Every business owner I talk to says the same thing, "Tight budgets are now a way of life." Nowhere is that more evident than on farms.
In the US, farmers are learning whether they made the right budgetary decisions last spring, and if nature agreed with their choices. The last thing farmers need are mistakes when bringing their crops to market.
A Minnesota tech company wants to eliminate as much farming error as possible. Patrick Christie, founder and CEO of Conservis Corporation, offers this observation, "When even a small error can mean a difference of thousands of dollars, it is important for farmers to keep precise records; for example: know what's leaving the farm, when, and where it went. That translates into better traceability, higher profits, and fewer ownership issues."
Christie also feels it is time for the "business of farming" to meet big data and business analytics, saying, "There's a dramatic change happening. It's the big-data revolution, and it's bearing down on agriculture." Christie is also well aware that farmers need to be in control of the data, not the other way around. He says, "We start with the farmer, not the technology."
Christie and his team at Conservis seem to be doing the right things. The company is five years old, yet has contracts to manage over $8 billion in land, equipment, and crop assets. On top of that, Conservis just announced an initial close on $10 million of series A financing, and the release of Conservis 7.0 (PDF), the latest iteration of the company's farm-business platform.
A visit to Conservis headquarters
I got the opportunity to visit Conservis — its main office is sandwiched between The Basilica of St. Mary and Loring Park in downtown Minneapolis, Minnesota. Conservis has 26 employees and has intentions of doubling that number; they already use nearly all the third floor of a renovated early 1900s office building.
Upon arriving, I was met by Mary Pat Ladner, Vice-President of Marketing and Communications, formerly of American Public Media. Ladner shared a few interesting stories about one of Minnesota's famous storytellers: Garrison Keillor. Next, Ladner introduced me to Christie, whose firm handshake and friendly smile calmed what anxiety I had about the human skeleton in his office.
How does a tech entrepreneur get into agriculture?
As Christie relegates the skeleton to a far corner so I could sit down, he asks me where I would like to start. Being curious about his background, I ask for his story, and how he ended up in the farm-management software business.
Christie's story throughout his career is one of finding a need and then figuring out how to fill the need. Being most familiar with high tech and computing, that is where Christie found his niche. Christie was involved with two successful startups — Cybernet Systems and WAM!NET — both of which solved challenges related to content management, and how to move large amounts of information across organizations and supply chains.
So where does the agriculture connection come from? Christie became acquainted with Eric Jackson, an expert in commercial agriculture. The two discussed farming and some of its challenges. Like before, Christie saw a need and decided to see if he could fill it. The need just so happened to be in the areas of his expertise, only the product was different.
I asked if not being familiar with the agriculture business is a hindrance, and Christie smiles and answers that quite the opposite is true — not having experience in agriculture is the company's biggest advantage. It requires listening, really listening to the farmers. Christie continues, "We have to understand their operation down to the tiniest detail, even how and when they weigh harvested products."
Christie firmly believes that; the company's management team has one individual, that's right Eric Jackson, with any agriculture experience. The rest of the leadership team has lots of experience, but in high-tech business.
So after Christie listens to the farmers, the management group and a team of 14 developers create what is now called the Conservis farm-management platform. Figure A provides a simple flowchart of how the Conservis platform helps farmers.
The software package is cloud-based, and safely ensconced in Amazon Web Services. The software eliminates paperwork with digital records that are compatible with other software, including financial packages such as QuickBooks. This makes the process of planting and harvesting easier by:
- Aggregating farm, elevator, and crop-insurance policy data in a centralized cloud location;
- Associating crop-insurance units, legal description, insured names, and FSA Numbers with field-production records; and
- Reporting field production details in a way that aligns with RMA requirements.
Having this information available real-time and anywhere including in the field via smartphones or tablets is invaluable to farmers. One example is how a mobile device replaces the paper trail. The application screenshot in Figure B shows all the information pertaining to a grain cart filled with corn. To get the weight, the user (within range) taps the Bluetooth symbol, and the weight populates the proper box — no more paper tickets or entering the information after the fact. It's already in the database.
Nick Frey, a fifth-generation farmer who harvests three-quarters of a million bushels of corn and soybeans each year, joined Conservis in 2011. Before using the Conservis platform, Frey relied on paper (tickets used by field workers and truckers) and spreadsheets to manage the farm — with the ticket information eventually making its way into an Excel spreadsheet.
"That was not a good way to manage our business," said Frey. "Everything was weeks behind on data entry. On a rainy day or at the end of the season, we would do the data entry, but after the fact. The information was no longer useful."
Christie adds, "Automating data entry reduces human error, gives farmers instant visibility from field to elevator sale and every point in between." Another benefit is the creation of historical records. Frey acknowledged this, saying, "I can go into any field data, and I have no doubt that the data is 100% accurate." This allows Frey to make better decisions about the next crop cycle.
Just the beginning
When I ask Christie what's next, his eyes light up. He returns my question with another, "What do you know about NoSQL data systems?" I answer, "As much as any journalist who on occasion writes about it." I see where Christie is going. NoSQL data systems easily incorporate disparate data, like field-sensor output, GPS coordinates, and data related field-equipment. Adding these additional data points to what already exists in the Conservis database can only improve the decision-making process.
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Information is my field...Writing is my passion...Coupling the two is my mission.