Hear from Grand Farm’s Grower Advisory Board about the big issues in agriculture right now!
Each year, Grand Farm releases a pain point report about the issues most important to farmers in our region. Though you can get a general idea of what farmers are facing from this report, each farmer is going to have their own perspective on the problems they experience in their operation. To gain some insight into the variety of perspectives a person might get from each farming operation, I sat down with Kathi Luther, Shelby Lyons, and Quinn Renfandt of Grand Farm’s Grower Advisory Board and asked them about the pain points that are relevant to their operations—which also may be relevant to you and your business or operation. Read more from these growers below!
Inside Scoop on the Big Issues
What are some barriers you’ve seen between the agtech industry and growers in recent years?
Kathi Luther: There are a lot of wonderful innovations coming down. But on our level, we want to know—is it going to be affordable for our farm? A lot of growers always have that concern about the cost of new technology. We also want to know: am I going to get service behind any new innovation or any new ag product? As the owner of K&S Seed, I always am concerned about that balancing act between the cost to the grower, the benefit it’s going to bring to the grower, and whether or not it is something that they need on their farm. I’ve been very fortunate to be a buffer between me and my growers. A lot of times, I get those questions answered before something new comes on the market.
My husband and I have been farming for 42 years together. Service has always been a big issue. There are a lot of products that have come out throughout the years, but if they don’t have service backing them, they’re going to fail.
In terms of automated farming and increasing use of technology, I think there’s a place for that. I think there’s going to be a few years before we get to that. From what I’ve seen, there are a lot of hiccups to overcome yet. There are some jobs, like digging a field, which is perfect for automated farming. If you have four-mile-long rows, for example. Or maybe even a side hill, because nobody wants to get in a tractor and farm that side hill. But we’re short on labor, just like the rest of the world is, and it’s going to come down to that. We need help. We need a labor source. Maybe we’ll have to go to automated farming in order to be sustainable.
Shelby Lyons: With all of the technology that we have on our planter right now, sometimes we run into GPS issues. That can be a big issue that forces our planters to sit because we can’t be precise. We need that GPS to be as precise as we can. When the GPS goes down, just being able to get a hold of people for questions in a timely manner and getting them to contact us back right away is often difficult. With a lot of the new technology, it’s super helpful, but we [growers] like to see it proven first. It also has to be cost-effective. Because if it’s not, then what’s the point?
For example, what works out west won’t work here because farming is just so different in every region. So it not only has to be proven effective, it has to be proven to be effective in our area for us to give it a try. Or, sometimes we’ll try something out if it sounds like a really, really good deal to us—but not on the whole planter. If there’s new technology we want to try out, we’ll put it on part of the planter and not the other part just to see [what happens].
There are also just a lot of startups around that we don’t know about. They need to somehow get their brand out where the growers are listening, like on the radio. Maybe if they did something at the Big Iron Farm Show because around here, every farmer and their brother goes to Big Iron. Our agronomist brings a lot of different things to us, too, if he thinks it will be good for our farms. But right now, there’s a lack of communication between the startups and the people whom they want to interact with and market their products.
Kathi’s comment about needing automated farming is not wrong—the automated agriculture industry has been growing significantly in recent years. According to the Association of Advancing Automation, “the global agricultural robots market size [was] $4.9 billion in 2021… this is expected to grow to $11.9 billion by 2026, at a compounded annual growth rate (CAGR) of 19.3%.”
Quinn Renfandt: I think they touched on it in the report quite well. The issue is the high adoption costs and the lack of access to the latest technology. When I say lack of access, I mean access to startups wanting to test their product. Not even necessarily a robot. I would love to have a robot that would go around and look at the pests and everything on my plants. But not a lot of [startup] companies can afford to just give out one to go test it and give feedback on it. So I think that’s a challenge with probably any startup in any industry.
More specifically with this [industry], unless the people that are building that product have some type of farming or another ag-specific background, they’re going to need to test it out in a real-world environment. If they don’t have an actual product to put into practice yet, then it’s difficult for me, as a grower, to give feedback on how easy [the product] made my life or didn’t make my life because I don’t have the actual equipment or software.
I would say that the [startups] that I’ve worked with are very intimately tied to their product and know it inside and out. If anything, they give you too much information. I do know of other technologies—especially from larger companies—where when it comes trickling down, they may not have the staff to be there to answer every single individual question in a timely manner, or to be able to come out to the field and be there for you. Especially when they’re not anywhere local. That’s always a challenge.
A lot of growers are wanting that tactile, in-person communication, or they see that something’s wrong and they want the companies to be able to come to fix it and make the problem go away. A lot of startups probably can’t do that right now, because they don’t have the resources for it yet.
Are there any big things happening with agriculture in the government right now that you’ve seen? How do they impact your farm?
Kathi: Our biggest source of help from the government is federal crop insurance, and I hope they don’t do anything [to change it]. Because right now, I think it’s working fairly well. We rely on federal crop insurance. I’m sure they’re always going to tweak and improve certain areas, but for the most part, I believe that it’s working.
Getting technology through the EPA, that’s a big struggle, too. I wish we could figure out more of a streamlined way to do that.
Shelby: I feel like there’s a disconnect between our operation and what’s happening in the government. We don’t agree with a lot of things, but we just stay in our little part of the world out here and ignore it, to a point. The only government that we really deal with is taxes and the FSA office.
We don’t really have a problem in this area with many government regulations. The spring regulations for planting and all that—it’s difficult sometimes to get everything in [on time]. There are spraying windows for certain chemicals, but they’re in place for a good reason.
We have cattle, too. At one point, we wanted to build a barn. But then we have a little silo right next to it, and we would have had to make a bunker, basically, for runoff. That just doesn’t make sense for our operation. Those kinds of regulations don’t make a lot of sense to us
Quinn: There are so many different levels to policymaking: where the government is located, their understanding of technology, their people, their growers, their county, and more. When you have the corporation come in and set up a policy that allows their technology to be utilized, that’s one thing. But whether that technology is relevant for your on-the-ground growers at the time is an entirely different thing. So I see this separation between the grower and those that are influencing the policy regarding where the agriculture industry is and where it is heading.
There are a lot of challenges that a grower may see that they believe should be addressed in the more immediate sense, and that may not happen because their voice either isn’t as big or loud, or they’re “behind the times,” so to speak. I’ll use an example. They did a thing where they’re putting broadband internet everywhere. And I think that’s fantastic. I think that’s an absolutely necessary technology and that [the younger] generation is totally aware of why that’s relevant and that it needs to happen. But you have an older generation that is still farming out there, that they’ve done everything the same way for so long that the broadband doesn’t matter to them. They’re not thinking about why having internet accessibility is relevant for their farming operation, and they probably never will. Therefore, to them, that’s just a nuisance, but by all means it’s very relevant. So there’s maybe a generational divide and understanding where policies need to be and an issue with the way that information is being communicated so that people of various backgrounds and generations can understand.
The other side of that is not just the generational divide, but the income divide is always going to influence policy, too. That was what I was saying about corporations or the bigger voices at the table. They’re able to articulate and have the time to be there to say what they need, versus the smaller grower that may be trying to just get by and doesn’t have the time to go to the table and say what they need. That’s always going to be a thing in all industries, but that definitely applies to agriculture technology—what is relevant when most growers may not be using a specific technology or could never afford to, therefore just never think about it.
Did You Know?
The Senate is currently working on the 2023 Farm Bill, and they want the input of all farmers who will be impacted—including YOU! Check out agriculture.senate.gov/farm-bill for more information on this year’s bill and to submit your Farm Bill 2023 ideas.
What are some barriers to/issues with education when it comes to agriculture, and how might these barriers impact the future of farming?
Kathi: There is some disconnect between, for instance, what a startup company is trying to obtain in their world versus what the grower needs on his farm. There are also disconnects between reality and what’s coming down the [agtech] pipeline, which also impacts education and ag for high school kids or grade school kids. I think Grand Farm is onto something—they need to connect these kids with technology. I’m very thankful that they’re trying to get that done. But that’s a process, too. These educators, and these schools, have a lot on their plate—not only with education, but discipline, too. These teachers are overworked with student issues and teaching the kids. But I’m very excited about Grand Farm’s new plant by Casselton. I think that’s going to bring a lot of kids into agriculture and ag technology.
Shelby: I can’t believe the disconnect between the city and the farm. I don’t know how it got that way, either, because it used to be that everybody was a part of the food system. I get a kick out of it when people move to the country and then they complain about the smell and just things that animals do that we can’t control.
In the country schools, there’s an emphasis on 4H and FFA, among other ag-related education. I’m sure the city schools have some version of them, too. It’s so much easier to teach kids about agriculture, and then maybe they’ll grow into being more interested in it. By the time these kids hit high school, they often already have their minds made up about whether or not they will pursue agriculture. So it’s important to educate kids when they’re young, which we aren’t seeing as much of outside of rural schools.
Shelby makes a great point— educating young kids about agriculture is vital to the future of the industry, especially in an ag-rich state like North Dakota. The North Dakota Department of Agriculture recognized this need for ag education and created the Agriculture in the Classroom council. The council is a group funded by the Agriculture Commissioner that aims to “develop and conduct programs for K-12 agriculture education, and the training of teachers and students in agricultural curriculum activities” throughout the state of North Dakota. Learn more about Ag in the Classroom at facebook.com/NDaginclassroom
For us farmers, we get a lot of education throughout the year. We go to a lot of meetings and try to learn as much as we can. Other countries might be a little more advanced than we are, though, and we don’t know much about anything that they’re doing that could help our own operations out. Recently, as a part of Grand Farm, I talked to somebody from Brazil and that was a really interesting, but I don’t know how we would do that on a larger scale. Most growers wouldn’t go to a huge conference, so that is definitely a barrier.
There are some cool networking and educational opportunities, though. Some seed companies, if you spend enough money with them, they’ll take you on a trip somewhere to see a different farming operation. One of my buddies went to Hawaii, and they got to tour a farm there—a big indoor greenhouse-like operation, where they grow their own food for a resort. And in the wintertime, we go down to Illinois and tour some of the Precision Planting operations they have. So there are opportunities there if you’re willing and able to travel, but not everyone can.
Quinn: We want to stay at the forefront of where technology is in terms of research. But you don’t want to be so far ahead that when your student comes out of your educational program, they don’t have a place to go apply their knowledge—when you’re dealing with technology that’s so advanced that nobody’s using it yet, it’s going to be hard to find a job or even implement that knowledge on your own operation because you, as an individual, may not have the capital necessary to have that technology for yourself to use on your operation, even though you’re exposed to it. That type of technology, although it may make [farming] easier, just isn’t always relevant. Especially in a small operation, the technology that can really help you is probably really expensive.
That goes kind of back to what I was saying before—you can incorporate these technological advancements in the educational curriculum and practice. You can, and should, learn how they change things. But that same technology may not be available to you when you leave that educational program. If you don’t know those foundational basics, then you’re just out of luck, because you learned how to do it the “easy way,” so to speak. I’m not saying that I’m against the easy way—I want the easy way! But we have to remember that it might not always be an option and that not everyone has access to that consistently.
It’s also important to remember that not all ag jobs are in the field. The ag industry needs accountants, administrative help… you need everything necessary to run a business. It’s a whole community around agriculture, not just the specific farmer or the person that’s in the field or the horticulturalists or the agronomist. Those are things within the agriculture industry, but the ag industry is similarly tied to every other industry. So I guess, specifically with ag, the education system needs to show that diverse array of opportunities, and not necessarily always portray the farmer as the one that’s sitting there with the pitchfork and chasing pigs. Getting away from that as the iconic emblem of what farming is into the more modern version of how diverse it actually is and how diverse the technological applications are is important.
I don’t want to say we need to make farming “cool,” but I think just the way that we [as a society] have thought of it for so long has been so narrow-minded that we’re forgetting that it’s so much more now. I would also say that—this is just a thought to put out there—but like what the Future Farmer magazine is doing in terms of bringing to light different things that are happening in ag… if there was some similar publication that was more K-12-friendly that would spotlight different things that are going on with not only the big companies but also people that are younger that other young people could identify with, that may be another way of opening people’s minds to what ag technology and agriculture in general is now.
What kind of issues is the ag industry facing in regard to recruiting and maintaining farmers?
Shelby: The cost of starting up a new farm that’s not handed down to you is astronomical, because you need to find land to rent, which everybody’s fighting for. A quarter of land is about 160 acres. Around here, to buy a quarter of land, it’s going for anywhere from $4,500 to $8,000 an acre. That’s a huge cost already, and then with current interest rates being 7%, it adds even more to the cost. Then you have to buy equipment, because you won’t make any money if you hire people to farm the land. At minimum, you need a four-wheel drive tractor and some sort of cultivator or digger—something to work the soil. You’ll need a planter, a tractor for the planter, and then a combine and at least one truck. Just cost alone is the main barrier.
The general consensus is that to start a mid-to-large farming operation from scratch, you would need upwards of $2.5 million. A small operation would cost much less, but could still cost upwards of $10,000! That’s no small chunk of change! It’s no wonder Shelby argued that cost is the primary barrier in recruiting people to agriculture.
There are a lot of FSA programs that will help you out, but you have to jump through so many hoops to even get started. When I started, my dad told me I had two weeks to figure out if I wanted to take over the farm or not. He didn’t let me farm with him, so I did just take it over. And the hoops I had to jump through, even though I had help from my husband and father-in-law, was tremendous. It was a lot of work and a lot of stress, and not a lot of people can handle or want to handle that much stress and debt.
Quinn: It’s hard to convince someone to want to move to a rural area. Even for myself, I’m on a family farm here, and it’s relatively close to a city—I’m about 25 minutes outside of Minot. But if I was any farther and had to drive an hour and a half to get to the city, and I had to stay there all the time to farm, then the lifestyle is very isolating. The incentive to be out in the middle of nowhere by yourself is not high. If you’re not making a whole lot of money, then that makes it even worse. If there are not a lot of social activities that you can fill in the rest of the blanks of your life with, then that makes it difficult to be a farmer. So I think that’s part of it, honestly, for retaining people and attracting people to the agriculture industry. Then the other is that many don’t have a lot of money in their operation, but you have to have a lot of money to pay people. That just makes it that much harder to compete in the labor market, especially with all those other factors on top of it.
What are some of the issues you’re seeing between farms and corporations right now?
Quinn: One thing that is an issue is not just data privacy and security concerns, but if a corporation is wanting to give you something for free in exchange for your data. A grower is, at this point, aware that their data has value, and is seeing that they are giving up something, and they may not want to just give it up. Everything that we [as a society] participate in has terms and conditions where we pretty much sign away our right to any of that data. I think that continues on into the grower world where we are starting to ask if [the companies collecting our data] are going to give us something in exchange. I’m giving you all this information about my operation, but what do I get? How do I then get to play around with that information for myself? How can I access that data? How can I have ownership of that data, too? And what value does that have? Because if you’re not on the technology side of the business to understand how that data is being utilized, it’s hard to quantify how much value is in [the product or service]
Lack of support from larger corporations is, of course, always a thing. If they don’t have a solution right away for how to fix their technology, like if it’s a tractor or a sprayer… it’s a very time-sensitive issue. If you don’t have a solution right away, or they do not have a technician who can come out and help right away and you can’t get your work done, then your window of time to be effective with that particular stage of the farming practice, like spraying or planting, can be cut short or missed and it can jeopardize the whole thing.
One of the biggest issues with corporations, and I guess startups in general, too, is their messaging and how they’re conveying their value proposition. A lot of times, you will see things being displayed with buzzwords like “autonomy” or “sustainable,” but [the company] may not necessarily have thought through what that means for the grower. The product may not actually be autonomous in the truest sense, and it may still need a lot of hands-on input. I’ve experienced that with different organizations that I’ve worked with, where it is marketed as something that is more advanced than it actually is in reality. I think that the dream is always there to be the ideal version of what they’re presenting, but it may not be that yet. So when they’re coming to a grower and saying, “Look, we have a solution to a problem you may be facing,” they’ve got to ask themselves—is that actually a problem that growers are facing? Is the solution as great as they say it is? Because if it’s not, then it’s just a waste of time for both the company and the grower.
What are the issues you are seeing when it comes to agriculture research? What barriers to research have you noticed?
Kathi: The seed industry, they have wonderful research. They don’t bring anything forward without a lot of internal research and a lot of data and data points put into it, just because it’s not effective or economical to bring seed forward that isn’t already thoroughly researched. Same with chemicals. That’s probably one place we’re really lacking in our industry is herbicides—effective herbicides. We’re using older herbicides from 40-50 years ago right now. It just seems like we need a new herbicide for some of these weeds. There’s not enough research going into that industry, that’s for sure.
In my line of work, you can get access to all the research information you want if you look or ask for it. I have a business, K&S Seeds, and we sell primarily seed to growers like soybeans, corn, sunflowers, wheat, and some cover crops. All year, I’m going to meetings and learning about the new hybrids or anything new that’s coming down the pipeline. It’s my responsibility to inform growers of what’s coming in. So that’s the process that I’ve taken over the last few years. It takes a while to adapt to the new innovations—it’s not something that just happens overnight. Some growers are very cautious; I would say about 5% of growers are maybe willing to try new things. Until something’s proven at nearly 100%, it’s not being adapted very fast, for sure. But in the seed world, and in the chemical world, there’s constant information out there and meetings and research data that you can get your hands on. With newer technology and innovations, there’s not as much.
The EPA also has to approve any new seed technology. There’s always some platform everybody has to go through to get things approved, too, so that limits the speed of access to not only the research but the products. There are government regulations on everything.
Shelby: There’s definitely a delay in the research getting to a lot of us. A lot of the technology we see, we see down in other states before we hear about it in the Upper Midwest—which is okay, because then it’s proven to be useful before it reaches us, but it’s also nice to know what the up and coming research and technology says. We have a lot of precision planting stuff on our farm. We go to [a precision planting] conference every year, so we’re up to date on that kind of stuff, but everything else that’s new, we don’t really hear about.
There are also things that need further research. One thing that we’ve seen over the last few years in our area that we struggle with is alkaline soils and our cow manure. We don’t have anywhere to drain our excess water and fertilizer, so we can’t really put drainage tile in. There’s nothing that we can do in our wet areas here to help get the soil back to being healthy. Research on how to make the soil less alkaline and how to extract that fertilizer before it impacts the soil too heavily would be great.
Quinn: Research is a very necessary thing in ag. We could talk about the different ways it’s conducted and whether we like it or not. But for a grower, we usually focus on immediate issues, like decisions that have been made for this season. A lot of the research is going to apply to future operations, not right now. I’m not saying that researching future technology is not important, because it very much is. But when I’m thinking about my operation, and what I have to focus my time on—especially as a smaller operation—I’m very focused on the “right now” stuff. If a research project or anything is going to come to me and demand time or energy from me to take away from what I am currently doing, no matter where I stand on a value system, I have to prioritize my current field and things that I know will work.
The research has to have some sort of incentive for me to participate in that I care about it in an immediate sense. If it’s coming from a startup or an agtech company that’s wanting me to participate in a research study, they need to compensate. They need to give me some skin in the game and some incentive to participate in their research.
We talked about the information that’s being given up to these agtech companies in exchange for that research. I’d like the companies to tell me how [that data] is being utilized. Tell me: what am I giving you? What am I getting in exchange for that?
I also see miscommunication of how a research program may approach a grower, and what their role as the grower is in that research. If they’re not communicating those roles as plainly as possible, and everyone doesn’t move forward with that understanding, you’re going to have things come up, and they’re going to be like, “Well, that’s not what we agreed to.” Some growers may be skeptical of new technologies or practices because of this issue with communication. That’s just that difference between approaching a grower who wants to implement something new and is open to implementing it, versus approaching someone that doesn’t want that and the company can’t convince them as to why this is relevant and sell them on it. I think that may be part of where the lack of trust in research comes from. It’s the communication issue. Everyone needs to communicate what’s happening, why it’s happening, what the roles, responsibilities, and expectations are, and make sure everyone can move forward from that conversation.
Even between three growers on Grand Farm’s Grower Advisory board, the perspectives can vary. Talking to those involved in the industry can open your eyes to ideas you wouldn’t have thought about otherwise. Talk to your neighbors or fellow farmers about these issues, and you may learn something new—or gain a friend!