A Q&A with Robert Saik: It’s Time to Get Big or Go Home for Agriculture Robotics

Reported by Lauren Manning (AgFunder News) posted on May 21, 2019

Robotics has been touted as a way to address some of the biggest issues in agriculture, namely when it comes to an ongoing labor shortage. Fifty-six percent of farmers in California alone have been unable to find enough workers in the past five years, according to a new report from the California Farm Bureau Federation. The labor shortage is even more surprising in light of data showing that 90% of farmers have raised wages in recent years in an attempt to attract a more reliable and qualified workforce.

An increasing number of startups are innovating robotics-based solutions for nearly every segment of the food supply chain, from weed pulling robots out in the orchards to food safety-focused machines. The rapid development of robotic technologies across the food supply chain was noticeable in 2018, as investment into Farm Robotics & Equipment increased 56% year-over-year through 83 deals, according to AgFunder’s 2018 AgriFood Tech Investing Report.

But for Robert Saik, CEO of DOT Farm Solution Retail and a seasoned agtech entrepreneur, one of the things he keeps seeing is a lack of scale. That is until he saw what Norbert Beaujot, inventor of DOT had built. Norbert, a farmer, consummate inventor and owner of Seed Master named Dot, the full sized farming system after his mother because she was someone capable of managing many tasks on the farm. Today the DOT Technology Corp, the developer of the DOT IP is being led by CEO, Leah Olsen while Robert heads the commercialization side.

“I think the biggest difference between DOT and most of what you see for robotics in agriculture is that DOT is big. It’s about pure scale. Most of what you see in agriculture robotics are small scale robots. This is a full-fledged, full-sized, autonomous robot for broadacre agriculture.,” Saik told AgFunderNews. “One of the things we struggle with when we talk to people about Dot is that they don’t realize the size of the robot. For instance, the DOT Ready Connect sprayer by Pattison is 1,600 gallons with 120-foot booms. The DOT Ready Seed Master air seeder is 300 bushels and is 30 feet wide. This is full-size farm equipment”

The commercially available robot is a U-shaped, diesel-powered hydraulic platform that is equipped with seeding implements and has the capability to be paired with other DOT-ready attachments such as sprayers or fertilizer spreaders or grain carts. The startup currently units in full-scale testing on farms located throughout the company’s Saskatchewan home base.

Saik is no stranger to the agtech world. He founded the AGRI-TREND group of companies in 1997, comprised of a network of independent coaches specializing in agronomy, precision farming, crop marketing, and farm business management. Coaches were supported by a team of science specialists comprised of over 30 academic experts providing in-house research, training and insight support for both the coaching network and the AGRI-DATA Solution platform, a proprietary farm data management tool. Trimble acquired the assets in 2015, including AGRI-DATA which is now Trimble Ag Software.

Robert is also gearing up to launch a new book called Food 5.0 – How We Feed the Future that reflects the culmination of his storied career in the agriculture technology space. Focusing on broadacre food production, it will take the reader through five iterations of agriculture including what Saik sees as the current era where chemistry, biotech, and other technological advancements are converging.

He’s also launching a new startup aimed at connecting farmers with the expertise they need called AGvisorPRO. “AGvisorPRO is the complete uberization of knowledge and wisdom, connecting farmers to experts in real time. I still believe that farmers need access to independent knowledge and wisdom. This company will be a new way of looking at how we connect those farmers with independent advisors who need to get paid for the knowledge they have. It will help us solve problems at the farm level,” Saik explains.

We spoke with Saik recently ahead of his new book launch to learn more about DOT and whether robotics in agriculture will ever achieve the lofty dreams that many have projected for the space.

Why do we need DOT?

We need dot for three main reasons, I think. First, most farmers will tell you that the pinch point on any operation is qualified labor. It’s getting harder and harder for farmers living in remote areas to find qualified operators.

Second, it’s getting harder and harder to attract young people into agriculture. They aren’t so excited about being trapped in the cab of tractor or sprayer for weeks on end as it self-drives up and down the field and they monitor computer screens. It’s like being trapped in a glass cage. The boredom gets severe. When you talk to young ppl about running and operating a Dot robotics fleet on the farm and making that whole thing work autonomously they are excited about that and see the potential.

Third, the cost of equipment is crippling for farmers. Almost anything you look at these days in terms of a new equipment acquisition is a half-million to a million dollars, so capital cost of equipment is a real burden to farmers and we think we can alleviate big chunk of that with DOT.

I’d also add that DOT can help combat compaction. A lot of equipment is large and puts lots of weight on the soil resulting in compaction that makes it harder to grow crops. DOT is relatively light and can get over land day or night and doesn’t have to carry so much weight.

How far along is DOT in its commercialization journey?

DOT is commercial. The first number of units have been sold to farmers in Saskatchewan and as we speak they are operating in the field. The DOT unit itself costs about $260,000. It offers 175-horsepower, a Tier 4 Cummins engine, and four hydrostatically driven wheels. It can easily dock with other implements. The DOT ready implements are offered at various prices. The sprayer, for example, is roughly $140,000.

What are some of the challenges that you are facing?

The challenges that the team is tackling are really exciting. The ability to guide a robot or any implement up and down a field is something that we’ve tackled. Farms are doing it today. The ability to generate boundary maps, shape files, obstacle maps and something that includes gullies and ditches – or school zones as we call them – so that the machine slows down is fairly straightforward.

Simultaneously, we have to build a high level of safety into DOT and then eventually machine learning and AI has to come into play. We have to make sure DOT can see, which involves the integration of lidar, radar, and photometrics. If a tire starts to spin, she has to be able to stop. A tree may fall down that wasn’t there when the mapping took place. If DOT comes up to that tree, she has to stop and alert the operator who could be in town or anywhere. The person will have to move DOT or get rid of the tree. In the future, what has to happen is that the DOT unit has to be able to recognize the obstacle that wasn’t programmed into the system and decide what to do about it. She needs to make a plan to get around that tree and reconstruct a path plan that takes advantage of the new information.

Those are fairly wicked problems and exciting challenges. It really does bring home the whole concept of what AI and machine learning will mean in farming because we have to eventually equip DOT to make decisions.

What do you wish investors understood better about robotics in agriculture? How do investors respond to DOT?

I think investors are starting to get a handle on the opportunities that exist with technology like DOT. Again, I think that most of what we have seen in the marketplace is fairly small scale. I believe we potentially have a unicorn in our hands with DOT because the platform is unique. It’s addressing a space that most people don’t understand, which is broadacre agriculture. There are many investment opportunities for DOT because we provide opportunities to partner with DOT-ready implement manufacturers. We offer a strategy for shortline manufacturers to have an autonomous strategy, too, and to get in the marketplace. New Leader makes a 16 section variable rate fertilizer spreader that is DOT ready. It’s highly accurate and can take advantage of precision ag prescriptions.

Farmers understand the cost of production and the capital costs associated with equipment. They understand the constraints with qualified farm labor. Like all tech adoption, we are going to see the typical curve of early adopters and innovators as well as late-stage adopters and lagers.

What are some Do’s and Don’ts you learned in your role at AGRI-TREND?

I didn’t spend enough time cultivating relationships with the venture capital crowd. I was pretty naive. I was in Canada running AGRI-TREND, but I didn’t have a handle on the appetite for venture capital investment in the agricultural space. I would have had someone coach me and spent a little more time in that space.

I used to hear all the time about someone building the “first” online ag database for farming; well, we had done that back in 2001. A lot of the stuff you see today like variable rate spraying we had done and won awards for years ago but nobody knew. If I learned anything, I would have told the world a little more about what we were doing.

I think we made a good choice with Trimble. They treated us honorably and I had no qualms around what we did there. They have done a good job with AGRI-DATA, but AGRI-TREND was not really a good match for Trimble. They are more of an engineering and technical technology company and AGRI-TREND was more focused on humanistic relationships with coaches and farm customers. There was some disappointment and if I could do it over again I would go deeper and harder to know that the cultural match was really strong.

What’s next for Rob?

In many ways, I feel that I am just getting started.  My mind is constantly looking for ways to bring technology into agriculture.  I am good at connecting the dots – pun intended and figuring out how new technology can make a difference in our industry.  I am interested in spectroscopy and am advising a few companies on how to maneuver in the ag space.

I am really excited about the team that will run AGvisorPRO and of course I believe Dot is a potential billion dollar opportunity.  The prairie winters seem to give you lots of time to think so it’s exciting to see data platforms, precision ag companies, air seeders and now robotics coming out of this area.  I am thrilled to be a part of this eco-system.

What’s next for DOT?

We think there is an education component for DOT. Mechanically speaking, it isn’t that complicated. The Tier 4 Cummins engine and other mechanical aspects are fairly basic and really solid.

DOT’s software engineering and programming are extensive and very sophisticated. One of the first things that will have to happen is building a curriculum for farmers that can help them set up and run DOT. We started working with some agricultural colleges including the techgronomist program at Olds College in Alberta to create a DOT curriculum for robotics in farming.

The other side of this is that a lot of support for DOT can be done remotely. The other idea is to have DOT farm solution specialists that would work with a farmer. I think that building a new way to support DOT farmers technically is going to be important. We are looking at how to provide instantaneous connectivity between DOT and technical support.  I am hoping that AGvisorPRO will be a part of the technical support solution for Dot.

Both Dot and AGvisorPRO will be at the Ag in Motion Show this July in Saskatoon, SK.

Nourishing the World: Exponential Challenges, Exponential Technologies

Reported by Scott Bowman (clareo.com) for the TWIN GLOBAL 2018 Report

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INTRODUCTION

In the coming decades, with a population booming to nearly 10 billion people, we will experience exponential growth in our global demand for food, while global food supply will continue to be under great stress.  The World Economic Forum projects that global demand will be 60% higher than it is today, but climate change, urbanization, and soil degradation will have shrunk the availability of arable land. Further complicating matters are factors such as ever-growing challenges with crop disease, which impacts nearly one-fifth of global food production, as well as a rising demand for water and energy use, which place great stress on already-taxed natural resources.

These exponential challenges require exponential solutions.  Technologies sThe Next 30 yearuch as artificial intelligence, drones & autonomous machines, geospatial mapping, the internet of everything, advances in genomics and others, bring with them the promise of radically new approaches and solutions,  as they have in so many other industries.

Global population levels will reach 10 billion or more by 2050. In the next 30 years, we have to solve the most important challenge in the history of the human population: How do we nourish the world? That means both providing the proper level of nutrients and sustenance,  and leveraging the food system to power up health in our global population. 

These are the the topics we explored in this year’s TWIN Global Session on Horizons in Food & Agriculture: Nourishing the World – Exponential Challenges, Exponential Technologies.  Following are key highlights from speakers and our plenary discussion.

Speaker Summary

Rob

Agriculture is in the process  of a continued digital transformation. In the US, we are entering what Rob refers to as “Agriculture  5.0” – a time in which new technologies like biosynthesis, precision agriculture, and big data and AI, are all converging. Agriculture 5.0 will open up radical new possibilities. All parts of the value chain can be connected in a seamless  flow of data, solving for challenges  like transparency  and trust across  the supply chain. Sensory technology,  AI-enabled tools and algorithms  can simplify decision making and problem solving. There’s  a huge caveat to all of this, though: precision agriculture with poor agronomy is just precision agriculture poorly applied. We need a combination of high-tech and high-touch in agriculture. An inspirational  example of AgriTech solutions  that hold promise for the future is the Dot Power Platform—an autonomous tractor that is capable of performing 100+ jobs, from seeding to bailing hay, all supported by a GPS and aerial surveillance system  that keeps it on track. In the end, technology, properly applied, will augment human expertise  in agronomic techniques  to enable radical new possibilities and grow what the world will need.

Diana

The challenges we face are far more than merely boosting crop supply; they are also about protecting that supply. Crop disease is the biggest threat to crop production in the world; it impacts 16% of global food production and threatens key primary crops. Crop disease is affected by population growth and by climate change, with crop disease moving from the equator to the poles.

Scientific and technological advancements in molecular biology and genomics are helping us better understand plant DNA and pathogens and open up pathways for new solutions. DNA sequencing and gene editing are two such tools. In 2001 it cost $100 million to sequence one genome, and now the same process can be accomplished for under $500. Today we spend $14 billion annually on crop protection chemicals that only partially control diseases.  CRSPR, the latest form of gene editing, is powerful, easy to use, and can be used to make small changes in DNA that would be considered normal within the plant gene so that “nature can be used to combat nature.” This holds tremendous promise, because it means we can leverage entirely natural, non-chemically-based solutions to address problems that impact nearly one-fifth of global food production. CRISPR is an underlying technology, not a complete solution, but may become a vital part of the toolkit needed to help ensure the sustainability of our global food supply. Regulatory frameworks will need to be established and we will need to determine how best to engage and educate the public on the safety and efficacy of these new science-based solutions.

Andrea

Nourishing the world means more than just feeding the world. It also means fostering healthy populations, something that is vitally important given the pandemic we are facing with obesity, diabetes, and chronic diseases.  Food as medicine is becoming a reality as we learn more about the connection between food and powering up health outcomes. As a result, food companies are increasingly incentivized to prove that the foods they sell have a functional health benefit.

The human microbiome is the next frontier, and holds great promise for the future. Humans are made of a collection of bacteria, fungi and viruses that make up the gut microbiome. The food we eat, the climate, medicines we take – these all affect the gut microbiome. There are some new and powerful technologies that we’re starting to use to both understand the microbiome and correlate food intake with how it interacts with the microbiome. Advancements in RNA-sequencing technologies hold incredible promise for the future, including the ability to truly personalize food to the individual and their unique metabolic needs. While such technologies are still in their infancy, the science is moving quickly and opening up new possibilities. Once better understood, the microbiome’s ability to regulate health should hold promise for such global challenges as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, inflammatory conditions; and also open up new potential with gut-brain connections in areas such as stress, mood and depression.  Investment in these technologies is key to understanding how we can use food as medicine to improve health outcomes.

Jack

Nothing is more necessary than agriculture. And the next 30 years are the most important years in human history, in terms of nourishing the world. Population rates level off quickly after 2050, so if we can get through the next 30 years without ruining the planet, we could be good a very long time thereafter. The challenge of 2050 is a challenge for today. We really need to solve for the next 30 years.

Science and new technologies can arm us with bold new solutions, but we have to change the conversation first. Tension between science and public perception threatens those opportunities. Science tells us what we can do, but the public tells us what we should do. Consumers have never cared more or known less what’s in their food. We are being marketed a vision of agriculture that’s inconsistent with what it actually is, undermining consumer confidence in our entire food system. People love innovation but hate change, and consumer preferences have changed so that our food purchases are now seen as an extension of our values – sustainability, environment, the ethics of food production, etc. These feelings impact people’s choices, and they ask for policy and regulatory changes based on what they hear about. We have to find better ways to engage around these issues, bringing together multiple stakeholders to build greater alignment around what should be done to serve our collective needs

Insights

We need the tools

Farming is fraught with risk, both biotic and abiotic. We need to find new ways to feed the planet for the next 30 years, which means we need to increase our ability to fight abiotic stresses like climate change. This depends on farmers having access to all the tools available, including genetic engineering and data analytics. Farming must be infinitely sustainable, and achieving this requires both the technologies and the farmer to effectively apply them.

Scientific advancements are creating greater food diversity, which is a good thing. Technologies like DNA sequencing and transgenics can combat crop disease, the biggest threat to global crop production, and increase the functional health benefits of foods to truly nourish a population, rather than just feeding them. But behavioral interventions are equally as important for the diseases that are plaguing the human population.

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The challenges we are facing are system-wide challenges, and cannot be addressed within the silos of producers, food companies, distributors, regulators, or influencers. The future of agriculture involves everyone from the farmer to the consumer to the government. Each player in the ecosystem has to work collaboratively to get us through the next 30 years.

Food companies need to restore trust with consumers, and deliver solutions that are evidence-based. Farmers all the way to distributors need to employ new technologies that open up new possibilities  and ensure authenticity, transparency and trust across supply chains. Regulators need to play a role as well in helping set the ground rules in productive new ways for new technologies such as CRISPR, alternative and plant- based meats and others. Regulations must be sensible and not burdensome, and need to work in established markets as well as in emerging markets in places like Africa and elsewhere.

Consumers also need to be engaged in the discussion. Most consumers don’t even know what questions they should be asking, or aren’t correctly educated on the choices or aren’t aware of the broader issues. To illustrate, the example of blight infestation of tomato crops was brought up.  Many consumers do not realize that tomatos are sprayed up to 44 times with chemicals before they reach the store shelf, whereas new advances in gene-editing can enable a gene from a sweet pepper to be spliced with the genes of a tomato to combat the blight through natural, biological processes. Essentially, this new approach involves “using nature to fight nature.”  And so, consumers are left with a choice: up to 44 sprays of toxic copper, or gene from a sweet pepper in your tomato. But, in a consumer environment that shuns the use of GMOs, conventional thinking may need to be challenged. Consumers aren’t aware of the tradeoffs – toxic pesticides vs. GMOs. They just hear “GMO” and automatically think “bad.” Genetic modification technologies need not all be bad, and bad all the time. We need to explore new ways to frame a more productive dialogue.

There are new efforts that are attempting to achieve this. Food System Dialogues, founded by one of the World Food Prize winners, is a multi-stakeholder process that brings together all stakeholders to create a sustainable food system. We believe the TWIN can play a meaningful role in uniting multiple stakeholders for positive change, through a neutral forum. The TWIN has demonstrated an ability to do so in many prior efforts, through the platform of TWIN Catalyst. We believe the TWIN can also play a role uniting multiple stakeholders for positive change.

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Governments

As it stands now, governments are reactive to consumer demands when it comes to policy changes, and there are unintended consequences. For instance, as a result of the concerns consumers have about GMOs, the debate is largely controlled and influenced by large companies that have the resources to control the dialogue. That is not in the best interest of all stakeholders and often only furthers the divide and lack of trust in “big food.” Stakeholders disagree only on the application of the science, not the science itself, but they don’t know that because they’re often only hearing a part of the story. Furthermore, the fact that most consumers are misinformed or lack context for their demands means we’re introducing uninformed policy change, a danger to the future of agriculture and our goal to nourish the world.

Governments need to be more proactive in information sharing, and also need to introduce common-sense regulatory policies. In the US, the policy towards deregulating crops is onerous and irrational; it’s not based on science and has not been revisited in decades. In Canada, however, food that is brought forward for registration is assessed based on creating a novel trait. If you have a crop that produces a novel trait, it doesn’t matter how it was developed. Many experts believe this is the most level- headed and sensible approach.

We have to find

Part of the problem with agriculture is that everyone on the planet is invested in it, but most don’t understand all the moving parts, choices, and consequences.  Our food system is better because of diversity. We need to de-escalate the tensions of the different sides and recognize that we’re all part of the larger food tribe.

Economists  have long talked about conspicuous consumption, but GMOs have manifested the idea of conspicuous production. We in the resource-rich western nations need to employ advanced technologies,  but in smart ways that advance the common good and avoid harm. In a related sense, we want our food purchases to be an extension of our values. We have conditioned consumers to think of GMOs as “bad” because they’re not naturally born from the soil, and yet we’ve been using genetically modified technologies for ages. The science of GMOs, and its applications,  have evolved radically and the conversation around their use is much more nuanced.  Broad, sweeping judgments are not helpful.

Additionally, our experts shared that there is an emerging disconnect between policy and consumer choice at the local level. Europe chooses not to produce GMOs, but they import their animal feed, which is genetically modified. These realities reflect a disconnect, and bridges to be built in the future.

We need to align around the end outcomes we all seek, and find the safest, and best, solutions to get to those outcomes. Too often we frame things in technical, scientific terms, which fosters unnecessary debate, and keeps us all from seeing the proverbial forest for the trees. Perhaps we can find common ground by talking about “an avocado that doesn’t turn brown” rather than “an herbicide that does XYZ.” Scientists  are partly to blame because they’re so accustomed to dealing with facts and figures, but often those terms don’t appeal to consumers and only serve to pit the interests of big food and science against consumer interest groups.

Ultimately, if people don’t trust you, science doesn’t matter.  If people do trust you, science doesn’t matter. The take-away: don’t tell consumers merely what you do – tell them why.

Food Waste

Food waste has always been a problem, but there’s more interest in this than there ever has been. But there isn’t just one “food waste problem;” there are different food waste problems in different regions, because they tie back to choices and consequences,  including some unintended ones. Those solutions can also pose additional problems. For example, the ugly food movement was created to reduce food waste, and has turned a product with no value that previously went to homeless shelters into a product with value that can be sold. As a result, food kitchens have less food than they’ve ever had. This is an unintended consequence of not using multi- stakeholder, or systems  thinking.

There are a variety of ways to approach the issue of food waste, especially with the new technologies we’re experimenting with, but we need to look at it across the value chain and across all stakeholder groups. Scientists  are discovering medical uses for food products that before would have been thrown out, helping to reduce food waste. Farmers can contribute by composting food from restaurants and mixing with elemental sulfur to create a sustainable fertilizer.

A Way Forward

The next 30 years are pivotal for our society.  We face intractable challenges in feeding the world, nourishing health, and enabling authenticity, transparency and trust in our global food chain. In 1798, prompted by the work of Thomas Malthus, we had to figure out how to feed the world by the 20th century. Innovation got us out of that catastrophe,  and now innovation is needed yet again to tackle the challenges of the next 30 years. Technology holds new possibilities—exponential solutions  for exponential challenges—but bridges must be built. Science only tells us what we can do, while the public tells us what we should do.

The future of agriculture is one that is high-touch, high-tech, has a broader social license to operate, and focuses on the people above all else. Because of where they sit in the value chain, corporations  are uniquely positioned to play a role as a catalyst for these necessary  changes, not only feeding but also nourishing the world.

 

Lack of trained workers, internet service hold back robotic expansion.

Reported by Ed Maixner  (Agri Pulse)

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Photo courtesy: University of Illinois-A vehicle the size of a Golden Retriever, designed and constructed at the University of Illinois, rolls on miniature tank treads between two rows of young plants in Arizona two years ago during a demonstration to assess a crop of semi-autonomous robots.

 

Global sales of agricultural robots will soar to $74.1 billion a year in eight years – from 32,000 units in 2016 to nearly 600,000 in 2024.

That’s what Colorado-based Tractica, technology market consultants, forecast in its late 2016 outlook. Clint Wheelock, Tractica managing director, said this week that projection is still on target as farm robotics technology and production of devices continue to grow in Silicon Valley, China, Europe and elsewhere. Its report says demand is driven by “global population growth . . . declining availability . . . and complexities of farm labor . . . climate change, the growth of indoor farming, and the broader automation of the agriculture industry.”

In the U.S. market, Alpha Brown, an international market research firm, surveyed 1,500 American farmers and ranchers, and found expansion across the farm hi-tech arena, which it estimates has already hit $10.2 billion in annual sales.

However, while 80 percent of U.S. farms invest in such technologies, that survey also found that the strongest interests so far are in farm management software rather than in robotics or data analytics. It found that 77 percent of the farms allocate less than $5,000 per year for technology investment, and only a few spend more than $20,000.

What’s more, Alpha Brown, recognizing a downturn in the farm economy, said in its report, “the agricultural technology market is n2018-09-28_12-13-43ot expected to increase significantly in 2018, and it might even shrink, with only 7 percent of farms stating their intention to increase their technology budget . . .”

Tractica agrees that “market challenges remain.” They include: “limited awareness of robotic systems among growers, insufficient robotic solutions, the difficulty of matching human-like dexterity with machines . . . infrastructure issues,” and more.

While Tractica and other observers point to the worsening scarcity of farm workers as one of the incentives driving investment in robotics, Robert Saik, a founder of Agri-Trend an agronomist and expert in integration of farm technology, says the labor shortage goes much deeper.

“The agriculture sector is desperate for a new kind of student to come out of the schools, and that is a systems integrator,” Saik said.

Yes, he says, “it’s getting harder and harder to find qualified people to operate farm equipment  . . . whether broad-acre ag or horticulture.” But now, “we need somebody to connect these disparate systems. You go from having a guy sitting his butt down on a tractor or sprayer to having a person who makes sure that autonomous vehicles are doing what they’re supposed to do. It’s a new career path, a new set of skills for a new type of agriculture,” he noted.

Saik harkened back a few decades to when the hydraulic system connectors from leading tractor and farm implement companies did not match up with one another. Separate adapting couplers were required and farmers were constantly getting sprayed with hydraulic oil when trying to connect hoses. “Today’s growers are covered in digital hydraulic oil,” trying to interface their robotic and other high-tech devices and software, he says.

“Increasingly, we should be putting pressure on the equipment manufacturers and the data companies to make sure the data can flow seamlessly regardless of the platform or the device the farmer is using,” Saik said.

Rabobank, in fact, recently recommended the same expansion of farm tech expertise by its clients who are agricultural equipment dealers. Its experts see “product extension as a better way to capture value as the next phase of technology and mechanization takes hold on North American farms.”

Such extensions, Rabobank says, mean “selling and servicing new emerging high-tech equipment, including autonomous tractors, drones and robots . . . providing value-added fee-based agronomic extension advisory services to the dealers’ existing customer base,” plus selling a broader range of “small and medium-sized equipment geared toward sectors beyond row crop farming.”

Another elephant in the farm tech challenges space is broadband access across farmsteads and fields.

Where interconnections of robotics, broadband service, data analytics, and other farm devices in the so-called “internet of things” are considered, lack for broadband internet access “is one of the biggest pain points for agriculture today,” Saik said. “We cannot run robotics on the farm solely off cellular.”

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“What is going on today,” he added, “is convergence on the farm. I am making the assumption that by 2023 we will have ubiquitous connectivity, and that will allow us to create Wi-Fi mesh domes over farming operations.”

Wireless Infrastructure Association President Jonathan Adelstein agrees: “You need a strong wire line and wireless out to rural areas to make precision agriculture a reality.” Mobile telephone signals accommodate many farm tech applications, he says, but,”depending on the application, sometimes you need 4G and sometimes you need 3G.”

Despite the challenges for farm robotics, Tractica’s long-term forecast suggests a great farmers’ love affair with robots is inevitable, led by “driverless tractors, agricultural drones, materials . . . and soil management robots.”

Indeed, examples of cost-saving robots abound across the ag sector.

Digital farming company Prospera recently reported a $15 million plan for “transform farms” end to end digitalization – extending their systems for digital systems to handle all aspects of production, labor management and other operations.

Robotic weeders are also on tap: Deere & Co., for example, bought a young field-robotics company, Blue River Technologies, last year for $305 million and is preparing a “see and spray” weeder for the field.

Meanwhile, Taskin Padir, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at Northeastern University, described to Agri-Pulse his project to put robots in charge of some tasks in fish and seafood processing at a plant in Maine.

Most fish in his New England coastal area gets caught and shipped abroad for processing, he says, because the local plants don’t have the capacity to handle the whole catch. The goal, he said, is to boost output and efficiency at the Maine processing plant by getting robots to perform “dull, dirty and dangerous tasks,” while adding safe, good quality jobs for trained workers there.

For more news, go to: www.Agri-Pulse.com

The EU will become the “Museum of Agriculture,” says Leading Agtech Entrepreneur

Reported by Jack Heald  (AgFUNDER NEWS)
Editor’s Note: The Thought Leaders in Agriculture series is presented by IntelinAir, makers of AgMRI: a digital decision support system for farmers using aerial imaging. The first in the series is a conversation with Robert Saik, founder of Agri-Trend, a digital agronomy business that was acquired by Trimble in 2015.

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Agricultural futurist Robert Saik is a professional agronomist and certified agricultural consultant. He has published over 50 articles on crop agronomics and is a thought leader on the integration of technology in crop production.

Robert was awarded the 2014 Canadian Agri-Marketer of the Year by the Canadian Association of Agricultural Marketers.

He is the executive producer of KNOW IDEAS Media (Facebook / YouTube) which is dedicated to providing science-based education on the use of genetic engineering in agriculture.

Robert has founded over 15 companies ranging from field diagnostic and sensory technology firms, fertilizer manufacturing, fertilizer distribution, agri-retail, agricultural consulting and farming including a pure-bred cattle operation.

Imagine you are giving a “State of the Union” speech for agriculture. What are the main points you would make?

Regardless of what food “religion” you believe in – whether you’re vegan, paleo, organic, GMO, non-GMO or whatever denomination you come from – the one thing we all agree on is that agriculture must be infinitely sustainable. Otherwise, the human race doesn’t exist.

We must remember how fragile we are. The human race lives off six inches of topsoil that feeds all the plants and animals on the planet. Agriculture must adopt and utilize new sciences and technologies as they emerge.

As society has evolved, and people get more urban, fewer people are on the land actually growing the crops. There’s a divorce between what agriculture currently is and people’s perception. And perception is not reality.

Farmers today are very sophisticated, running multiple computers, data sets, doing amazing things with technology integration. The image of agriculture with a lot of urban consumers is still one of round-fendered pickup trucks, bib overalls, a straw hanging out of the mouth and a red barn. And that’s just not agriculture today.

Agriculture must be infinitely sustainable.
Otherwise the human race doesn’t exist.

Agriculture continues to evolve and continues to integrate new technology. Our ability to feed the planet is certainly there.

More people die of obesity than they do of starvation. We are at the lowest incidence of global poverty ever; less than 800 million people are living at the extreme poverty level, which is still a huge number, but much lower than a decade ago and a screaming success for agriculture.

If we implement the technologies at our disposal, we can vastly increase the quality of agricultural output and decrease our environmental footprint.

Let’s talk about data-driven agriculture. What technologies are the most promising in the near future?

First is field sensor technology. Whether it’s moisture sensors placed in the field, nutrient sensors placed in the field, leaf sensors to detect evapotranspiration rates – all of those things are interesting.

Then there’s aerial imaging and analytics for early-stage detection of problems.

For in-season data acquisition, you have drones, fixed-wing craft, microsatellites and macro satellites. As you go higher in the air the resolution decreases.  High-resolution aerial imagery is really important. When we’re dealing with crops, we need to have a high-enough resolution that we can actually determine what we’re looking at. And we need to be alerted as to where in the field issues are cropping up. Timely information helps the farmer or agronomist pinpoint the precise location of a problem in the field.

Let me explain the scale of this problem.

We work with many farmers that have five, 10, fifteen, 30,000 acres. Hundreds of fields. Here’s the problem: how do you scan tens of thousands of acres and then – in a timely manner – determine which ones are being impacted by a nutrient deficiency, a biotic or an abiotic stress?

Can the farmer on a 15,000 or 30,000-acre farm scout that land detailed enough and fast enough to provide actions in real-time? The answer is self-evident.

But with aerial imagery and analytics, that’s one of the problems that I think we’re starting to crack.

One of the keys to making this technology work is the rapid acquisition of data. Fixed-wing aircraft can get large swaths of land frequently. That’s the first step.

How do you scan tens of thousands of acres and then – in a timely manner – determine which ones are being impacted?

Then, you have to ingest terabytes worth of data. That sheer amount of data used to be a significant issue, but increasing computing power makes us able to ingest all that data quickly.

Once you’ve got the images, you combine digital image analysis with artificial intelligence. Now – in very little time – you can perform anomaly detection and change detection. You can see the degree of completeness of the seeding rows. You can even do weed detection.

All of those things can be brought into a machine-learning type of algorithm. And ultimately, that can alert the farmer: “Hey! Of the hundred fields you have, these four fields have an alert right now. These certain parts of this field that should be scouted out immediately.”

And the software will point you exactly to those areas where you should go walk.

Why do you consider the disconnect between the perceptions of urban consumers and the reality of agricultural producers so important?

Because concentrations of population in urban centers understand less and less about agriculture. Activist groups combine that ignorance and then leverage social media to create absolute hysteria around things that are non-issues.  

They use fear to generate membership sales and to propagate panic in urban consumers. That ultimately leads to poor policy implemented by politicians, which ultimately strips tools out of farmers hands.

You have a population, an urban population that can vote to tear the tools and the technology away from agriculture’s hands. And I don’t have to go very far to give you examples. GMO is a breeding technique. And CRISPR technology is more precise than traditional breeding techniques.

The more science you understand, the more you understand the science of genetic engineering, the more you would regard GMO as a remarkable advancement of the breeding process.

And yet that’s not what the average consumer is being led to believe.

Please comment about the recent decision out of the EU that limited the use of CRISPR technology?

It’s absurd. It’s an ill-formed, ill-conceived decision that basically grounds European agriculture in 2001-era technology.

I’ve read the ruling. The ruling basically said that CRISPR technology is deemed “the same as GMO technology.” They equated the precise editing of genes in an organism to “transgenic,” which is moving genes back and forth between organisms.

According to the ruling, if you expose seeds to mutagenesis – which is chemo or nuclear mutation – that’s okay. As long as you mutated the crops before 2001. That’s “old” mutagenesis or “old” mutation. But if you mutate crops using those methods today, that’s “new” mutagenesis.

The more science you understand, you would regard GMO as a remarkable advancement of the breeding process.

So what they basically said is this: the random scrambling of chromosomes underneath the archaic science that we had in 2001 is perfectly fine. But when you specifically edit one or two genes to prevent a disease or a fungus or fight some sort of a pest problem, that’s deemed as a “genetic interference.”

And so it falls underneath the Precautionary Principle which basically says, you have to prove things are not harmful to the environment and not harmful to human beings. That’s impossible to do. You can’t prove a negative.  

So the Precautionary Principle will stymie all development of breeding in the European Union.

What are some of the second-order effects of the ruling?

Those scientists working on CRISPR technology, gene editing, genetic engineering, will be leaving the EU. They have no incentive to work on that technology in a jurisdiction where you can’t commercialize it.

The EU will become the “Museum of Agriculture.” It’s unfortunate for them, but it’ll create opportunities for those jurisdictions around the world that can adopt a new technology.

I fear that this European Union ruling on CRISPR will also condemn many African nations to perpetual darkness in terms of agricultural science because a lot of African nations take their lead from EU policy.

What are the effects on the market as a result of this EU decision? How can those outside of the EU take advantage of this situation? What are the natural advantages that are going to accrue because of this situation?

There are some opportunities.

The USDA has already determined that CRISPR technology is not the same as transgenics. So it’s going to give those of us that adopt this new technology a leg up.

Germany is suffering a drought right now. If you had access to science, you’d be able to breed crops that are more drought tolerant.

What opportunities are going to open up for other technologies in the EU? What I’m thinking is – because we’ve got crops that don’t have the opportunity to be genetically modified, to be resistant to pests or various organic disease processes – it would seem that scientists who create technologies to help get an early warning for those kinds of things will have a bigger opportunity.

If you were in the EU right now, and you’re looking at your options for herbicide control, one option is tillage, which is not good for the soil and also not good for greenhouse gas balance.

The EU will become the “Museum of Agriculture.”

However, if you can’t use herbicide-tolerant crops – because GMOs aren’t allowed – then what are your options? You can use a specific cultivation. Or early detection of weed outbreaks, where you can spray out a certain portion of the crop with a specific herbicide at that location. Those are going to be very important. But those are important everywhere in the world.

Not once in my 35-year career have I ever heard a farmer say, “I want to spend more money on fertilizer and crop protection next year.” Farmers want to spend less.

If there are ways for them to find where they have specific problems in the fields – maybe with GIS and GPS technology – and then tie that to variable rate application or site-specific application, then we’d be able to target the problem right in the field.

If we stare into the future, and play out what happened in Europe, there’s only one outcome: ultimate food deprivation for the planet.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

They say that 2% of Americans grow the food for the other 98%. That’s not true actually. The real farmers – that grow 80% of the food – represent about 0.25% of the American population. So 0.25% of Americans are what I call “farmers of consequence.” Hell, you could fit most of them into a big-sized football field, and that’s it.

If we stare into the future, and we play out what happened in Europe, and you let that play out, there’s only one outcome. And that outcome is ultimate food deprivation for a chunk of the planet.

As human beings, we have 3 choices when it comes to a population of 9 or 10 billion people. There are only three ways to deal with this issue. One is to kill people. As a species, we’ve had a good run of that. We can kill people. Number two is we can control births. And who’s gonna sign up for birth control on a massive scale? And the third option is to feed people. If you stare into the future – based on European Union rulings right now – they’re going to choose to hurt people. Ultimately, food will become more scarce.

What is the Future of Your Farm?

Reported by Christina Herrick  (Senior Editor of American Fruit Grower® magazine, published by Meister Media Worldwide.)

Where is the future of farming going? How is all the new technology being developed going to be integrated on the family farm in the next 20 years?

Saik_Robert-150x150Robert Saik

Robert Saik, Founder of the Agri-Trend Group of Companies (now part of Trimble Navigation), Professional Agrologist, and Certified Agricultural Consultant, gave us a look at how this new technology will affect your family’s farm today and in the future during the latest installment of the GenNext Webinar Series, which was sponsored by BASF.

Saik started his presentation by framing the current pulse of farming and the current pulse of technology.

“The problem we’re having with agriculture is most people are just floating down the river, not thinking much about the currents that are pulling us along,” he says.

One of these powerful currents is the huge amount of data generated on farms. Saik estimates it’s about 5 exabytes every 15 minutes. One exabyte is equivalent to 1 billion gigabytes. Essentially, it’s a lot of information.

In fact, computing power also is speeding up at a rapid pace. Saik estimates computing power in the next five years will be the same speed as the human brain and by 2050, it’s going to be as fast as the entire population combined.

“Technologies are bringing everything together, and it’s no different on the farm,” he says.

Perfect Storm
This is what Saik calls the convergence, the rapid development of new technologies and the need of agriculture to seek solutions to disease, pests, labor, low yields, etc. It’s essentially a perfect storm.

And this perfect storm is the perfect opportunity for the next generation. Saik says the best people for the job are able to tie the needs of agriculture with the rapidly developing technology.

“The field of agricultural technology is just going to explode,” he says. “A huge opportunity exists to tie practical agriculture with this technology integration.”

And Saik suggests young growers who have family members reluctant to incorporate some of these new technologies on their operations get them started right away.

“Get it loaded into a smartphone and give them one job to do,” he says. “Start off with something simple and turn them loose. They’ll start to have some fun with it and it has to be fun.”

GenNext_field_sensors

Going Forward
At this point, there has been a lot of data generated on your farm. But the next step is to apply that data throughout the farm to give a snapshot of the overall operation. Saik said microsatellites and drones will become a larger part of scouting, where you’ll be able collect images of different parts of your operation with high-resolution inexpensive imagery.

You will be able to spot trouble spots (water stress, diseases, etc.) from the sky in real time and be able to apply the information collected to make decisions on the farm.

“You could actually diagnose a root problem from space,” he says.

Saik says cellular mitosis sensors have potential implications on your farm. He included an image of a tomato with this sensor and explains how it would help your operation.

“As the tomato is expanding, it will tell us how rapidly the tomato is growing so we can match water and fertilizer with that tomato growth,” he says.

In the end though, Saik says, the data collected isn’t the endpoint of precision agriculture. As more data is collected, it is going to be crucial that you understand how to apply the data you’re collecting.

“None of this works unless it’s in your hand. We need to have a strong and robust data management platform,” he says. “We need to know what causes those problems and why those problems are there and we need to know how to fix those problems.”

To view the webinar On Demand, click here.

GenNext_Saik_slide

 

Get There First

Reported by Maggie Van Camp (Senior Business Editor CountryGuide)

Agriculture is constantly moving the yardsticks, which means there’s always a new business opportunity on the horizon. So, asks Rob Saik, founder of Agri-Trend: What are you waiting for?

rob-saik-supplied

This fall Country Guide chatted with Rob Saik founder and CEO of Agri-Trend as the innovative coaching company celebrates 20 years in business. He talked about the struggles of being and staying ahead of the innovation curve, the stumbles and wins, and what it was like to sell Agri-Trend to Trimble, the U.S. precision agriculture company.

“Often innovation doesn’t come from thinking outside the box; it comes from having a really small box,” says Saik.

The particular “small box” Saik is talking about right now is the tight window f

or producing crops in Western Canada, with only about 35 days to get the seed in the ground and under three months to grow it, followed by a quick harvest before winter sets in. Then, to top it off, we have to store our own grain and get it to export markets across a mountain range.

“Limits tend to spur creativity because we have to find solutions based on the constraints of the box,” says Saik.

Back in 1997, the box was smaller, but transformative production techniques were emerging. No till, glyphosate-tolerant crops and GPS were gaining a toehold in Canada.

That was the year Saik started Agri-Trend, a new concept born from the need to make decisions based on data, not guessing or estimating from previous years. He had seen this knowledge-management gap play out in his Two Hills, Alta. fertilizer business with many farmers simply asking for last year’s blends or what their neighbours were applying. Quality soil information was seldom available, hard to understand and difficult to put to practical use.

A year earlier Saik had been returning from a trip to the Middle East consulting on the use of sulphur for production of irrigated tomatoes grown in the desert. As he flew over the patchwork of the Prairies toward home, his heart stirred. This was home. He loved Canada and the farmers here. Then it struck him: Why wasn’t he helping Canadian farmers do better?

When he got home Saik pulled out a sket

ch of a business model he had created a few years earlier while attending a coaching program for entrepreneurs. The program, which he still attends, is about leadership and how to switch thinking from the selling of products to building a relationship business tied to processes and data management.

It was a rough map of a coaching/data management concept for farmers. At its core was a team of highly qualified, respected coaches who would give advice based on collected individual farm data, such as connecting fertilizer recommendations to soil sampling and yields. The coaches would operate their own separate businesses in various locations throughout the country, although all would use one data platform, under one administration and one brand.

Most importantly, their recommendations would not be linked to selling products, but to simply providing good service and to help farmers be more profitable and more sustainable.

“I wanted to design a business that was not based on the sale of inputs but rather used data such as soil or tissue tests interpreted by professionals to help famers make better decisions,” says Saik.

At the time, this was definitely out-of-the-box thinking. Large volumes of data were hard to manage, especially in remote farm areas. The internet was still in its infancy, although connectivity was slowly growing.

Additionally, government extension services were being reduced, which created opportunities. However, a big question remained: Would farmers pay for advice they had previously received for free?

“I like to be an early adopter,” says Saik. “I’ve always been good at connecting the dots, listening to other industries, other businesses and bringing ideas back to agriculture. I thought we could build a business using the internet to connect coaches and farmers.”

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Saik’s own experiences farming and working in the industry meant he knew firsthand the potential value of systematically tying decisions to data backed by professionals.

It started with soil testing, fertilizer recommendations and crop rotations. Saik created a 10-Step Soil Interpretation Process that is still in use today, tied to a Strategic Crop Plan that would be customized by Agri-Coaches for each individual farmer.

Saik also envisioned a model that could eventually be replicated through specifically qualified people into a fully integrated system connecting all aspects of a farm using an online, internet-based platform effectively to help farmers grow the crop, sell the crop and manage the money.

Making a start

Saik started with a challenge. How could he make people understand the concept — a unique agricultural business with no products to sell, no assets, and a model never done before.

He quickly found how important it was, when he started looking for a startup loan to get the business rolling.

Saik walked out of the bank with only a $35,000 limit on a business credit card. But it was enough to get started. “One of the most difficult parts was trying to explain that it was a data-based system and we were using the internet… it was just starting,” he says. “Very few people got it.”

However, the most difficult part was trying to explain the financial risk to his family and friends. “I had five sets of eyes staring back at me over the kitchen table wondering how we were going to make it,” recalls Saik. “It was kind of scary.”

The key to the model was the development of the Agri-Data platform (now Trimble Ag Software) enabling connectivity to farmers everywhere at any time. “In 2001 we went into the cloud, before there was a cloud,” says Saik.

He says timing played into the successful launch of the concept. The downsizing of government extension services loosened up a lot of talent, and farmers were looking for unbiased advice. Plus, no till and GMO seed technology were enabling larger-scale production units, and GPS and field mapping were just starting to be used.

Darren Howie, Elston Solberg, Kevin Pattison and many others began to build the coaching network. Other well-known, trusted names came on board, including retired professors, former top extension staff, and well-respected farmers and agribusinesses.

In the early days Saik travelled across Canada using his comedy alter ego, Steve Stubblejumpski, as a way to talk to farmers, and then he’d quickly explain and sell the new service. Slowly the ones who wanted a systematic process to making decisions came on board. Word spread about the service, and Canada’s first agricultural consulting business was born.

Many of Agri-Trend’s first clients are still using their services today, and several of these farms have transitioned to a next generation. “It was coaching, not consulting,” says Saik. “We wanted a long-term relationship and that’s what we got.”

But it wasn’t all smooth sailing.

The cash balance

With a grimace, Saik remembers one of many cash crunches as they were building the business, adding services, adding coaches and expanding across the country. In April 2005, they had maxed out their operating line. He was having lunch with a friend sharing his worries that the company couldn’t keep going. “My buddy asked me how much I needed and right there wrote me a cheque for $70,000, saying, ‘Pay me back when you can.’”

It was a pivot point. Agri-Trend continued to expand, and today offers Agri-Coach, Market-Coach and Farm Business-Coach professionals who deal with everything from business transition to grain market strategies and the integration of precision management.

Not everything they tried has worked. For example, livestock coaches and coaches to help manage oil leases didn’t work. On the other hand, the carbon trading division took off and now the Agri-Trend Aggregation is the largest trader of agricultural carbon credits in Canada.

Further afield

While growth in Canada was on track, expansion south of the border was proving to be a challenge. North of the border, the majority of coaches are independent entrepreneurs who built their own businesses while being connected to Agri-Trend. However, health care considerations in the U.S. impose a different dynamic there, making it riskier to go independent, so Agri-Trend had to look for a different model.

In 2008, Saik was approached by a group of John Deere dealerships looking to fill the gap between technology, hardware, agronomy, data and the equipment. That conversation was the start of a distribution relationship Agri-Trend has with John Deere and Case dealerships throughout the U.S., and now globally through

the Trimble Vantage dealer network.

Continued growth requires continual capital and in 2014 the Agri-Trend board of directors suggested Saik work with a New York investment banker to seek a significant equity injection. “We just could not find the capital pool we needed in Canada,” explains Saik. “For me, this was a major frustration but the process led to our discussions with Trimble. We locked eyes, and the deal made sense, so we moved forward.”

In November 2015, Trimble acquired privately held Agri-Trend to complement their precision agriculture hardware and software company. Trimble gained a strong network of professional coaches to expand services and Agri-Data, which Saik says is “one of the most elegant and strongest data platforms on the planet.”

Agri-Trend was kept intact and the people and systems could be taken internationally. Today it is expanding across continents, finding its way onto farms in South America, Africa, Europe and Australia, exporting Canadian-made technology globally.

“Trimble doesn’t sell inputs, they don’t buy grain and when it comes to equipment they are colour blind and they have a global vision,” says Saik. “As a business person, you want your business to outlive you.”

Considering Silicon Valley’s current interest in agricultural technology, Saik admits that maybe he should have paid more attention to the broader investment community. When he was looking for suitors he was surprised at how limited the pool of venture capital is in Canada for medium-sized businesses and how most of it is Bay Street-based, which has less understanding and appetite for agriculture.

Now at the precision agricultural conferences, many deep pockets are buying agricultural technology start-ups and those companies are going to be pressured to flip and give big returns.

It’ll be tough going, predicts Saik. “We are going to see plenty of blood on the walls as this ag tech sector sorts out the surviving players.”

CountryGuide

Tips From The Top: Build Your Own Brand

Since this article was released, AGRI-TREND has been acquired by Trimble with Rob Saik working with the Trimble team as Global Business Development, extending AGRI-TREND internationally.

Rob has been a part of the entrepreneur coaching program, Strategic Coach for 24 years now.

Secrets to success from extraordinary entrepreneurs, Part 4

by | Leadership

Market segmentation and recruit

In the spirit of Global Entrepreneurship Week, we invited Strategic Coach clients to share their secrets to success. The fourth in the series is written by Rob Saik, founder and CEO of Agri-Trend in Calgary, Alberta.

Everyone can pinpoint a moment when they’ve stumbled upon words of wisdom that altered their life path. Like a key opening a lock, it’s as if something just clicks, and all of a sudden, everything makes sense.

I fondly remember the words that were a game changer for me: “Build your own brand.”

These words came from Jack Donald, former president and CEO of Parkland Fuel Corporation, Canada’s largest independent marketer of fuels.

I was forty-one at the time, and I remember sitting next to Jack in awe. I had come to a crossroads in my career, not sure if I should take the harder route and go out on my own or merge with another company, and the wisdom he shared gave me the courage I needed to take the next step.

Our conversation about establishing a personal brand, even with the temptation of falling under a larger corporation, had a profound impact on me. I realized the importance of constructing a brand that would maintain the integrity of my vision. I built a brand, and a culture, and I’ll always defend it.

Agri-Trend Inc. was built and grown with a concentrated effort on extending my personal vision of the perfect brand. It was about much more than a logo to me.

I asked myself, “How do our clients feel? What tone does our company set with them? What is the culture around the brand? Is our team proud of what we’re doing?”

Regardless of who we’re collaborating with, we wanted our own message to stand out. We’re about fun, professionalism, pride, and, all in all, being a cutting-edge firm.

It’s important to me to be true to myself and my passion. My business revolves around who I am as a person, and I’m focused on creating value extending far beyond my company to the broader community by being a champion for agriculture.

My decision to trust my gut and listen to the advice from my mentor allowed me to grow Agri-Trend to meet my personal values—a good indication that success aligns with who are we internally. It’s a lesson in life and business.

LINK TO ORIGINAL ARTICLE