This interview features Sarah Lovas, a grower and agronomist from Hillsboro, ND, and Mark Watne, a fourth generation farmer and president of North Dakota Farmers Union, to discuss the State of AgTech.
Podcast Coordinator, Grand Farm
Emerging Grower is an agricultural podcast produced by Grand Farm that brings together growers and AgTech professionals to help accelerate conversations between emerging technologies in the agriculture industry. Emerging Grower is released wherever podcasts are found including on Spotify and Apple Podcasts. And now, Grand Farm is making the episode interviews available to Future Farmer readers.
Cameron MacNabb: Hello, and welcome to the very first episode of the Emerging Grower Podcast. Every episode will focus on bringing together growers and AgTech professionals to help accelerate conversations between the two fields and the agriculture industry. This podcast is energized by Grand Farm, which is enabling technology to feed the world by facilitating collaboration on innovations, solving some of the world’s largest challenges in agriculture technology. My name is Cameron MacNabb and I’m a member of the Grand Farm team who is helping facilitate this podcast. In this month’s episode, we have Sarah Lovas and Mark Watne discussing the overall state of AgTech. Sarah works for GK Technology as an agronomist, salesman and precision agriculture consultant. Mark is a fourth generation farmer. He grows a variety of crops including wheat, corn, barley, soybeans and many more. He currently works for the North Dakota Farmers Union and is the Union’s ninth President. We hope you enjoy this interview that we recorded during our Autonomous Nation conference in August at Microsoft’s campus in Fargo, North Dakota. We hope you not only enjoy the conversation between Sarah and Mark, but also gain valuable insight in the world of agriculture.
Sarah Lovas: Well, hello my name is Sarah Lovas. I’m a farmer and an agronomist and a precision agriculture person from Hillsborough, North Dakota. I farm up there. I raise wheat, corn, soybeans, malting, barley and this year’s sunflowers for the first time ever.
Mark Watne: Hello. My name is Mark Watne. I serve as president of North Dakota Farmers Union. I too farm. By Velva. We’re quite a diverse farm. We don’t have any livestock, but we grow canola to wheat to oats to sunflowers, to soybeans, to corn. Just a little bit of everything. We still have quite a bit of focus on wheat and of course soybeans are coming in and we, you know, kind of grow corn for being part of the system, but it’s not quite as good there as some of the other crops at this time.
Sarah Lovas: So, Mark, what kind of technologies do you currently use on your farm? Or do you do a lot of AgTech on your farming operation? How are you incorporating stuff?
Mark Watne: Well, you know, we really are doing quite a bit—I wouldn’t say we’re the most advanced, but we’re using quite a bit. We do a little bit of work with drones, doing a little mapping, not a lot obviously. We do gather a fair amount of data and we do just a little bit of mapping with it. We’re struggling a little bit with trying to find how we take all that information and make it relevant to what decisions are made that we need to make. Probably the biggest area really comes back to the GPS and the controlling of making sure we’re seeding relatively straight eliminating overlap, you know, no double applications. I found it quite interesting when we went from the simple light bar where we steered by a green light to where now the tractor is basically controlled except for the end.
The good news is though, we were able to eliminate one 60-foot pass and we went to the light bar, and then we went to two 60-foot pass less on every field, which you laugh, but in some respect, it saved us the application inputs on $7 an acre or seven acres for all those dollars. So it’s really a return on investments as well. We look at, and of course we’re using agronomists and we’re using people that have special applications. So we’re continuously lowering our input costs due to the fact that we have precision agriculture.
Sarah Lovas: Oh, that’s a big deal. And, you know, I’ll tell you a little bit about how we’re using some technologies on our farm here in a second too, but, when I’m working with different farmers in an agronomy capacity and in a precision agriculture consulting capacity, I find that every farm is a little bit different. And that’s okay. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that because it’s all about trying to figure out every farm. It has always been individual and unique before AgTech was ever a part of agriculture. So it’s always trying to figure out how we can find that place where technology and agriculture can really enhance that particular farming operation into that particular farming operation’s culture. So I think that’s really great.
In our farming operation, how well my background is as an agronomist has largely been based in soil science, and then I always had a pretty big interest in precision agriculture and how we put data layers together. And so years ago, I started using a computer software platform called ADMS from GK Technology, which really does allow us to put together different data layers. And so I do put together yield data, satellite imagery you can use various data. If you take drone data, we can incorporate that. You can have multiple data layers to put it together. And so really, I’ve spent a lot of time behind the computer actually trying to figure out how to make that work so we can make good decisions and then turn that into action for doing prescriptions.
The irony of the situation where we farm in the Red River Valley I have zoned out and precision soil sampled probably the entire farm, but I have found that not every single field requires it every year. And so I have actually changed some of my practices there a little bit. But it’s interesting because it does help me understand where we really need to be investing different inputs. So it’s been great from that standpoint. But I also wanted to bring up your point about the overlap and the cutting down on the passes. So many farmers, I think they, they get into the tractor cab and they just enjoy the auto steer component of it because you think it makes things so user-friendly and easy. And it does, it does expand the day. It allows farmers to farm at night when the sun goes down. But at the same time, it cuts down on the overlap, it cuts down on the inefficiencies. So it does make us better farmers. And I just, I always laugh because I think about the hired man who’s doing tillage and he gets in and the auto steer breaks or something and he calls over the radio, the auto steer broke, what do I do? And you come back and you say, it’s okay. Grab the wheel.
Mark Watne: Yeah. It is so true because I remember when I started learning the systems and my hardest thing for adjustment, and you may not think of this, but you had an automatic reaction to reach up and grab a steering wheel after you turned just out of habit. And of course when you grab the steering wheel, nothing bad happens except it kicks the auto steer out for that moment, and I was so frustrated because if you just left the steering wheel, you’re way better than trying to do that automatic thing. So it was a huge step. But there are other things. I mean, a lot of times you forget the genetics. I mean we’re pretty much early adopters of new genetics. We really like that.
And that technology is just on the verge of some great, great advances. Next thing is going from what we call the old plow to a vertical tillage unit, which in itself levels out the soil a little bit and allows for the organic manner to be spread substantially more uniform so that we can go through there into one pass after it without disturbing the soil so much. So losing some of the soil health those things are somewhat taken for granted in the technology world, but they’re huge advancements and they’re making us way more conservationists in the sense of restoring moisture, soil health you know, keeping some organic matter in the land, stopping the land from the ability to drift a little bit. So those technologies we take a little bit more for granted, but they’re huge steps forward in trying to make our farms more efficient.
Sarah lovas & Mark Watne
Sarah Lovas: I am really excited about the advanced precision agriculture at tillage. I think it’s going to be just so neat. You know, of course we’re all trying to move towards a place where we have reduced to no tillage, just because we’re trying to do the best job that we possibly can out there, wherever it’s possible. But with the advancements that we’ve got coming in hydraulics and I think some of the computer technologies that are out there, I think we’re going to be able to write prescriptions. Especially like I’m thinking about in your area kind of out there in Velva where you guys have topography and potholes, you know, those kinds of things where you go to the top of the hill and you can get more erosion at the top of the hill. Maybe you can change the angle on that, on that disc just a little bit. And we can write a prescription to do that. And that’s something I don’t think we have. We were just starting to scratch the surface on. But it’s going to be fun. Yeah, it’s going to be really fun. So I’m looking forward to it.
Mark Watne: And along with that we have this ability to add or take away inputs on the go. And that’s huge for those areas. And when you treat a whole field, like it’s the same field, that’s exactly what Sarah said. It’s not that the variation is dramatic. So, if when you have that ability to either have it automatically adjust based on some mapping system or manually adjust you can enhance the growth in areas which need that or you can adjust seeding rates. So those things are getting more and more adapted to availability to farmers. They’re not always a perfect return on investment at this time, but it’s coming. And that’s really what we need to learn more of. And why I’m so excited about all this technology development because we’re going to find somebody that can do a whole lot of research on something that can make farmers have a return on investments. So we don’t have to do all that testing out in the field ahead of time. Because it’s very expensive to make a change and that limits our ability to make the change. But having something that tests it and looks at it and shows the profitability of doing it will make it adapt much faster and hopefully get out and it feels better.
Sarah Lovas: And I think one of the things we’re going to have to think about too, when we start thinking about return on investment and those kinds of things, is sometimes it isn’t always a cost savings. Sometimes it’s a more efficient use. And I think that’s a hard thing to sometimes think about. Especially with fertilizer, my variable rate fertilizer recommendations, they don’t always come back with less fertilizer. But what you’re doing is in the spots where you’re producing, you know, very little, you’re not investing. And in the spots that maybe weren’t that, that have the higher yield potential that maybe weren’t getting the max, the right amount or a limiting amount of fertilizer, you’re maximizing that area now. And so it ends up being better crops and yet you’re managing the fertilizer better, it’s better for the environment and everybody, everybody wins. So Mark, question for you. What do you think the AgTech industry needs most going forward?
Mark Watne: Well, I always tend to focus back on that there’s just a large quantity of technology out there and we need a little bit of sorting out to try to figure out how we can put it into a true application. And I listened to some folks from what was called Plug and Play last night. And I’ve known of them for a while and I always relate back to it took probably 50 years for a John Deere Case and AGCO to come up with a solution to hydraulic input hoses where you could plug into the same thing without changing them on the end. So I think that’s going to be the challenge. It’s not going to be a lack of available technology, it’s going to be how does it interface with each other? How do you share the information then what is the value of that information?
So we have a lot of things both from a regulatory side and to a practical use side that will allow us to make the most use of all this. And that will come down to how can I take data from one system and apply it to another and how to, who owns all that data? And then finding how to interpret the data to some logical return on investment. And again, it won’t be the lack of desire. I mean, everybody out there buys a new cell phone every two years. So I don’t really think that’ll be a problem other than, you know, cost wise for what we can afford. The problem will be how that interface works and how we use all that information that we gather.
Sarah Lovas: Yeah, I like the analogy to the hydraulic hook ups. I actually use that one pretty often myself because it’s so true. But I do think that they’re, you know, I understand that a lot of companies out there want to have their proprietary files for moving things around because they want to capture that, you know, their investment into their companies and I get that. But there are times and places where we really do need to have some industry standards so we can easily send data back and forth. And that’s getting to be a bigger issue with some of these cloud-based platforms like Climate, or John Deere’s Op Center or Slingshot. These are great platforms. I’ve had wonderful success sending prescriptions through these, through these platforms, but sometimes they want things just tweaked a little bit. And so if we can somehow from an industry standard, make sure that we’re able to easily send that data back and forth, that would be good.
Another interesting challenge that actually occurs with that from a prescription writing standpoint is you know, in North Dakota we have big fields, right? Huge fields. So when you map out a field, you end up with a lot of data in that field. The files are large and so sending that data across can get to be kind of cumbersome at times. And then of course it depends upon what kind of detail you’ve got into that prescription as well. If you’ve got a field with a lot of variability, you know, a field that might require only three zones versus seven zones or something like that, then you can have a lot going on and the data gets to be even bigger. And so we need to have ways that we can maintain the detail and the prescription and handle that volume of data and send it across those platforms.
But I do think the cloud-based way of sending prescriptions actually is very effective and it actually does help farmers a lot. I think it’s easier for the farmers rather than sending them on jump drives. So it’s definitely an interesting thing. But one thing too that I’ve seen for the AgTech industry recently I was visiting with people about adoption trends for precision agriculture across the United States. And there’s a survey from Crop Life America and Purdue University that they come out every year. And in 2020, they had kind of an interesting paragraph in there about putting together data layers and basically what that said is farmers really like their auto steer. They like their section control, they like the precision agriculture that they can get in and you push the button and they go.
But it’s the one where you actually have to digest and funnel through and work with the data layers to turn them into something that’s a big challenge. And they identify that as a huge issue. In the industry one of the things that’s really interesting along those same lines is that precision agriculture adoption has by and far and away been much greater in the corn belt states than it has been in the wheat raising states. And in those corn belt states, oftentimes grid sampling has been the foundation versus zone sampling.
While in grid sampling, it really is the soil sampling that determines the variability. And you don’t have to put together data layers to create that because you do that on the backside, whereas in zones you need to really interpret that data upfront and make sure that it’s done correctly because that is the framework for every decision that you make going forward.
Well, in the 2021 Crop Life survey, I found a very interesting stat that the grid sampling was starting to drop off a little bit and a few people were starting to take a look at zones, but a few people were actually going back to the old fashioned composite sampling, but they were citing frustrations that it was hard to create zones. So where I’m going with this soapbox is that we really do need to have I think some people in the industry learning how to really work to put that together so that we know what that data means and how we really do identify variability in the field from data. That’s one of the big needs that I see from the industry.
Mark Watne: And I think you’re identifying really a key component. What we need for an AgTech company to really get rolling and to be successful, I think it needs to have somewhat of a three focus approach. And the first one would be obviously developing, designing something that brings value. The next thing would be getting themselves exposed, getting them out in trials, getting working with NDSU or the Grand Farm when it gets fully established so farmers can have a visual. But the last part is the most important part and that is giving the farmer some tools or bringing people to the field to teach in the education component because that’s where farmers are going to have a lack and that’s why we adopt the stuff that is simple because we can understand it and we have a visual.
So when you get into you know, layering graphs or the style of soil sampling farmers need to have that rationality to be shown why it makes a difference. And then they’ll do a quick calculation. And I do this myself. If I do all that work, a grid sampling and I lay my maps out and it costs me, I’ll make a number up $20 an acre, which is probably more than that, I can simply add 10 pounds of nitrogen and meet the needs of everything. Well that’s a logical approach, but it’s not a smart approach because it is back to some places need more, some need less, some you’re never going to get a return on. If you apply that much nitrogen, you’ll never get it back. So really there is logic in doing it differently, but it’s a calculation that farmers are used to. They’re very used to me changing something, but at the end I just up my application and I basically cover everything and I’m fine and I don’t have to worry about it. So AgTech needs to put people out in the field and they need to do the demonstrations and they need to bring the farmer along and that takes time and investment. But I think they’ll be way more successful if they go down that road.
Sarah Lovas: That’s a really great point because I think, you know, we as farmers sometimes think about our traditional way of how we’ve always done it. And let’s face it, this is a big culture change for us. If my grandfather could see the computer screens and these tractors, I wonder what he would think, you know? And so to have to, and I think a lot of farmers think about fixing stuff with the nine 16 wrench and sometimes, well if you fix it with the nine 16 and you hit it hard enough, trust me, you didn’t fix it. It just got worse because you broke the monitor. But I think that idea of bringing along education, that’s really important.
Mark Watne: It is. In the early nineties we went to a really one minimum tillage, one pass system on our farm. And the first couple of years it was, it was painful. We had such a learning curve and it was a really simple thing. It was getting the unit to float properly and getting the seating depths accurate. And it was something we all knew, but it was new enough that we had to really adjust. And I can remember my dad, he was nervous. I mean he was just, oh you guys, you know, you’re headed on a path, but if you ask him today, he said, the reason we’re still farming today is because of that change.
Mm-hmm. It really did make us substantially more efficient even though there was the learning curve. So that’s the point I’m trying to make is there is a substantial learning curve in this stuff. And to this day my dad gets into the combine and he doesn’t kick in the auto steer, but he likes to combine. So it’s, it’s not a huge factor because it’s not a lot of efficiency because he’s really good at it. He’s 84 years old, he keeps the header full. He doesn’t maybe drive straight, but at the end of the day he’s still, you know, accomplishing it. And you know, that’s probably more of a luxury to be able to kick the auto steer in a combine than it is totally efficient, especially combining wheat or something like that. So it’s definitely tradition that likes to hold us back. Some education can break tradition if we can show people how to do it.
Sarah Lovas: Yeah, I think that’s great. So what kind of advice do you have to give for AgTech startups?
Mark Watne: I’m back to these three items. You’ve got to focus on everything. If you’re just going to bring a product out here and assume farmers will automatically adopt it, you’re probably chasing something that won’t work long term. So we need that support. We need to be behind the support, especially if you’re not kind of into what the traditional place farmers buy. =You know, John Deere, Case and AGCO can get away with a little bit but a new startup’s going to have to deliver a little bit more. Expectations will be higher for them than they may before a John Deere for example.
Sarah Lovas: Yeah, I definitely think it’s important to make sure that the technology that you’re coming up with is something that’s very relevant to the farmer. If you ask yourself, how does this make this farmer money or how does this improve this farmer’s life? How does this impact that farming operation? And you can answer those questions with your product, you’ll probably do okay, but you got to be there too, to walk alongside and help us understand how to make it work. It’s a lot of fun. Yeah. So thanks for that.
Mark Watne: Yeah, I think Sarah and I’ve gotten to know each other over a little bit of time here. We’re not like we know each other really well, but we run across each other in meetings. So yeah, it’s refreshing to be in a room where people are looking forward and looking at the avenues to be able to, you know, kind of enhance not only life but obviously work better with the environment and to potentially increase income for family farms. And I work on that stuff every day. That’s my goal.
Sarah Lovas: Yeah. And my passion is making sure that, you know, we produce the safest, most abundant, most affordable food to feed a hungry world. And I just want to see agriculture and North Dakota agriculture flourish into the future. So that’s what I’m about. And I guess that gives us a lot in common. So there you go.
Jake Joraanstad & Paul Mccrory
This interview features Jake Joraanstad, the co-founder and CEO of Bushel, and Paul McCrory, an agriculture economics student at North Dakota State University who also grew up on a seventh-generation family farm.
Cameron MacNabb: Hello and welcome to Emerging Grower, a podcast where we’ll focus on bringing growers and ag tech professionals together to help accelerate conversations between the two fields and the agriculture industry. This podcast is energized by Grand Farm, which is enabling technology to feed the world by facilitating collaboration on innovation, solving some of the world’s largest challenges in agriculture technology. My name is Cameron MacNabb and I’m a member of the Grand Farm team who is helping facilitate this podcast. Joining us in this month’s episode, we have Jake Joraanstad and Paul McCrory discussing software technology and agriculture. Jake is the Co-Founder and CEO of Bushel, which has powered 1200+ grain facilities across the US and Canada with real-time business information for their producers. Paul is a student at NDSU studying agriculture economics. He grew up on a seventh-generation family farm overlooking the Missouri River. They grow mainly corn, soybeans, and sunflowers along with some feed crops. We hope you enjoy Jake and Paul’s conversation and that you also are able to gain valuable insight into the world of agriculture.
Jake Joraanstad: Alright, hey everybody, my name is Jake Joraanstad. I am the co-founder and CEO at Bushel. We’re a software company based in Fargo, North Dakota here, and I grew up in a family which farms on both sides of my family. We’ve been building Bushel since 2017 when we launched this product to the ag industry. Grain companies, co-ops and ethanol plants, are our customers and the farmers are our end users. And so that’s kind of where I’m coming from today in this conversation. And we have our friend Paul here. I’m going to have him share a little background on himself, his farm, and what he is up to in school. And we’ll jump in.
Paul McCrory: Yeah, thanks Jake. So like you said, I’m Paul McCrory. I grew up in Linton, North Dakota. Just South of Bismarck, about an hour. I grew up on a farm just overlooking the Missouri River there. We have red Angus cattle as well as corn, soybeans and sunflowers are pretty much our main row crops. We have a little wheat as well and we do some feed crops to keep the cattle going throughout the winter. I have one older brother, he’s two years older. He moved back to the farm. He’s married and has one kid. Dad’s still heavily involved in the farm and grandpa’s on the farm as well. We’ve been there for seven generations, so sticking around a while. Currently, I’m in my third year here at NDSU. My major is agriculture economics. I’m looking to hopefully get into grad school as well, looking into agribusiness and applied economics with something probably in the commodity trading field.
Jake Joraanstad: Thanks for the background. So back to the family farm. Real quick before we jump into what you’re doing at school, was it a farmstead, was it the homestead farm? How’d the farm start? Do you know the story? Seven generations must have been, you know, you guys must have moved in as a homestead situation.
Paul McCrory: Yeah, so I think that first generation that came over actually settled in a place called Winona. That’d be probably about 15 to 20 miles south of where we’re currently at. And I know they did some trading across the river there. So, when it froze they did some trading there and had some good river bottom ground there that we actually still farm a little bit today. And then I think a generation after that moved up to where we’re currently at and they would’ve been on the river bottom. And then when they flooded the Missouri River, my grandpa actually moved on top of the hill just to get away from the water. So he moved on top of the hill, got a little more land there and that’s where our farm currently sits.
Jake Joraanstad: So cool. Lots of stories in North Dakota of homestead farms. It’s always fun to understand. So tell us a little bit maybe about your grandpa first and then maybe what your dad’s role is on the farm now. Start with your grandpa though.
Paul McCrory: Okay. Yeah, so Grandpa McCrory, Glen’s his first name. He definitely liked the cattle a little bit more. We have some pretty good pasture land along the river there. You can always get water pretty easily and the farming maybe not be quite as good right around our farm just because the land’s a little bit rougher. So he grew up a little bit more involved with the cattle. He was always involved in the water commission board too, in Linton. Stayed pretty involved with that just because being along the river there. I deal a lot with the Corps of Engineers and things like that. And then my dad went to NDSU as well. And then when he came back he slowly started taking over and started growing the farm.
He knew it pretty well and he got a little more into the farming side. So we still have those cattle like I mentioned before, but I’d say my dad’s a little more focused on the grain and things like that. And then my brother just came back recently, he always grew up liking the cattle a little bit more from my grandpa. He always encouraged that we got our little herd started when we were in middle school and high school. So my brother from there kind of grew it and he has been a little bit more in charge of that. It’s been a little easier for him to take over. We built a lot of fences growing up, so we got some blood, sweat, and tears there. But I know he’s always like that. And now he’s getting a little more involved since he’s back full-time.
Jake Joraanstad: So growing operation, certainly your dad is probably the one that grew it—maybe the most in the row crop side. Yep. Pretty decent cattle operation as well. Your brother’s kind of in charge next probably as you’re still finishing school out here. So tell us a little bit about how, you know, are you spending time in the spring and fall? Are you going back on weekends? What’s your normal life kind of living in Fargo out here, but being on the farm when you can?
Paul McCrory: Yeah, so I’d say after I graduated high school that summer I was really involved. Didn’t have much for sports or anything, so that would’ve been one of the times when I got to know the operation the best. Anywhere from planting, helping dad spray and anything like that. And then coming to college, I didn’t go back a whole lot just because I knew I wanted to be involved as much as I could in high school, and try and hang out as much as I could up here. Would go back a couple of weekends, definitely during harvest and I went back a little bit early to help plant as much as I could. Dad would kind of keep the planter full of seed, fertilizer, anything like that. And he knew I could maybe stay up a little bit later than him. So I would try to stay up as late as I could and keep everything going. And then after my freshman year, I went back and we actually were able to get some irrigation and that was the summer that we had droughts. So it was pretty essential.
Jake Joraanstad: And it was good timing. That was the first year you had put irrigation on the operation, right?
Paul McCrory: Yeah, so we were actually given the opportunity to rent the land that the irrigation was on.
Jake Joraanstad: So you learned how important that was going to be during the drought? No, this year you’re okay, right?
Paul McCrory: Yeah. We actually had some sunflowers on there and we didn’t have to use it too much for those. So it’s, it’s definitely some older equipment that we don’t want to use too much. But yeah, other than that we haven’t gotten too involved in anything else. We just started potatoes a little bit this year, trading some land with the Cavendish farms.
Jake Joraanstad: Okay. So first year getting into fresh potatoes or are we talking about processed stuff?
Paul McCrory: Yeah, so it’s all fresh potatoes. They pretty much just swap land with us. So they take the pivots that we have and we do some, because of the rotation, they don’t want to deal with the corn or anything. They’re pretty much just focused on the potatoes. So that’s the kind of stuff we got into this year.
Jake Joraanstad: So, speaking of equipment, we have to ask the question, what color is the farm operations equipment?
Paul McCrory: Yep. We’ve got John Deere out of our farm.
Jake Joraanstad: Okay. All right. Green stuff. Paul McCrory: Oh, that’s right.
Jake Joraanstad: RDO will be proud of you. The next question is the Bushel question. Who do you sell to?
Paul McCrory: Red Trail Energy is where most of our corn goes to. And then Lighthouse Commodities.
Jake Joraanstad: All right, so let’s talk a little bit about technology. You’re going to be for sure the youngest person on the farm when you’re out there and maybe if you run it in the future with your brother. Your brother’s a couple of years older than you, right?
Paul McCrory: Yep. He’s two years older.
Jake Joraanstad: So, you and I were talking before starting here on the conversation. I think technology’s both a battle and a benefit. Where are you seeing, you know, when you’re just out there even this fall or something, where are you seeing the benefits? And then maybe talk a little bit about where the challenges are in your mind. And whether it’s for you or maybe even talk about maybe how your dad views it. Certainly, grandpa probably likes to ignore that if he can at this point.
Paul McCrory: Yeah, it’s definitely interesting to see the dynamics there on who accepts it more and who doesn’t. And I’ve actually said my grandpa has been pretty open. He’s kind of always been really open-minded to it. So this summer we actually got an app for him to run the irrigation on his phone. And he’s been pretty excited. So he can go up there.
“Lots of stories in North Dakota of homestead farms. It’s always fun to understand.”– Jake Joraanstad
Jake Joraanstad: Love that. He’ll have to leave his chair to see what’s going on.
Paul McCrory: That’s right. Yeah. He can take a nap and then wake up and check the pivots and works pretty good. Call if there’s ever something broke down.
Jake Joraanstad: That was a twohour job before checking pivots probably, you know, you have to go out and back again and whatever else. Now you can sit there and at least see what’s going on.
Paul McCrory: Yeah. So we’ve been trying to upgrade the older technology there. Some are running on hydraulic, electric, and everything like that. So the first year when I ran it, we were just starting to put those systems on so I could see them from my phone. But we’re pretty much having to go up there and do everything by hand. Where now we’re starting to get it so we can turn them each and every way. It helps a lot for harvest too. You don’t have to get out of that machine and turn it one way or the other. So cool. It saves a little time there.
Jake Joraanstad: Who’s out there plugging stuff in? Is it you and your brother? Is it your dad going out there and getting the technology set up? Do you have service providers coming out and doing it? Who’s setting up? Like you got the app set up for your grandfather, but that takes technology on the pivot too. How do you guys do that?
Paul McCrory: Yeah, so I’d say whenever we have any technology that we want to upgrade or anything, we’d always have the provider come out and put it on for us. So I know like when our system was updating, we’d always call them and have them put it on for us because we didn’t really have too much experience with anything like that before. So we definitely always call them. So I was definitely learning as much as I could and trying to really relay that back to my dad and my brother. It was definitely beneficial for them this summer because they were running it themselves.
Jake Joraanstad: So for us technology people, listening in what, you know, is it practical or sustainable that you’ve got to have the provider, the service provider, the facility, the guys building the equipment, coming out and doing this? Or do you see a day where either it’s easy enough for your team, just you and your dad and your brothers to do it yourself? Or do you feel like you’re going to put the hat on more often than not? What’s your opinion on where it’s going? Do you kind of expect that service now that you buy the equipment or what’s your opinion on that?
Paul McCrory: I would definitely say there’s always going to be a need for someone who’s heavily involved in that technology. Because I know on the farm, like my dad, he’s really busy. Maybe even day-to-day stuff, like telling the hired man that he needs to go pick up some bales somewhere or breakdowns, and for him to learn all that or even my brother can definitely be challenging. So I’d say we’d either have the provider come out for each specific idea, like either with the tractors or anything like that or if it’s with the irrigation. But we could also maybe hire someone who’d specialize in an area like that. But I know for my brother and my dad to learn it all, it would be a lot.
Jake Joraanstad: Yeah, that’s fair. So, how old are you Paul?
Paul McCrory: I’m 21. Just in my third year at college.
Jake Joraanstad: And I’m 32, so we’re both, well I’m a millennial. I don’t even know what you are.
Paul McCrory: Yeah. I guess I’m not even sure.
Jake Joraanstad: Gen Z
Paul McCrory: Yeah, something like that.
Jake Joraanstad: Gen Z. Gen Z, that’s right. All right. Gen Z. I’m an older middle millennial. So both of us have this view. The fact that you still think it’s going to kind of be on the providers to be heavily involved in making sure the technology’s out there and working is important. Because I think a lot of people think, hey, you know, deploy an app and everybody will use it. But when it comes to equipment and hardware and setups on the farm, it’s not so simple. How’s connectivity out west? Do you guys, you know, when you’re out in the tractor, do you have a network, can you stream Netflix on the iPad still or do you guys have connectivity issues?
Paul McCrory: I would definitely say service has been a little bit of a problem and that’s definitely limited how much technology we can use. I know we’ve been trying to use iPads and stuff to collect all the data when we’re harvesting or planting or anything like that. Just because if you could get that data, it would help a lot. But I know there have been times where we’ve maybe just been at the end of the field messing with the iPad and dad’s out there like we don’t have time for that. So I know definitely one thing is getting better service, that would be one thing that helps.
Jake Joraanstad: I assume a cell network would be better, that would be what you need help with. You don’t have wifi probably broad enough on the farm to make it work for you.
Paul McCrory: Yeah, that’s correct. Cell service would definitely be one thing. And then I’d say there’s always maybe just some technical difficulties where we wouldn’t know what to do. And we don’t want to take the time to call the provider. We just want to shut it off and get planted.
Jake Joraanstad: Shut it off, unplug it and get in the tractor.
Paul McCrory: That’s right.
Jake Joraanstad: Okay. This is a question from me being a technology guy in the space and trying to be helpful. What do you see, like what opinions do you think we need to hear in the AgTech space? People who are building software for farmers people who are building this equipment that needs to be hooked up to some technology platform. What do we need to hear that would be helpful? Like what, what could change for you or what are your strong opinions in this area?
Paul McCrory: Well, I know one thing for us, there’s always been a lot of yield data collection and everything like that. Everyone wants us to get that into John Deere or whoever we bought the seed from. They’re always wanting to collect that. And I know one thing we’ve maybe had problems with on our farm is maybe the combine isn’t even calibrated right. Or something like that going into the field. So where the data is coming from maybe isn’t the most accurate so then our data really isn’t too relevant. And I know that’s one thing, just keeping it real simple for us because we don’t want to spend that extra time to get all that stuff ready when we’re at the end of the field. This spring was a good example where we didn’t have much time. Everything was really wet. We couldn’t get into the field for a couple of weeks later than we wanted. So once we were out there, there was no time to mess with anything. I know our liquid fertilizer broke on one planter, we just kept going because we had to get that seed in the ground to make sure it wasn’t too late. So I know keeping everything simple and making sure it is easy for us to use because we just don’t want to spend any extra time on stuff like that.
Jake Joraanstad: Yeah. So reliability, uptime, all that matters a lot. So let’s talk a little bit about the financial side. So crop marketing, maybe start there. Who picks up the phone and sells the crop? Is your dad still running that show or is your brother doing it?
Paul McCrory: Yeah, I would say it’s been mostly my dad. So the way I think we’ve done it in the past is we’ve pretty much all had kind of our own separate stuff. So right now I’d say for the cattle, I guess not commodities, but cattle I think would be about half and half my brother and my dad.
I’d say the cattle’s about half and half, and grandpa still has a couple too. So my dad, I’d say they talk about it a lot on what they plan to do with marketing, but in the end it’s always a decision on whoever owns the head.
And then when it comes to commodities, Like I said before, we do a lot of stuff through Lighthouse. So my dad would always keep us in the loop on what he planned on doing. But in the end, my brother, I know he’s always making his own decisions. He’s texting me a lot trying to learn what I’m hearing in class. So I know they talk a lot, but in the end I know they always make their own decisions.
Jake Joraanstad: Yeah, that makes sense. And I think just for those who are listening in Lighthouse Commodities, it’s kind of a unique player because they, you know, aggregate and buy the crop from multiple farms and have it delivered to other facilities. They don’t actually own the elevator itself. They’re a third party, but they probably are advising your dad on what they think about for how they should market the grain. Probably if he’s listening to them, it’s going better than in people who are just making it up on their own or end up in the fall cash price only. That’s the biggest thing we hear in the AgTech space. Everybody in AgTech seems to think we’re all better crop marketers than farmers because we won. Look at the history even go, wow, farmers sell their crop at the worst price every year, which is typically in the fall. Yeah. Once in a while they get lucky and that’s the best time of the year, but most of the time it’s not. But I don’t think it’s that simple. So you know, in your case if your family, you know, working with Lighthouse who’s given probably good advice throughout the year that makes some sense.
Paul McCrory: Yeah. And I know it always helps that they’re always willing to line up the trucking and since it is important.
Jake Joraanstad: Yeah. Logistics, right?
Paul McCrory: Yeah. And that’s a big part of it too, just because we’re trying to haul our grain like 120 miles for red trail and if they just take a little commission off that we’re willing to pay that just because lining up that stuff is a big headache. And one thing that my dad can just pay a little bit for and know that he doesn’t have that on his plate and it’s going to an ethanol facility.
Jake Joraanstad: So. Yeah. The thing that we always remind ourselves in this space though is to remember how much futures price moves every year. And these, you know, the last 10 years could be some pretty big swings. So on the logistics side, how many trucks do you guys have?
Paul McCrory: Right now we probably have four working trucks.
Jake Joraanstad: Okay. So thinking about the challenge of logistics you know, in this case you’re not even using your trucks, they’re sending trucks to you. What’s your view on this idea of autonomous trucking? How do you drive a truck in the fall typically? Or have you?
Paul McCrory: I have before. Yep. Yep.
Jake Joraanstad: So what’s your view on you know, one of the things Emerging Prairie is working on with Grand Farm is autonomous trucking, So the idea that even if it’s a lead follow where you’re driving one truck and then the other truck’s completely driverless and you’ve got ability to bring two loads of grain just simply that’s doubling the capacity. But imagine that truck that maybe even Lighthouse worked with you on, picks up that grain with nobody in it on the side of the field and heads to the facility. I mean, do you see that sooner or later? Is it just crazy? What’s your opinion on that?
Paul McCrory: Yeah, definitely. I know I could definitely see that where maybe Lighthouse would bring their trucks because we have some bins in town that are on a pretty good road. We have a lot of space there. Focus maybe picking up from the bin a lot of times not in the field.
Jake Joraanstad: Yeah. It’s a little bit less problematic.
Paul McCrory: Yeah, I definitely think it’d be a long time before anything in the field just because there are always challenges.
Jake Joraanstad: You have got to be there right when the combine’s there ready to load out.
Paul McCrory: That’s right. But no, I definitely could see it working with longer hauls like that.
Yeah. No, I definitely say that would be an option in the future. I know I’ve even heard of it a little bit in class. They’ve been talking about trying to get some of those autonomous trucks going. So I definitely think that could be a potential. I’m not sure how it would work with liability and stuff like that if it crashes into someone, but I know that’s kind of where things are going. Like maybe even autonomous grain carts in the field going from truck to combine or anything like that. And I definitely think that’d be helpful as less and less people know how to use all this technology in agriculture. We’re definitely going to need those guys that can do it the best to spread out their workload.
Jake Joraanstad: Uber for trucking. We’re going to figure this out someday. So my farm tech friends would be really upset if I didn’t ask this question. What do you guys use for your accounting software? Do you know what your dad or your brother does for financials? Are you doing QuickBooks online? Are you doing spreadsheets and you’ve seen a lot of spreadsheets?
Paul McCrory: Yeah, so I would say my mom and dad actually both were accountants coming out of college. That helps. My mom actually runs an accounting firm in Linton.
Jake Joraanstad: Okay. And does she do the farm financials as well?
Paul McCrory: She does. Yep.
Jake Joraanstad: Okay. How about you Paul, any questions coming my way, what are you thinking about? What do you want to ask from a guy like me who’s supposed to be building valuable tools for farmers?
Paul McCrory: Yeah. So maybe one thing, how did you guys come about the Bushel app?
Jake Joraanstad: Well, that’s a relatively simple answer. My co-founder Ryan, you know, grew up on the farm every day. You know, I grew up near farms working on my family’s farm once in a while. He grew up on the farm helping his dad deliver sugar beets, beans, and corn into the facility. And he remembers all this, you know, even more recently, all this time spent trying to keep track of scale tickets. And so that was, that delivery ticket or scale ticket was the first thing we wanted to solve for. He said, hey, it’s pretty ridiculous that you have to drive through and get this paper receipt and then figure out how to get it back to the right organization back on the farm. And then that needs to get entered eventually into, you know, either keeping track of your own, you know, people are doing math on their own contracts.
And so how can we make it easy to see every delivery you’re making, every contract that you have with that facility and then updating that stuff in real time. You know, you should be able to see your contract update today. It shouldn’t be next week or in the mail or whatever. And so, so much of, well not the companies you’re working with, but so much of the industry is paper and we started there, so how can we digitize all the paper processes? And then once we did that, we knew we could sign contracts on the app. Now you can submit offers so you’re okay, you know, your data, your brother could go in and put a futures offer in and lock it in for the fall if you wanted. And now we’re working on making payments available. So instead of, you’ve seen the paper checks stacked on the desk. So somebody’s got to have you run them to the bank.
So you may need to drive just to put money in the bank. The rest of us get that in a bank account every couple of weeks with our paycheck. But farmers’ paychecks come in, paper check in the mail has to go to town. So that’s something else we’re working on is there’s no reason your dad’s got to do a 20-mile round trip, 40-mile round trip, to drop a check off.
Paul McCrory: Cool. So maybe one thing is how you guys are advancing and it seems like you guys are advancing really quickly. What could we do as producers to help give you guys feedback that would accurately improve the technology you guys are already using?
Jake Joraanstad: Well, one of the things that’s a really basic challenge is I think farmers think they’re giving people feedback because they’re at the coffee shop and they complain to their friend or whoever. Or you’re out, you know, you’re out at a football game and talking to somebody. But remember I think you have got to remember it and it’s partially the technology company’s fault too. But I may not be at the same football game that you’re at. So I don’t think that the industry is getting enough direct feedback from farmers and we may talk like we know the farmer really well, but unless you’re out there riding around in the tractor or sitting in the truck and checking things out together, it’s hard to get the raw real feedback.
But I would guess farmers assume that their feedback’s gotten there because they get to talk to other people about it. But I think like, you know, John Deere corporate probably doesn’t hear your dad’s complaints directly about why that tractor wasn’t doing its job. I think if we could figure out a better way to get that feedback directly it’d be awesome. In Bushel’s case the customer is actually the co-op. Or the grain company. And then the farmer is the end user and it actually has their logo on it so you don’t even necessarily know always that it’s us.
Paul McCrory: Yeah. Unless it’s powered by Bushel. Right at the bottom.
Jake Joraanstad: So we know that that would help. We build these user groups but it’s hard to ask for farmers’ time above and beyond what they’re already doing. So that would be something that would help a lot is if we had, if everybody had a little more access to what the farmers thinking, I’m sure if we had a Facebook poll we’d get all kinds of opinions, you know, but that’s probably a gap in my opinion. I still feel like we don’t get enough feedback from the farmers.
Paul McCrory: Yeah, no and I can definitely see it being very helpful even if you just sent someone in the combine, because that may be when we have time. Yeah. And ride along. That’s where you’re going to get the most information.
Jake Joraanstad: And that’s the best time.
Paul McCrory: Exactly. Yeah. Yeah, no one wants to get out of the combine.
Jake Joraanstad: Yeah, good point. Maybe we just all have to get in the field and hang out when you guys are doing that. We don’t want to be in the way either. So. Cool. Well Paul, thanks for joining, and looking forward to more conversations.
Paul McCrory: Good to meet you. Yeah. Appreciate it Jake.
To learn more about Grand Farm, you can visit the website, which is www.grandfarm.com