This article was originally published in Inc by Alex Moazed
When most people think of the next big tech industries, agriculture and farming don’t usually come to mind. Alas, that could soon be changing, thanks to companies like Michigan-based FarmLogs.
The common misperception is that farming is dominated by a few large corporate players, FarmLogs co-founder and CEO Jesse Vollmar said. But the vast majority of farm businesses in the U.S. are actually family owned.
Vollmar reported corporate farms account for only about 2% of all farms in the U.S. and just 10% of the total farmland. Still, the perception of a highly consolidated industry has prevented a lot of entrepreneurs from entering the industry.
After growing up on a family farm, Vollmar saw the huge opportunity in applying technology to agriculture. During his childhood, he saw how satellite terminals brought weather data and commodity prices, long before anyone in his farm community had Internet access.
Even a decade after Vollmar’s realization, he saw farms were still using the same old technology and Silicon Valley wasn’t paying attention, missing out on transforming what is arguably the most crucial segment of the economy.
Vollmar and his friend Brad Koch travelled around and talked to farmers to identify if they felt the same problem. As it turned out, they all shared the same frustration with outdated technology.
“The farmer was being ignored and Silicon Valley wasn’t building innovative solutions for them,” said Vollmar.
Thus, Vollmar and Koch founded FarmLogs.
Based in Ann Arbor, the company provides software and analytics to farmers that enables them to maximize yield and operate efficiently and profitably. Today, FarmLogs serves over 65 million acres of farmland and one-third of all farms in the U.S.
How is FarmLogs able to keep track of so many farms?
The key technology that powers FarmLogs is multispectral satellite imagery. Launched around 2009, these satellites are able to take close-up and highly detailed images of crop fields, but this raw data is of little use to a farmer.
To deliver unmatched value, FarmLogs uses proprietary analysis to turn this raw data into powerful insights, such as highly localized plant health analysis, including potential pest pressures or disease outbreaks.
Data In Action
As an example, Vollmar refers to a particular customer who was worried about crop damage. This farmer had heard from a neighbor that grasshoppers were damaging the crops on the neighbor’s farm.
The farmer estimated where these grasshoppers might be on his farm based on local wind patterns and the proximity to his neighbor’s farm. But when he checked that spot he found no hint of the pests.
He was relieved, but he double-checked with FarmLogs – and it’s an extremely good thing he did.
FarmLogs analysis showed early signs of crop damage in a field on the opposite side of the farm. Turns out, the grasshoppers had reared their heads there instead of where they were originally predicted to appear.
With this early warning in hand, the farmer was able to spray appropriately to save those crops from further damage and protect the whole yield.
In addition to crop health, FarmLogs also looks at soil and weather data to help farmers operate efficiently. It’s able to make what are called variable-rate prescriptions – highly nuanced recommendations on what exactly to plant, where, and how much – to help farmers more accurately gauge the amount of fertilizer and seed they should plant in each part of the field.
Sometimes that means using less fertilizer in certain areas or boosting seeding rates to get more yield, all of which can save farmers a lot of money with each planting season.
Reaping Better Outcomes
What’s more, FarmLogs’s recommendations have only improved with time, as it also uses historical data on soil, crop yields and weather patterns to predict outcomes for what’s happening with the field, such as if an additional nitrogen fertilizer application would help increase yield.
It’s able to combine all this data to accurately calculate the level of nitrogen in the soil at each spot in the field. Since nitrogen is an essential ingredient for photosynthesis in plants, it’s a key nutrient for all farmers to monitor and can have a huge impact on crop yields. More accurate data means better yields, which means better profit margins for the country’s farmers.
Taken together, these types of analytics offer farms the same kind of detailed analysis that app developers are used to getting from their software. It’s this kind of cutting-edge technology that’s enabling so many family farms to thrive, in contrast to the common misperception of corporate-dominated farming.
Just like these family-owned farms, FarmLogs won’t be going away anytime soon. The company recently raised a $22 million Series C led by Naspers Ventures. Previous investors also include Y Combinator President Sam Altman and Drive Capital.
Vollmar says his investors are aligned with his long-term vision. He’s promised his customers that the company doesn’t intend to sell itself to any major players in agribusiness, lest potential conflicts of interest harm its ability to serve its customers.
The focus, quite clearly, is on empowering America’s farmers and bringing digital transformation to agriculture.