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Future, Present of Ag Tech Considered at Forbes Summit


by Emma Hopkins-OBrien

Published: Friday, October 5, 2018

A John Deere tractor is not something one can often see on White River State Park's Celebration Plaza, but last week at the annual Forbes Ag Tech Summit, a tractor in Indianapolis seemed to make a point at an event which featured speakers and panel discussions on the present and future of agricultural technology.

As president of Purdue University, which has much involvement in the knowledge of those individuals who create waves in ag innovation, Mitch Daniels was a keynote speaker of the event.

"Right now, all three of our most recent World Food Prize winners are on campus for a conference on scaling up ag technology to feed eventually eight or nine billion people," Daniels said. "I think that students, not just in our state, but internationally, recognize that at Purdue—if that's the great, noble quest you want to be a part of, there's no other place to become prepared."

Focusing on the future of agricultural technologies, Daniels said Purdue has taken steps to encourage ag tech startups among faculty and students. The university is not particularly concerned with being defensive of Purdue's interests or royalties, but rather has the goal of creating many new businesses. The number of new companies sitting on the campus has multiplied five times in the last five years—and every year, one-third or more of those are in the ag tech sector.

"Historically it has not been encouraged—entrepreneurship and interaction with the private sector," he said. "We've taken a very different outlook, and it took some learning, but now we've taken down barriers and you can start as an inventor by signing a very inventor-friendly agreement in five minutes. I'm really proud of our young ag students and faculty."

Daniels said in the past, he heard horror stories of how faculty startups can play out.

"One prof told me 'I had to borrow money on my Visa card, to hire a lawyer, to go negotiate with my university for eight or nine months, while the one-year patent clock was ticking,'" Daniels said. "I said, well, however we need to do it, that is not the way."

Purdue put a lot of supportive infrastructure in place to help people with every stage of the business-building process from business plans, to entrepreneurs helping coach the business as it tries to get airborne.

"I thought, if we can do this, we're serving an important objective of any modern research university—to create innovation that's useful in the economy," he said. "And if we do that correctly for several years, something good will happen to Purdue. Somebody will invent the next level of agriculture."

Recently, the university cut the ribbon on an engineering company, something Daniels believes is part of the responsibilities of a land-grant school—to not only send new talent out into the world, but also to give birth to innovation that leads to greater wealth and opportunity for fellow citizens.

Various sessions throughout the summit also focused on the future and development of ag technology, but a panel by two farmers who are also innovators and two ag tech businessmen spoke on how current technology can influence a farmer's bottom line today.

Troy Fiechter, Chief Executive Officer of AgNext; James Kline, owner of Kline Family Farms; Alex Whitley, head of marketing for ag tech company Taranis; and Mitch Frazier, chief Executive Officer of Reynolds Farm Equipment were chosen to talk the attendees through current benefits of ag tech to farmers.

Kline said technology continues to change the labor and decision-making process of his operation. Most of his farm work used to be done in the field, but today, half of that work is done in an office. He said tech allows him to more accurately evaluate his acres to make decisions, whereas in the past, not all the information coming from his technology was usable.

"We were very fortunate to get asked to participate in a pilot program for data-collecting software," Kline said. "With that, we started applying information and using it. We could fine-tune and use filters—we look at the top 15 percent to 20 percent of our farms—what differentiates them from the rest? Oh, and by the way, are we really making any money from those lower farms? How can we make them profitable?"

Answering those questions, he said, was the real advantage to the software. Kline said the possibilities for ag tech have never been more promising than they are now—a point Whitley agrees on.

"We've heard how imagery is the future, but the future is right now," Whitley said. "We want a farmer in Mooresville, Indiana on—say, 500 acres—to benefit from our product just as much as an ag retailer managing millions of acres. We want you to be able to get anywhere you need with one or two clicks."

At Taranis, Whitley works with the application of imagery to provide analytics on fields down to the leaf level. In the past, Whitley said farmers had to rely on "super agronomists" who held the keys to all ag innovation, and knowledge was not distributed evenly. Taranis wants to eliminate that barrier so people no longer need to be computer engineers to be agronomists.

"I think from there, you can get down to the leaf level and decide, and visually see—we have a nematode problem," Whitley said as an example. "And in fact, it's over the threshold, so we need to go out for an application. And no longer do you need an extremely special knowledge base to benefit from these important technologies."

Fiechter, a farmer as well as chief executive officer for AgNext, said technology such as "robots" can be neat, and/or actually contribute to a farmer's net profit.

"We already have too much data, and some of it isn't good data, so the place to start is to try to get good data on our farm," Fiechter said. "I believe the idea of turning that into actual insight is something very important. Yeah, a robot is neat, but it is also driving net income."

Kline said, due to the economic crunch farmers are currently experiencing, every cent counts, which is why they carefully analyze returns for each investment. At the same time, he said, many information-related tech are a long-term investments, requiring multiple years of sampling to collect usable information to make sound, economic decisions. But once obtained, the intel is extremely useful.

"I think it's making us better environmentally and better stewards," he said. "We've been variable-rating our nitrogen, so we're using about two-thirds the amount of nitrogen that we were using just three or four years ago but getting as good as, or better crops. So it's also going to save us money."

Data can also let growers know how they are doing economically in terms of yield and inputs. Whitley said labor problems and other logistics can be somewhat of the "elephant in the room" when it comes to economic analysis.

"How many times are you running that machine over the field? How many people are you sending out? There's so many moving parts and so little consistency that we need to start replacing that with a much lower investment, more consistently and with higher sample incidents."

According to Whitley, though autonomy in data collection can be very precise, economical and require less agronomic knowledge on the part of the farmer, that does not mean it's better than what an agronomist can devise holistically. However, he said it does mean an agronomist can get their data on more acres, leveraging tech to help them do it better and at a lower cost.

"If you could automate that whole system at a price that is more affordable than filling up a tank with gas, now we're really on to something," Whitley said.

Kline agrees that, considering the problems his operation has getting labor, automatized machinery and self-driving tractors will be the next big practical step in ag tech.

Fiechter closed the panel likening the enigma of farming to a complex math problem, one that ag technology will help solve.

"When you look at modern ag, it is the most challenging, multi-variable, story problem that exists," Fiechter said. "You don't control any of the variables but a couple. That is the reality that we have."

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