Grand Farmer is an agricultural podcast produced by Grand Farm that brings together growers and AgTech professionals to help accelerate conversations around emerging technologies in the agriculture industry. Grand Farmer 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.
This interview features Adam Spelhaug and Austin Benes discussing Data Management Platforms in AgTech. Adam is a regional account manager at GDM Seeds which provides cutting-edge technology to research, develop, and commercialize maximum-yield soybean varieties as well as other extensive crops. Adam also has had 15 years of experience being an agronomist at Peterson Farm Seeds. Austin is a senior key account executive at RealmFive which is accelerating the agriculture industry’s transition to efficient digital supply and labor via automation.
*This interview has been edited for grammar and conciseness
Austin Benes: If you want to give me a little background on yourself and kind of where you’re from and what your perspective is, that’d be great.
Adam Spelhaug: I grew up on a small farm that included corn, soybeans, wheat, sunflower, alfalfa, and cattle which was located southwest of Fargo about 30 miles. So, Kindred is the town that I still live in today and am farming in. We’re kind of on the edge of the Red River Valley with some ground in the valley, but mostly it’s kind of lighter sandier soils, kind of more in that cattle area outside the valley. I always enjoyed helping my dad and farming and doing all that, I kind of thought that I’d for sure want to be either a farmer or do something in agriculture. Not having the biggest farm, you sometimes look at some of those economics, right?
I figured I’d probably need to get a real job but maybe stay involved in ag. So, I went to NDSU, like a lot of guys my age coming out of farms in North Dakota. I got an ag economics degree there. I went into retail for about four or five years just outside of Fargo. And then when we got married, I was out by Bismarck. My wife had a good government job out there, so I worked out in that area for a while, which was a great experience because I got to see a whole different kind of farming—with the dryer land, there’s a lot more no-till out there. There were different crops and good producers I got to work with.
My passion started with my dad, who was a Northrup King Seed dealer when I was growing up. So, I was always around the seed side and I always liked the seed side and I kind of figured I’d like to get into the seed industry. Eventually, I started working for Pulse USA out of Bismarck. And then, after we were married for a couple of years, we found out we were pregnant with twins. My wife is from Minnesota and thought it’d probably be good to get closer to family. So, we moved back to my home area and I started working for a seed company just outside of Fargo—I was with them for 15 years as a product management agronomist.
I started slowly farming on the side since I was living close to home or close to the farm. I started kind of transitioning that farm from my dad to myself. I was working a full-time job and farming on the side. And then, as of two years ago, I took a different role. Now I’m working in the seed genetics industry, working with soybean genetics and licensing. I’m working with all the seed companies really. I cover from Nebraska, Iowa, north. And then, at that time, my dad was starting to slow down, retire, and wanted to get out of it. So then I ended up taking over the farm. We had transitioned some land. We had a neighbor who started farming some land again after the prices were good in 2013 and 2014, that his grandpa had—we had rented land from them and he started farming again.
So we’re not farming a lot of acres, about 700, 800 acres on the side. But that’s enough, having a full-time job. And you know, the nice thing is I don’t need family living out of the farm. So my break-even is a little bit lower. Five, six, seven years ago, when prices were the way they were, people were still making somewhat of a profit off the farm, which is good. The last couple of years, we’ve been doing really well and having some good crops but I’ve always picked up a lot of different things I’ve wanted to do on the farm from guys in North Dakota, Minnesota, and South Dakota over the last 20 years.
I’m doing more no-till now, which also helps with having another job. I don’t have to sit in a tractor doing tillage for 15 hours a day. So that’s pretty good. I’ve also tried, even with the scale of our farm, to do more with precision planning and implementing GPS. Like most farms, we’re a little later to that because my dad said, “well, I can still drive a straight row, I don’t need GPS.” But I’ve been trying to implement some of those efficiencies into the farm just so I don’t have to spend as much time out there. That’s kind of the quick story. I still have four kids who are a couple of little juniors in high school now, the oldest of twins, a boy and a girl, and then another son that’s a junior and, and then a daughter in eighth grade. So chasing them around and sports and all those activities keep us busy.
Austin Benes: Your background is a heck of a lot more interesting than mine maybe. I, not having children, look at my friends who farm and who are in the ag industry and who are doing things and if you’re in support roles like your full-time job it’s a 13-month-a-year kind of a thing, right? There’s a lot of overlap in there and you just kind of keep going. Sometimes it comes with reducing tasks and sometimes it comes from multitasking, and oftentimes it comes from kind of offloading that into some other spaces. I grew up in a diversified cropping scenario as well down here in southeast Nebraska. My family still farms about half an hour north of Lincoln. We kind of grew up in sort of a transitional space. We had access to both irrigated acres and dryland acres, growing corn and soybeans and forage production. And then a cowcalf operation. Eventually, costs and dynamics around things changed. My family operation chose to go away from irrigation and actually towards the dry land management scenario.
And our cropping system, which was, I want to say, unique for our area. It’s probably unique for the state of Nebraska at large. People try to get more irrigation as opposed to less. But just the increase in costs and where we were in relation to the aquifer. Some dynamics had changed there and created some unique efficiency needs. But yeah, I attended the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. My background is actually in animal science and ag education. But when I got out of school there, my first job was in the agronomic space. It was the mid-2000s, 2005 or so, and there was not a lot of money to be made on the livestock side of things, but there was some money to be made and some opportunity in the cropping systems.
And so I had taken a position in ag retail with a large co-op in central and in southeast Nebraska at a location there. I kind of learned the ins and outs. I went to work for a couple of seed companies over the years and supported both ag retail and then some direct farmer sales as well. And I would say honed my craft as a sales agronomist. Ultimately, I actually moved away from Nebraska, and I lived in the southeast US for a number of years. I was a regional manager for a large liquid fertilizer company so I’ve managed about 15 states. I had everything kind of south of the Mason-Dixon from about central Texas, effectively east to the Atlantic seaboard. That experience that I gained down there outside of the Great Plains, outside of the Midwest working with different people, different cultures, different technologies, and different cropping systems that lends itself to sort of some creative thinking and thinking outside of the box was really informative for me. While I was there, I transitioned to an ag technology company specific to an ERP system for a sort of enterprise resource management system. And they also had an agronomic platform that I worked very closely with and that agronomic platform tied directly to farmer use, but it was primarily retail and distribution facing.
All of that really kind of sling-shotted me into the position that I’m in today— working with Realm Five back here in Lincoln, creating and developing tools to fit into the platform environment. But with maybe some more specific focus. One of the things that I think about is how I got into ag technology or how did we get into this space, in general, working in support of ag retail and, you know, ag service providers for darn near 20 years now. I’ve always been around emerging technology. We should consider emerging technologies, right? I mean, going back to the early 2000s working with SMS oil sampling or some of the earlier grid sampling elements and bringing things into a cot space and things that were more advanced than just pulling stuff off of a yield monitor, actually doing something with the data. I guess I’ve always kind of been involved in that. But working full-time in that space has been a transition for me. And so looking at my production background as a family growing up, and then kind of where we’ve come now, it’s shocking how fast we’ve gained in this space over a couple of decades, and it’s kind of fun.
Adam Spelhaug: Yeah, it seems like there’s been a lot of advancement, like I said, especially in the last five to ten years. And then I think a lot more implementation and a lot more thinking about how we can use stuff—it seems like there are so many options out there for a farmer, and a lot of ’em don’t overlap. It’d be nice to just log into one platform and I can pull this into here and this into there. When drones were really starting to be the buzzword topic, when the first quadcopters were coming out, you had to strap a GoPro to try to get that fisheye-angled lens converted over to something you could utilize all that kind of stuff five, six, seven years ago, whenever it was. And then, to now what I do, or now I’ve got all this data, or I got all this, but at that time it was sending it off and getting a file back two weeks later. And now, as you’re flying, you’re getting the picture stitch and being able to look at stuff. It’s pretty cool on that side.
Austin Benes: Some of the stuff that we talked about at Realm Five is the proprietary nature of some of these platforms, right? And not everybody has proprietary information and processes. But from the standpoint of being able to talk across platforms, this sort of interconnectivity between platforms and resources, how do you assess technology from your end as a farmer, how do you look at that and say, “Hey, this is a platform that can be utilized with other platforms, and this is one that I want to invest, not just money in, but every time you bring something new on from technology, you’re investing time as a resource and you’re investing you know, a number of other things beyond just the cash. What’s your process for assessing that?”
Adam Spelhaug: Yeah, and that’s hard, too. I think we all kind of know that there isn’t just this holy grail of one platform that’s going to handle everything. So, you try to find the ones that do multiple things across multiple. If I can have three of ’em that I’m working with, but that covers all my needs, that’s a step. I kind of understand the industry, understand the game, probably working in the industry a lot and working for companies or working with companies that they’ve got to make money too. For the farmer, yes, we want everything. We want it cheap, we want it quick, and we want it easy. But, I have that understanding of the business side of agriculture too, and those providers have to make money too and can’t be giving out all the trade secrets, right? So there’s some of that give and take and some of that dynamic. Some of it has just happened by acquisitions and things have happened and things have gotten lumped in together
Austin Benes: You’re exactly right from a technology provider’s perspective— there’s the price of a thing. So, whatever we’re delivering, whatever that platform looks like today or the data looks like today, and then there’s the price of continuing to maintain and future investments in that space and making sure that it’s intuitive and that farmers like it, and that people are continuing to find value in it. So there is the cost of that production and the cost of that maintenance. And from our perspective, we generally look at that as kind of an investment in future technologies and things like that.
Adam Spelhaug: The whole data thing, I’ve never been one that’s so scared about companies having access to my data either. I know that’s always been a conflict that sometimes with some farmers. I just figure that the companies that I’m working with, there’s a reason I’m working with them. I probably trust them and hopefully, I’m going to get a better result from them using my data. Yeah, there’s stuff in the back that your data gets sold, but we all have an iPhone in our pocket that’s listening to everything and all that stuff’s going somewhere without us seeing a nickel out of it either. So you know, we kind of do with one hand and talk with the other one.
Austin Benes: Yeah, that’s a good example. I talk with a lot of the folks that are, say, primary producers, but then folks in the industry as well that are kind of on the support side and maybe counterparts of mine and other organizations. And there’s always the question about data ownership or who has what data or how is data flowing? There are a lot of questions about it and I get the feeling a lot of times, folks may ask the question because they’re supposed to ask the question. But you know, the reality is you’re right. I mean, if you trust the company that you’re working with, then you as a producer, or whatever your position is as a customer, retain ownership of that data. That’s about as far as you can distrust or trust, whatever that process is.
A good example—we’ve got a great client in the upper Midwest, up in Michigan, who is a livestock producer and real crop producer—pretty large scale on both. I asked him for access. I said, “hey, can I use you as an example and utilize some of what we’re doing there, the use cases that we have deployed with you? Can I show those around? Can I talk about those via social media or just in customer-facing conversations and what do I need to do to protect your data?” He said, “don’t worry about it.” He said, “there’s really no single point of information that anybody can see of mine that’s going to get me in trouble or compromise anything that I do because I take care of my backend processes.”
Adam Spelhaug: And if it helps you guys do better and expand your business, that gives you more resources and things to work with, it should eventually roll back to him too, having more offerings and things like that. You would think. So I think a fair amount of forward-thinking farmers think that way, and then there are some that just don’t.
Austin Benes: No, that’s exactly right. I think it’s a matter of sometimes we get moving so fast with the development of this tech space, whether it’s IoT or even sometimes mechanical technologies and other things that evolve that we want to make sure that we’re checking all the boxes. But, the reality is maybe we’re sometimes worrying about things that we don’t need to worry about today. I think engaging in a good conversation with the technology provider—whatever that means to the producer—is something I always encourage that if it’s somebody that’s pulling soil samples for you, great. If it’s somebody who’s providing baseline genetics and genetic licensing for you, awesome. Ask questions and find out what you should be asking and what is really pertinent. And I think that sometimes there’s so much information coming at farmers now from all ends, making sure that we’re sort of focusing on the things that are most important and most pertinent to our bottom line. Finding good partners in the industry to help you find that focus is valuable.
Adam Spelhaug: Give us a good background in Realm Five and how it started and where you guys are working within the space. I think you guys had some work with Grand Farm up here a year or two ago with some sensors. I think I talked to one of you at the Cultivate Conference, but it’d be good to hear that background.
Austin Benes: Yeah, you bet. We are a sponsor of Grand Farm and Emerging Prairie up there. In fact, earlier this fall, I think it was right ahead of the announcement for the Casselton site and the groundbreaking there, we actually deployed some new sensors on-site there. And so we’ve got a weather station and some environmental sensors and things up there. So we’re really excited to see the development of the Grand Farm at the new location at Casselton and what’s going to come of all of that. That’s really fun for us. But, background on our organization and our company. So we are an ag technology company and our interest is in providing automation to processes related to the supply chain and labor management. That’s really what we’re focusing on at the top end. We were founded in 2015 by two gentlemen, both from private industries. Our CEO got together with our Chief Product Officer and they had a lot of ideas about what an ag technology company could be and solutions that could be provided and finding some synergies together. They’re both engineers by trade. Steve has a history of working with companies like AGCO and Caterpillar as a product manager, kind of on the machinery side of things.
Brant was head of a company called Digitec, which ended up becoming Lindsay FieldNET. His family also had a large swine genetics company, and they had sold that a few years prior. So he was looking to get back into the corporate world without having to go the corporate way. And Steve was kind of the same way. So they founded Realm Five here in Lincoln, Nebraska, as part of the innovation campus at the time. We may have been the first full-time resident on the innovation campus now that I think about it—which is terrific. We really started out in the agronomy space with the objective of influencing multiple verticals across agriculture.
And where that’s evolved to today is providing some good agronomic technologies. We’ve got some good large clients there. We do things in the soil moisture and environmental sensing and irrigation space across North America, and I believe four other countries outside of the US and Canada. So we’ve become kind of a global brand in that regard. We’ve also moved way more into understanding the inventory and the management of commodity inventories and transportation of commodities. We have some interesting solutions around. And so we can help manage some volumes there with crop input, commodity, or crop input volumes and liquid fertilizer.
We do a lot of work with the IT retail space. We also do a lot of work that’s producer-facing as well, right? So you know, whether we’re enabling platforms that are pushing technology through these operations and enterprises to bring value or just supplying some decision-making metrics. And then we’re working with the processor and manufacturing space in the same areas, inventory and operational management. But just providing maybe a different context around some of that data and information to be able to make some informed decisions. We kind of like to work in the places where there are problems to solve that maybe aren’t gaining a lot of attention from other folks. So corn and soybeans, we do work there, but you know, everybody’s kind of focused on corn and soybeans. One of our more interesting clients is a sugar beet production company up in the Pacific Northwest. Sugar beets are a challenging one to manage because it’s a non-conforming commodity that has a lot of the same problems as everything else you have coming from the Red River Valley. You see a movement around there all the time. It’s fast and furious.
Sugar beets are a challenging one to manage because it’s a non-conforming commodity that has a lot of the same problems as everything else you have coming from the Red River Valley. You see a movement around there all the time. It’s fast and furious.”Austin Benes
Adam Spelhaug: Yeah. We’ve been around sugar beets. We’ve never raised them, but lots of neighbors and friends and family are so we are surrounded by it and hear about it all the time.
Austin Benes: So, providing solutions that are based on real-time metrics to be able to provide better decisions on when and how to manage that commodity. That’s been a really fun project and we’re continuing to advance.
Adam Spelhaug: No, that’s good. I think there are definitely opportunities too. Like I said, everybody’s focused on the big corn and soybean acre, but there are probably a lot of solutions there already too, because everybody is so focused. So finding some of these other things you can do. I know on the irrigation side, I looked into trying to do some because I’ve got really light sandy soils on some of our land. We just don’t have the water unfortunately underneath, but there were a couple of fields that would’ve worked great to put some irrigation on. You know, when we think of North Dakota, there’s a lot more ditching and tiling and that kind of activity, trying to get rid of the water. But I think a lot of those go hand in hand too. I know working with growers in Minnesota and some in Iowa, there are a lot of those irrigated fields that are tiled, too. So you can maximize that, get rid of that early water, all those kinds of things.
Austin Benes: Absolutely. I think one of the areas that we get a lot of traction and energy for us to participate in is sort of in that environment. I almost hesitate to call it environmental compliance, but that’s really what we’re talking about. Kind of the sustainability space, providing data that is relevant to whatever sort of environmental management we’re partaking in. We have some large processors and manufacturers who are very interested. They need to understand not just their water usage but water movement across their footprint. What they are doing in that space and how is it relating to best management practices within a very large verticalized company or industry.
On the livestock side of things, we’ve gotten pulled into a lot of that around water usage. In fact, we’re in the process of a hard launch, a sales launch on our first really consumer direct product. And it’s specific to stock tank management, stock tank monitoring, and alerting for primarily beef and equine producers. But there are other use cases in there as well. We’ll be launching that at the National Beef Association Convention. That came as a result of trying to understand water use, water management, and tie that to herd health and provide some of these sort of automated offset labor issues or offsetting labor issues for producers because it’s about what we can automate to put more time back in a day for whether it’s a producer or someone who’s in support of farmers.
Adam Spelhaug: Yeah, I think that’s good because with my size farm, we can get a lot of stuff done with the labor we have and having my retired dad living there at the farm and that’s still his hobby—helping me farm. So he’s around and I have one of my sons that’s interested in farming. The other three kids, it’s hard to get ’em out to the farm. But, you know, there’s getting to be less and less farms out there. There are going to be less and less farm kids coming out of farms and there are going to be less of a pre-trained labor force out there too. If you want to call it that. Every generation has said the same thing. Every generation probably gets cut in half or more too. So yeah, automation is getting to be a bigger thing and the more we can do there and just have more efficiency on the farm, and like you said with compliance too, we’d probably have to be joking ourselves if we’re thinking there’s not more compliance or more hoops we’re going have to jump through whether it’s from the government or other programs to achieve certain dollars or things like that in the future.
Austin Benes: Yeah, we never want to position technology as something that’s meeting a governmental demand or a regulatory demand. It can do that. And sometimes that’s the focus of it. But as we’re talking to our producers and folks who are using platforms within our space or prospective customers, in order for us to gain adoption and gain trust in the market we do need to provide solutions that are forward-looking and that meet these sort of minimum requirements of whatever group it is, but they have to have a practical use today as well. And so just because we’re gathering information, not a lot of folks are really interested in saying, “well, I’m just going to gather a lot of data and see how I can use it in 10 years.” That might be interesting for some producers or farmers, we think. But by and large, I’m not going to pay a lot of money for that. It needs to have a practical application to make their lives easier or their lives more efficient or their enterprises more profitable in the near term. But we’re really focused on doing some of that stuff too.
Adam Spelhaug: How do you kind of gauge what the market needs or is going to need?
Austin Benes: We’re fortunate. We’re a decent-sized company. We’re a small company. We’ve got a good number of folks in-house here. We’ve got a lot of years of experience behind the folks too. So just because we’re a relatively young company, being seven or eight years old, we have many times that experience in-house. And so I’m probably one of the younger individuals here, right? And so we’ve got a lot of folks who have been around. They understand the history of the evolution of the IoT space in agriculture and the automation space in agriculture. They kind of have their thumb on where things are going. So that’s the first part of it is sort of an institutional knowledge transfer internally for us.
Secondly, we stay very close to the market as much as we can. Those of us who were in visible or sort of decision-making positions inhouse here, we’re in touch with the customers from the C-suite down. We’re production ag folks from the beginning, right? So kind of everyone who’s on the sales and the business development side of many of our engineers were born into production agriculture. Some of us still maintain connections and ties there. And so those casual conversations go a long way. When I’m talking to personal friends and folks that I know who are heavily invested in the ag space from a production end of things, they’re giving me some really good insight as far as what want to see in the industry and where they want to go on the business side as well.
And then the third thing that we do is when we want to bring something forward, if we have a solution, if we have a new feature set or something like that within our platform, we do a lot of due diligence on the product management side. I don’t work on the product management side, personally. I’m on the business development side of things. But our product management team does a great job whether it’s customer interviews, understanding what is available in the market currently and how is it working, where the gaps in the industry are, collecting data and information from various resources we have around the industry to say, ‘what are folks asking for? And what do they not know to ask for? And I think for me, that’s been the most interesting piece of bringing new technology forward is just like the Henry Ford comment. If he would’ve asked people what they want, they would’ve said a faster horse. People only know to ask for what they know to ask for. And not everybody has time to sit back and sort of imagine where we are going to be. That’s kind of our job, to help paint that vision and ask the right questions to lead them into a value-based conversation around technology. Because the worst thing we can do is bring something to market that nobody wants. The worst thing we can do for our customers is also bring something to market that nobody wants because it’s not providing value to them.
We generally do a fair bit of due diligence internally first and then slowly take that forward to say, ‘okay not only what do you want, but how do you want this to handle, because I know you’ve been around about as long as me, right?’ Probably actually longer. It sounds like we saw some, without giving any specific examples, maybe some clumsy entrances to the market by folks early on. And they had a great idea and they didn’t necessarily know how to implement it or how to sanction adoption among a target customer base or maybe even what a target customer group was going to be. They just kind of knew they had a good idea. I’m curious, you as a farmer and you as a service and a products provider to farmers, what’s your opinion of technology adoption, and how we can say, enhance and increase adoption rates of new technologies across the space?
Adam Spelhaug: Yeah, and that’s always a hard one. I think it always goes back to that classification of farmers. There are the guys that will definitely just try stuff and work with it. And then there’s kind of the, you know, I don’t wanna call ’em the old guard, but that’s just the standoffish types, prove it to me types that, you know, want to see something in the market for 5 to 10 years. And you still see that too. I know the average age of the farmer is growing, but I’d say the average age of the decision-makers in a lot of these farms is still in their twenties and thirties. There are a lot of guys who maybe own farms, but their sons are doing a lot, or they’ve got a crop consultant that’s younger doing a lot of the decision-making on some of that stuff.
So it’s not an old guys club anymore or something. It seems like a lot of the clients I was working with when I was doing more direct with farmers, there was a fair amount of guys in their twenties and thirties that are pretty open, I would say, to technology. But it seems like the over-promising, underdelivering model has been out there a lot in ag tech, you know, so that scares people away a little bit. So it makes people a little shyer to play with some of this stuff. And, some of it, you know, it’s not cheap either. So one mistake here or there can be costly or just maybe it’s a waste of money type thing. So I think it’s hard for farmers to get a good test on if something will work and how it’s going to work, you know? Definitely have to take a bit of trust and put it out there and try some things.
Austin Benes: You make a good point that it’s a thing that I’ve noticed over the last probably 10 or 12 years. As I look at the industry and I look at my little corner of the space that I live in, both geographically and professionally, looking at it across North America in particular, this has to be the most educated group of farmers the world has ever seen, right? From a formal education perspective. And if you’d have told me back in the nineties when I was in high school, if you’d have said you’re going to have a bunch of farmers whose primary living is going to be made on the farm and they’re going to have PhDs, that would’ve been a crazy statement to make.
We have a lot of folks who are not only educated but they’re well versed in critical thinking and applying creativity to business. I think that’s interesting. Do you see that come into play in your part of the world where folks are maybe not taking more risks, but they’re becoming more creative in how they’re attacking the business?
Adam Spelhaug: Yeah, I think so too. And that’s a good point you made. There’s a lot of, like my dad’s generation there that had maybe a two-year course or a short course or a type of degree or no degree. You know, maybe they worked a little bit elsewhere off the farm and started taking over the farm.
But I would say my generation that graduated high school in the late nineties, early two-thousands, there was a fair amount of those going to school, or maybe it’s just a two-year tech school or a four-year school. And so yeah I definitely agree that the level of education, and not saying anything against guys that just started farming too, because some of the best farmers I know are guys my age that just started farming right away. But I think over the years they have taken training classes, they’ve things to improve their education. Maybe it wasn’t formal schooling, but classwork or just other training. And, you know, there are those yearly things you have to do to keep sharp and keep up on it. And I think some of them see it as just a check the box.
But yeah, it’s hard to dial in on that. Kind of to that point too, the other day I saw a friend of mine and he kind of had a poll out there on Twitter asking farmers if knowing what you know now, what would he have done maybe in college, what degree or what focus maybe would he have gone for more? And it was pretty interesting, a lot more finance and business versus maybe agronomy that kind of thing, or diesel tech or some of those things. I think a lot more guys wish they would’ve looked at the business side.
Austin Benes: I always think that too. But if I went back in time and tried to tell my 18 or 19-year-old self to take more finance, I would’ve just laughed at myself.
Adam Spelhaug: Yeah. And that was a pretty similar track. I was maybe one 400-level class away from an animal science minor. So it was kind of the same thing. Or marketing, you know, just marketing classes, grain marketing, all that. I mean, I wish I would’ve taken more there. I feel I can do a pretty good job on the agronomics that I’ve learned in my career, but the marketing side of it I see that with a lot of farmers I’ve worked with, really good producers can raise a heck of a crop. And then it comes to marketing and that’s where a lot of the struggles are.
Austin Benes: Well, you know, no one’s ever accused me of being an academic in any regard, so I don’t really have to worry about that. My wife has a PhD. in animal science, so that’s as smart as I get from an academic perspective. But, I think, this is a good thing when I think about people who, whether they’ve gone to a four-year institution, a two-year college, no college whatsoever, but they’ve been involved in their trade organizations or commodity boards and even working with their land grant extension groups. It’s about the experience and it’s about gaining experience through the institutional transfer of knowledge. And so it’s networking, right? It’s developing a group of folks who we can pull some information from.
I think it’s one of the things and, a plug for Grand Farm, I suppose. But I mean, I think that’s one of the things that is so wonderful about Grand Farm is it’s operating on multiple levels of that networking. That’s why we like it, that’s why we’re big supporters of it. There are other groups, I’m sure around the country who do similar things. I know we work with some here in Nebraska on the technology and innovation side of things. But whether you are straight out of high school and went back home to farm, if you went and got a Ph.D. from a land grant university or something similar, or anything in between, having a network of folks that you can kind of lean on, ask their opinion, gain some industry influence or gain some industry perspective outside of the box that you exist in, I think that’s a really important piece of moving technology forward in the ag space.
Adam Spelhaug: No, I agree. And my sister’s on the Grand Farm board and I’ve been involved with Emerging Prairie and Greg there. And you know, his dad was a customer of mine when he was farming and he was in a similar situation. He worked in ag lending and ag and farmed and being involved with those guys and over the years I kept telling my sister and I tell Greg, ‘you need more farmers involved on this.’ I mean, you guys are coming up with a lot of great ideas, a lot of great things. But I would hate to get to the point, and you kind of mentioned earlier where you come forward with a product or a solution or offering and you bring it out to the farmer and he’s going to be really blunt and he’s going to let you know what he thinks about that. And it might just be, ‘we don’t want that.’ But three years ago in the development of this product, you would talk to five farmers, get some good feedback, get some good input, let them break it, let ‘em test it, let ‘em try it out. He’d be way ahead on that kind of thing.
Austin Benes: Not being not an engineer myself, but working in a building full of engineers and from various disciplines, I will say that I still believe that the best engineer out there is a farmer. And maybe second to a farmer is a rancher only because they’re limited in the number of implements that a rancher can break versus a farmer. But man, if you have something that you want an opinion on, take it to a farmer, let them pick it apart, let them curse at it a little bit or whatever they do, and then let ’em bring back suggestions on how to improve it. I guarantee it’s gonna make it a better product, whether it’s a physical piece of steel or a cloud-based application.
Adam Spelhaug: Right. How do you guys do your proof of concept network when you’re getting close to the launch of some new product?
Austin Benes: As I mentioned before, many of our engineers and our managers here are production ag-based. They either were born into it or they grew up in it, or they still work in that space somewhere. There’s a lot of farmer engineering that goes on behind the scenes at a company like ours because we are a hardware-enabled solution. So we have hardware that’s pulling sensor information out of a field or a barn or a space and then we bring it into a cloud-based platform, and then that’s kind of where we can do the data management and things. So there are all kinds of variables that go into it that from an environmental perspective. And especially when you bring livestock into the mix, now you’re talking about a whole different complicating set of factors.
We try to plan for as many of those as we can. We like to break a lot of things that are physical, and then we like to break a lot of things that are not physical, that are cloud-based before we go to market with it, before a customer sees it. And so that way you know, we do go to a pilot program with customers. They generally are having a good experience from the getgo, but maybe there’s some refinement that needs to occur. So we’ll take assessments from them and suggestions back if we need to refine processes or refine the way that something is visualized or the interaction with the platform itself. We can make those adjustments, but the bulk of it’s done before we get to that point.
Adam Spelhaug: So how do you know, and maybe just give an example of a farmer using your technology, how is what they’re gaining mostly is efficiencies or they’re being smarter with their management or especially, like you said, treating manure as a commodity now. I think manure just used to be kind of treated as more of a byproduct, something you had to do, but I wish there was more livestock around me to utilize some manure and get some of that in North Dakota. Probably one thing it lacks is livestock markets as I see in other states and other farmers being able to benefit from the usage of manure. So maybe just step me through a quick example of some of your key products and how farmers benefit from them.
Austin Benes: Yeah, manure’s one great example I think of, finding some efficiencies and maybe changing a perspective on a particular commodity or particular product. I want to move manure from a liability column to an asset column whenever possible. In order to do that, we need to have a volume of it, right? If you can’t measure something, if you don’t know how much you have, then the value of it is not quite there. You don’t understand what the full value of it is. And then you have to make sure that you’re able to utilize it in an efficient manner. Whether that’s selling it out the door or if it’s applying it somewhere on your own acres.
We have some manure-specific ones. So we have a complicated system here in the Midwest with a swine producer that has several hundred thousand head of animals over several locations and sites, deep pits and lagoon storage kind of pumps everything by a subterranean piping system to a centralized satellite lagoon, a several million-gallon lagoon. They fill that up kind of throughout the off-season during cropping season. They move that out, they pump it through another series of underground pipes to set, I think, 15 or 16 center pivots. And then they distribute that over crop ground. Previously that kind of had all been done by sight and touch, right? So they’ve got a crew of employees who they’ve got to understand which pipes are pressurized when they need to understand when they kind of keep track of it on paper and by a text message who’s doing what, where it’s this kind of coordinated event.
Sometimes accidents can happen. Sometimes you don’t intend for something to go on a field that does. It just becomes an inefficient labor-suck of a process. We’re able to visualize the volume of manure in their deep pits and their elevated structures. We’re able to visualize and measure the amount of product that they have or affluent that they have in their satellite lagoon. And then we’re also able to bring into the cloud space the pressurized segments of that pipeline. What’s pressurized, what’s not, what’s the PSI at that level, and who needs to turn what on and where. And then the last element was, we’re able to let some legacy center pivot systems that don’t have full controls on them.
We have some technology in-house where we’re able to sort of manage that so they know which pivots are running, which pipes are feeding that, where it’s coming from, and what the volume is that’s being fed into it. At the end of all of that, they’re saving a significant amount of labor annually. They’re moving this manure in a safer way, an environmentally safer way. They’re at a much, much reduced risk of pipe breakage or just accidental discharge, things like that. And really what they’re able to accomplish is a more efficient system end to end, and knowing what’s moving from where to where. And when it comes time for that compliance reporting, it’s all in a digital file, right? And so you can export that information into a CSV-based file that can be applied as needed into a reporting context. So really it checks a lot of boxes—that particular scenario for automation to save labor and gain efficiency in a system while also providing some residual benefits down the line.
Adam Spelhaug: Oh, I’m sure. Just having the ease of that information, the access to easy information is a big benefit. You know, it’s maybe not a cost savings, it’s one of those savings that is mental income. I remember one of my econ professors saying there are different kinds of income and one of them was mental income and just feeling better about your decision. You’re more confident in it, you know, you gained some income that way just personally by having that. So I’m sure there’s a lot that just makes it easier.
Austin Benes: Oh, absolutely. I mentioned our stock tank monitoring solution and that’s one where it’s focused very keenly on that sort of mental income. Now, especially in a drought year, you understand, having livestock, that water is a precious commodity and resource for livestock producers. And you can’t always be there with them all summer long when they’re out on the grass. You can’t always be there when they’re out on stocks in the wintertime or wherever they happen to be. And for those who depend on wells, whether they’re windmill or solar or something else, missing a stock check one time can be incredibly costly. And so you end up spending a lot of time, a lot of fuel, a lot of energy but then a lot of worry when you’re away.
Because where cows are, people generally aren’t for at least part of the year. And so we provide some longer-term savings and return on investment, but also some short-term practicality. And, there are very large ranchers who we’re talking to who want this product as soon as it comes on board, right? They want dozens of them. You’ve got 30 windmills. Get these out of there, think that’s great. That’s not to discount the folks who have a single water tank, right? And maybe they look a little bit more like me. Maybe they’re suburban and they’ve got some cows out in the country or some horses. Maybe they want to take their kids to a basketball game and they don’t want to have to worry about trying to find qualified labor that they can trust to help manage these things. They want to keep an eye on it from afar. And if you have to tackle an emergency, you can tackle an emergency. But getting a good night’s sleep, understanding that everything is taken care of, that’s a big win.
Adam Spelhaug: Tthat’s a great idea. For how dry we’ve been the last couple of years out here, we actually sold the cows a couple of years ago, but leased that pasture out to some neighbors and we had to re-dig out the stock pond just to get that water there. It’s a small situation, like you said, a single pasture in a single stock pond. But when I was going to school, I worked for a big ranch just south of us and worked on four or five windmills out there, doing rotational grazing and that kind of thing. And it’s remote. That tank is out in the middle of the section. So you have to get on a four-wheeler to even access it easily enough. Where if I could look at my phone or look at the computer screen and go, ‘yeah, it’s two-thirds full, its pump is running,’ you know, all that stuff, that’d be great.
Austin Benes: You mentioned something earlier in our conversation about how we’re not making more farm kids. And that’s very true.
I can speak personally, my dad comes from a family of eight kids. His cousins come from a family of like 10 or 11 I think. You know, and that wasn’t uncommon. Now, most folks have two or four or five kids and that’s kind of where it’s at. And they’re not spending near as much time in the production space, maybe as they used to. Just generally speaking. We’re just not making as many farmers as we used to, and we’re going to have to do something to help, I think to bring some intuition. Maybe you don’t have cows today, but if you walked out there, you could generally know how to manage cows.
Adam Spelhaug: No, that’s great. I think that’s probably that next big niche that needs to be replaced, like you said, is that just old knowledge that has been passed down and just those things you’ve learned. Even my kids now, we actually live in town five miles away from the farm. There are a lot of things they’re not learning like I did living on the farm just being immersed in it every day. I try to get ’em out there when I can, but I know that experience isn’t the same as I had, and things are a lot easier today too. I mean look at what my grandpa farmed with versus what my dad did, where I’m at, and what my son could be at. Those guys that are in their eighties and nineties now, that was hard living, that was hard farming. I’d say now it’s maybe more hard financially. There’s more than hardness, it’s more risk. My same size farm that dad was growing up with, it’s four times the amount of money we’re dealing with today versus what he was dealing with. So there’s a lot more of that kind of stuff that starts getting involved.
Austin Benes: Absolutely. And for us, automation is not at all about replacing jobs. It’s about filling in for the jobs that are just not there, right? So how do we utilize automation, whether that’s in a data space or a mechanized space or a combination of the two? Because our gap in farm labor right now, whether you’re in the retailer processing and distribution side, or if you’re even on-farm or on-ranch, the labor gap is significant across the country. And we’re not making more people that can just come in and plug into a situation and want to do that work. And so we’re working with stakeholders here and folks that we use as a kind of an advisory group. And you know, they bounce ideas off of us to sort of find some of the solutions there, right? What do you need as a farmer? What do you need as a rancher? What are jobs that you need to find automated solutions around?
Adam Spelhaug: No, I think that’s good. I don’t think companies realize that they don’t want to replace farmers. You know, some of these automated tractors and some of that. I don’t think it’s trying to replace the farmer, because there are a lot of farmers and I do too, like driving the tractor. I like planting, I like combining. I don’t want that fully automated where I’m not doing that anymore, to a point. There’s going to be efficiency, automated grain carts and some of those kinds of things make a lot of sense because it’s just kind of that one additional thing. I have friends out in western North Dakota. It’s hard to find people and they’ve got large farms. They got one guy who’s turning down land because he can’t get a hired man. His dad’s in his late seventies. And he said after those guys go, I don’t know who else I’m going to hire. So do I want to take on more risk if I don’t have the labor force?
Austin Benes: Maybe that’s a good point to end on. I have a good friend, a very close friend of mine who farms a few thousand acres here in Nebraska and when I kinda stepped into the ag technology space in the automation space, that was literally what he told me. He said, ‘I love farming, don’t replace me. Just make my job a little bit easier.’
Adam Spelhaug: Yes, exactly. Yep. I think that that is getting around to service providers, technology providers, because there’s a lot of things that I realize when I’m out in that field that I can do for next year, taking notes on it. And some of that is getting me more automated notes or marking points and all that kind of stuff that can help me do a better job, or just when I’m looking at data, I’m looking at yield maps, I’m looking at fertility maps, I’m looking at a field. I remember when I was driving across there going, ‘okay yield is really low there, but the corn was flattened because my neighbor’s cows got out. It wasn’t because I had rootworm or some insect issue or fertility issue. It was some other type of thing.’ Where I think an automated combine would just say it’s a low spot, it’s a low-yielding area and that’s it.
Austin Benes: Right. Well what you’re describing is a bionic farmer. I love the idea of that.
Adam Spelhaug: Yeah, for sure.
Austin Benes: You can be an extension of your machine. Right. That’s terrific. Yep. And vice versa. I appreciate your time Adam, and I appreciate Emerging Prairie and Grand Farm and everything that those guys are doing up there. Being able to have conversations like this is why we’re excited to work with folks like that and you know, kind of around the industry and be able to not just talk about who we are, but learn a little bit about whether it’s a producer or someone else in the ag space or service providers. You know, learn what folks want, what they need, what they expect of ag technology companies. And I think just continuing to develop engagement around the space to us—that’s very important. And to me personally, I really appreciate your time and the folks at Grand Farm and Emerging Prairie.
Adam Spelhaug: Yeah, no, I think it was a good, good discussion. And that’s one of the reasons that I kind of want to get involved with Grand Farm too is, like you were saying earlier, there’s a lot of networking. We’ve got a board of advisors, but there’s going to be so many more companies like yourself that are going to start working with Grand Farm and looking for real case scenarios and want to trial things. And I think Grand Farm makes a good kind of area for those kinds of people to get together and offer up their service, offer up their farm, offer up their company to collaborate, work together. We’re all trying to do better here, right? So no, it’s a good network altogether.