Can the Midwest Own Innovation In BigFood Agriculture?

As the innovation ecosystem in Chicago and 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.

The Chicago 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.

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.

Most urbanites 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.

We are not, of course, starting from scratch. There are several startups at the forefront of this movement including FarmLogs, Agrible, Farmlead, 640 Labs and my own firm Aker, to name a few. The venture capital community is getting on board through initiatives such as Cultivian Sandbox, Serra Ventures and Tyson Foods’ new venture fund. State policies and organizations like Farm Illinois are also contributing to the growth and relevance of precision-farming technologies in production agriculture.

But if we are going to do for innovation in agriculture what Silicon Valley is to tech and New York is to media, we have to 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.

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.

 

Why automation is key to innovation transformation

Precision farming will disrupt the industry. Data is the new oil. Efficient farming will save the planet. Technology, big data and analytics will change the face of agriculture. Breakthroughs in plant breeding and bioengineering will drive yield.

These headlines have dominated the industry for the last few years. And there is no sign of slowing down. I just wonder how many more mashups or “song-remixes” we will continue to see and hear and for how long.  This is a hot space, although VC investment have taken a dip in the last few years awaiting for current bets to turn into unicorns.

In our business, we are fanatical about the customer voice including crop consultants, retailers and more importantly – growers. What we hear that they need and what the industry says they need does not always coincide.

With ever decreasing thinner margins, farmers are growing more skeptical to rely on models as the sole determinant for seed selection and input programming of their season. Ag retailers and consultant see risks from Amazon-style direct buying and Netflix-streaming agronomy recommendations to dis-intermediate, not to empower them to protect a bond and relationship with their growers that has existed for centuries.

The bigger problem is that some crop consultants and retailers are forfeiting their relationship with growers by just allowing and sometime recommending DIY tools to growers that remove their own value creation. We feel differently. We believe that ag retailers and consultants play a pivotal role as trusted advisors to growers who have so many variables and decisions to manage and less human capital to manage their operation.

Crop monitoring, prescription and input recommendations are critical crop functions where one bad choice can and often leads to devastating business consequences. I’ve seen several

 

Our bias is always to hear the voice of the customer has only given me

 

 

Data analytics and modeling are the new

Everyone in the industry agree that precision farming and technology will disrupt the industry.

 

transformation – from a customer lens

– creating efficiency in you business

– enhancing your top line, enhancing your bottom line

– eliminating complexity (simplicity)

– innovation – use technology as a lever (or obsolete)

– if you don’t do it, others will do it for you

changing the engine of a plane mid flight

customer experience

simplify products

embrace technology – culture

tranformation

– experience starts with the customer and ends with the customer… customer journey

amazon buying, viewing farm like watching netflix video

– industry change (to bring transformation)

– benefit and drivers

balance efficiency with innovation – drive transformation

yield year over year

what driving innovation (bioengineering, automation)

looking deep into the data

all about simplicity

when the winds of change come, some build walls… others hardness the wind.

data is be the next big commodity

trends

– automation

– move from hardware to software

– migration of data to the cloud

– data analytics

farming is a thin margin business

biggest factor driving business outcome for farmer is weather

Winfield trusted partner offers Innovative Scouting Mobile App

Farmers and retailers know the importance to have the latest news and insights about tools that can make using on-farm technology easier.

WinField United partners with highly regarded precision ag companies to identify the best tools available. The goal? To ensure farmers like you can make the most informed decisions with the most appropriate and easy-to-access products.

 

AkerScout™, just released May 1, is one of those tools. A directed crop scouting mobile and web app from precision ag company Aker, AkerScout™ helps identify and prioritize damage across multiple fields and crops to address areas that need immediate attention.

“AkerScout is a sophisticate crop scouting tool that is so easy to use compared to other tools.” – Andy Dimmel, McPherson Crop Management, Janesville, MN

AkerScout™ comes with a base set of features that are free; however, various premium features are enabled when high-resolution aerial vegetation imagery is loaded. The AkerScout™ base free app offers:

  • A comprehensive database supporting over 70 crops to identify pests, diseases and plant-limiting environmental stresses.
  • GPS-enabled crop scouting with identification and capture of disease, pests, weather, plant population, severity of damage, photos and notes.
  • Field mapping and comprehensive reporting.
  • Compatibility with iOS and Android across phones and tablets.

 

Prioritizing crop damage

Aker UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) imagery, combined with a review by a staff of agronomists, creates scouting zones that define areas of concern. This verification allows calculation and prioritization via financial threat of field problems — be it weeds, diseases, insects, or compaction or drainage issues — for quick action. Aker uses current market prices and crop yields to project the potential cost of not taking action.

 

Three types of imagery

Different field conditions may require different imagery to best indicate areas of concern. AkerScout™ imagery provides a clear, quick snapshot of field health so that prompt action can be taken when necessary.

  • RGB imagery: Documents crop stresses that can be seen with the human eye.
  • Normalized difference vegetation index (NDVI) imagery: Defines zones of plant health and can be used for nitrogen prescriptions, fungicide recommendations and to confirm nutrient uptake.
  • Thermal imagery: Informs irrigation management decisions, defines soil management zones and documents diseases.

 

Farmer feedback

Farmers involved in the pilot phase of AkerScout™ found the tool easier and more intuitive to use than some other scouting apps. They also liked having the ability to use imagery for directed scouting and to make better management decisions in the same app, making crop management and precision tools simpler and easy to adopt.

 

To find out more about AkerScout™ and how it can help you improve your crop scouting efforts, contact your local WinField United retailer.

 

AUTHOR

WinField United Ag Tech Team

Measured Growth – Precision agriculture is giving farmers new tools for productivity

Originally Published in Minnesota Alumni Association Summer 2017 Edition

By Meleah Maynard ✹ Photos by Mark Luinenburg

CENTURIES AGO farmers commonly tended small plots of land, paying attention to the needs of individual plants and growing whatever clearly did best in particular areas. But this changed as farm operations grew larger and more complex. No longer able to tend to the unique needs of plants and soil on every square foot of their land, farmers began to rely more on machines and standardization for soil preparation, watering, fertilizing, and pesticide application.

While this approach has vastly boosted yields overall, it also revealed that productivity within fields is variable: Some sections produce higher yields because of variations in soil, drainage, sunlight, slope, and other factors, necessitating differing amounts of water, fertilizer, and other needs. To remedy that, an increasing number of farmers and other agricultural producers are turning to precision agriculture. Perhaps more accurately named site-specific agriculture, precision agriculture is the strategy of using the right management practice in the right location at the right rate at the right time.

Determining all of those variables takes tools, so farmers use information technologies, such as global positioning systems (GPS), geographical information systems (GIS), and remote sensors such as satellites and aerial robots—commonly called drones—to customize how they address variable field conditions. Examples include using drones and ground robots to gather data to create detailed maps and identify problem areas, diagnose pest problems and nutrient deficiencies; equip tractors, combines, and harvesters with GPS to aid in planting in a straight line without overlap, applying fertilizers and reducing fuel waste; and using sensors to tell equipment when to spread manure, fertilize, and water at variable rates depending on the data that is gathered.

The University of Minnesota’s Precision Agriculture Center has been a leader in precision agriculture research for more than two decades. Founded in 1995 by Professor David Mulla and the late Pierre Robert, professors in the Department of Soil, Water, and Climate, the center was the first of its kind in the world. Researchers continue to conduct studies on farms nationally and internationally while also developing innovative techniques for precision crop monitoring and management.

Robert was the Center’s director until his death in 2003, when Mulla became director. Robert and others from the department recruited Mulla to come to the U from Washington State University, where he had been studying precision agriculture since 1984. “I’m one of the early pioneers of precision agriculture,” Mulla says, recalling how in the 1980s he began noticing a connection between variability across landscapes and crop yield. “I could see that crops didn’t perform as well in areas with light-colored soil, particularly on steep slopes, and I wondered why there was so much variability and how we could manage fields more effectively.”

Used properly, precision agriculture helps farmers get the most value and productivity from every inch of land. It also may help minimize agriculture’s environmental impact by reducing waste, conserving water and energy, and reducing potentially harmful runoff containing pesticide and herbicide. Currently used primarily in the production of crops such as corn, sugar beets, potatoes, wheat, barley, oats, and soybeans, precision agriculture researchers are studying ways to expand the practice to include the management of vineyards, orchards, livestock, and more.

The University’s multidisciplinary research team remains one of the most robust, crossing three colleges and numerous departments. Mulla’s research focuses on several areas, including groundwater and soil quality management, as well as the use of drones to estimate yields and detect plant diseases and nutrient deficiencies in farms and orchards.

IN THE FIELD

Todd Golly (B.A. ’95) had two passions while studying agricultural engineering at the University of Minnesota: agriculture and technology. Seeing firsthand how precision agriculture could change farming, he worked as a consultant for the University’s Precision Agriculture Center after graduation. In 1999 he returned home to Winnebago, Minnesota, and helped turn his family’s 6,000-acre corn and soybean farm into an early adopter of precision agriculture. “We were among the first to use precision ag to control variable-rate spreading of fertilizers, turn sprayers of herbicides and fungicides on and off, sample soils, monitor yields, and auto-steer equipment,” he explains.

“Everyone wants to be more efficient,” says Golly, who believes the technology he’s using is giving him an edge over other farms. GPS sensors on combines, for example, automatically shut off sprayers if the machine heads into an area that’s already been treated. “That’s hard to do just by looking, so it’s easy to use too much herbicide or fungicide because you don’t want to miss an area,” he says.

Auto-steer on tractors and combines makes the farm about 25 percent more productive, Golly figures, because the technology prevents overlapping passes for things like tillage and harvesting and allows work to continue after dusk. Also, drivers who are on board to make sure the equipment functions correctly are freed up to do other tasks such as going over budgets or other data.

Convinced that precision agriculture is the future of farming, Golly also runs Aker (formerly known as Leading Edge Technologies), which he cofounded in 2013. In addition to drone-based services, the company offers a wide range of technology for agricultural and other industries. “Precision ag is one of the few growth areas in this industry,” he says. “We’ve been adding new technologies for years and we’ll continue to add more all the time.”

Shakopee, Minnesota-based Farmers Edge also offers a wide range of customized services to farmers nationally and around the globe. Jose Hernandez (Ph.D. ’07), a former student of Mulla’s, was hired there in 2015. In his position as a regional agronomist he uses a lot of the science he helped develop at the University to help the company with research and product development. He also works directly with clients. “

Growing up in Costa Rica, I always loved working with numbers and statistics, and I started studying precision agriculture because I liked the quantitative approach to farming,” he explains. “Farmers want to maximize yields, and all of the data we collect helps identify variability in the fields so we can obtain the highest yields and avoid over-application of inputs like fertilizer and water.”

Hernandez likens the concept to sustainable agriculture— only with more data collection and number crunching. “We help farmers make better decisions throughout the year. For example, we can use weather stations, crop modeling, and tools to measure nitrogen in the soil to tell farmers that they should add nitrogen to a certain part of their corn field in the next 10 days.”

Mulla believes that demand for precision agriculture is only going to grow, eventually allowing farmers to manage not only entire fields, but individual plants. “There are millions of plants in a field and precision agriculture will ultimately give us the capacity to provide each plant with a customized application,” he says. That’s already happening in some grape vineyards, but apple orchards in Minnesota may one day do this with individual trees. “Drones and robots can’t do everything, but we will be able to replace a lot of our big field equipment, which would help prevent compaction and protect our soil. It’s just a matter of time.”

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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 industry 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 create more 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.