issues. We had some hits and misses as customers scouted the fields with our directed scouting recommendations. We interviewed many Ag retailers and consultants to learn how our findings translated into in-season action and how else they plan to use our results. What we learn amazed both our customers and us, with some big hits.

First, farmers and agronomists largely rely on soil maps and yield to make crop management decisions. For in-season management, current options like satellite imagery cannot be used to ground truth fields. Other options like manned aerial imagery and some UAV without agronomy review largely ends up in a computer folder waiting for yield data for crop management analysis and programming for next season.

Efficient crop management, especially using precision practices, requires going beyond yield, soil grid tests, as-planted and as spray maps. It’s difficult to rely on just these indicators to discriminate in-season treatments and seed selection yield variability, that leads to optimal yield.

All of our customers highlighted that high resolution imagery tells the “why” story which can help improve their traditional crop programming practices while bringing immediate in-season value primarily to support side-dress nitrogen recommendation, fungicide and post-emergence herbicide/insecticide treatments when it matters the most.

We realized over $1.3M in yield value created to our customers or about 5x return on the cost of the service.

We are thrilled that our customers realized over $1.3M in value from our service in 2016 by addressing direct in-season yield limiting issues and indirect post-season programming improvements from our service. By spending $4.50 per acre in our service, growers realized a $23.58/acre for corn and $20.06/acre for soybeans in yield value for the season. This represents about a 5x return on grower investment. It was a healthy crop season for most growers and fields were not significantly affected by mold or aphids this season where the gains could have been greater. This is a big return for early adopter customers of our service and we can’t wait to put more money in their pockets next season and beyond!

Lets connect! Send questions at info@aker.ag or call (507) 893-4545.

Aker launches innovative crop monitoring service exclusively for Ag retailers in the Midwest

Leading Edge Technologies, Inc., a leading retailer of enterprise UAVs for Agriculture in the Midwest announced the introduction of Aker, it’s flagship smart-directed crop monitoring service.

“Especially in tough economic times, growers and retailers are seeking creative approaches to align crop inputs with the best opportunity for results and yield return.”, states Todd Golly, co-founder and COO of Aker. Todd is also owner of Golly farms, a top tier grower in Minnesota.

Aker deploys teams within local areas to collect high-resolution imagery, classify fields and identify high-impact zones. Results are loaded overnight into a mobile app to help scouts navigate to the right problem areas in the field.

“We leverage technology to empower people. Our technology identifies field stress areas where we then direct customers to ground truth diseases and other plant health issues.”, states Orlando Saez, co-founder and CEO of Aker.

Unlike other services using manned aircraft or satellite data collection, Aker uses UAVs with the highest resolution multi-spectral sensors in the market today and is available to customers starting at just 120 acres.

“This service works amazingly well to find plant health issues and it helps our scouts to quickly walk to the effected areas compared to random field scouting. This is a big value to our growers while is also helps our scouts and agronomist be more productive.”, says Randy Main, owner of Main Fertilizer a Minnesota/Iowa independent retailer and Aker customer.

“We are pleased with the accuracy of our service and ability to scale across the country. We have been integrating technologies and processes for the last three (3) years and conducted tests across 100,000 acres in the USA and Latin America. We have in-house agronomists who can interpret imagery to deliver real value to our customers.”, states Orlando Saez. www.clashroyaleboom.com Aker delivers a turnkey service with no upfront cost, no equipment necessary and results are guaranteed.

Aker service is available now across the Midwest. The company has offices in Winnebago, MN and Chicago, IL and has an impressive team with extensive grower, agronomy, Ag retailer and technology experience.

For more information about this topic, please call Media Relations at (507) 893-4545, or email rtripathi@aker.ag or visit www.aker.ag.