Steve Tippery started FarmBright (formerly IntelliFarm) in 2012. FarmBright uses data to make more intelligent agricultural machines. Tippery has nearly 20 years of experience in product development for agriculture machinery. His company is currently in the NMotion startup accelerator in Lincoln, Nebraska. SPN spoke with Tippery at EntreFEST in Iowa City, Iowa.
SPN: What are some of the major trends in AgTech right now that you find interesting?
ST: Most of the industry in the past has focused on the machine side of things. In the future, it will be data–how to get data to and from machines, the analysis of the data, decision making tools and smarter machines ultimately so they can make decisions on their own.
There are some big companies working on [automated machines], but it’s unlikely that they are going to be the first in the market because there’s so much risk. I believe that startup companies will be first-to-market. Some of these companies will fail, some will succeed, and those that are left will either be bought by the bigger companies or continue to operate on their own by continuing to develop disruptive technology.
SPN: In terms of fully-autonomous cars, it seems like the biggest hurdle right now is regulation.
ST: I think you’re going to see production autonomous machines in agriculture before self-driving cars.
The mining industry already has self-driving machines, these big trucks that follow a predictable path. My prediction is that Ag will be next. There is so much less risk in agriculture because pedestrians and other vehicles are not typically driving in agricultural fields.
Automotive will push a lot of the technological breakthroughs, but in terms of going to market, they are a ways away. Whereas Ag is probably already ready.
A lot of the Silicon Valley folks are betting that the corporate farms are going to get even bigger
Are the customers ready for it? That’s the next question. You talk to a lot of farmers, and they like driving their machines. Are they looking to replace themselves as operators? It depends.
I have specifically sat together in combines with many customers, and a lot of them really like the harvesting operation. It’s the culmination of an entire year’s worth of energy. They want to see the harvest and feel it. They want that satisfaction from their job.
Then there are big farms up in Canada that can’t find enough people to run their machines. They would have to pay ridiculous salaries to keep people from going to the oil fields, at least until last year. They’ve actually been asking for autonomous equipment.
SPN: It seems like across all industries the data is the gold mine.
ST: Is the data the gold mine? Or is it what you can do with the data that’s the gold mine? The question is what’s the valuable piece. The data is only as good as the decisions you can make from it.
I’ve talked with a lot of farmers who have said, “Well, I’ve been creating this precision ag data for 10-15 years now. So what? I’ve got all this data, but it’s not helping me much.”
The problem is it’s not doing them a lot of good yet. My prediction is that there will be a lot of tools in the coming 1-3 years that will revolutionize how they think about data. It will probably encourage them to obtain more data. The analysis is likely what will be truly valuable.
SPN: What will it mean to be a farmer in the future? Farmer as data analyst?
ST: My prediction is that the most successful farmers of the future will be business people. Most of the output of a farm is a commodity. The way to win at commodities is to be the lowest cost producer. So you need to know all of your costs really well. You need to be able to predict what to buy and sell, at the right times.
The most successful farmers will be those who really have those costs under control. Data will help them make the best decisions. Will they be the number crunchers? No. I think there will be tools on the market that will help them aggregate that data and make the best possible decisions.
Farmers will be less and less concerned about driving the machine and more concerned with the selection of inputs–the selection of seed, the section of equipment, the selection of fertilizer, etc. Those will be the important parts. And, honestly, the most successful farmers are already doing some of these things.
SPN: What do you hear farmers saying when you talk to them about where this is going?
ST: I think the older generation has a different answer than the younger generation. To be honest the younger generation would say what I just said.
A lot of the older generation of farmers are going to be retiring in the next 10 years. What’s going to happen? A lot of the Silicon Valley folks are betting that the corporate farms are going to get even bigger.
Unfortunately, a lot of the younger, smaller farmers have leveraged themselves pretty heavily, and they don’t have a lot of capital as reserve. It’s going to be interesting to see, if the market stays down, whether they survive. I hope [they do], but it’s a concern.
If you look at macroeconomic trends, the people who win in the long haul are the ones who produce most cost effectively because they can make margin when no one else can. They will be the ones that can grow when the other guy is going out of business. I think technology is going to help with those make-or-break situations.