Big Happenings At FarmLink In ’15

Brent Schipper, a grower from Conrad, IA, looking at the TrueHarvest tool on an iPad.
Brent Schipper, a grower from Conrad, IA, looking at the TrueHarvest tool on an iPad.

Eavesdropping on a group of rival growers down at the local coffee shop. Aimlessly driving country back roads on a slow day, estimating potential bushels-per-acre on each field you pass.

These are things that many in agriculture have probably found themselves doing at one time or another. We just can’t seem to help it, humans are naturally curious animals, after all.

FarmLink is currently in the midst of trying to change that “keeping up with the neighbors” mindset. Enter the Kansas City, MO-based ag tech outfit’s newest product, TrueHarvest.

TrueHarvest is an intruiging new agronomic data “benchmarking” platform. According to Paul Konrad, managing director, FarmLink, the idea of data benchmarking, or making apples-to-apples comparisons (Ford vs. Chevy, Coke vs. Pepsi, etc.) is already deeply entrenched in many other industries, but FarmLink’s program is the first “peer-to-peer yield benchmarking data program that uses unbiased analytics” in analyzing the same beyond-their-control variables that all farmers deal with: sun, soil, topography and water.

The program’s backbone is millions of acres of yield data obtained via MachineryLink, a combine leasing business that FarmLink administers throughout the U.S.
Owning 200 data-collecting combines across 26 states, the growers that lease these machines from FarmLink for fall harvest in turn provide the yield data on which the company bases its benchmarking system.

“We capture a yield signature across 1.5 million acres annually with the yield monitors on those combines,” says Konrad. “That’s how we build out our yield database – which is different from some of our competitors because we ensure our machines are always properly calibrated and set up to capture high quality and accurate data. Precision Ag is only as good and actionable as precision data.”

Now 15 years into the MachineryLink leasing program – the last five of which having been spent primarily building out the TrueHarvest benchmark – Farm Link has assembled a bank of yield data on over 6 million acres, and the program is ready for its full nationwide launch after limited availability in ten states last fall.

“As a career agronomist this just really excites me,” says Konrad. “This is the missing cornerstone in ag data analysis. What benchmarking allows you to do is measure performance. Are my cultural practices working? Are the products I am putting down actually making a difference? And for ag retailers and advisors this is a tool they can use to bring additional value to their grower-customers.”

Konrad says the system can also help growers reduce risk and improve their overall sustainability and land use.

“One of the ways that we have used this tool is, say that you have some land that is low-performing on a bushels-per-acre level,” he says. “Well, once you analyze it compared to similar fields across the country you may find out that that ground is actually performing pretty efficiently given the variables affecting it. Or, you may find that it may not be sustainable to continue growing on that land. That’s the type of thing we are hoping to uncover in the data.”

Addition by addition

FarmLink has also been busy on the personnel side of things, attracting top-level industry talent away from some of the larger multinationals.

Former Pioneer plant breeder and WinField executive Dave Gebhardt recently took them up on the offer, joining on with FarmLink after a seven year stint with the Shoreview, MN-based company where he was largely responsible for development and execution of WinField’s R7 satellite imagery tool.

“I honestly didn’t make this decision lightly,” said Gebhardt during a phone interview on his first day on the job with FarmLink. “I have the ultimate and utmost respect for WinField and all of the great people that work there.”

That being said, Gebhardt relayed that there were a couple of aspects about FarmLink’s organizational culture that attracted him to the startup.

“Number one, I am a development-minded person, and from the start with WinField my goal was to develop a decision support and R7 tool, and those efforts had become a little more mature recently,” he said. “Secondly, there’s just an excitement that I get from joining an entrepreneurial company like this – these are the companies that are going to drive innovation in ag. That’s really where I feel my sweet spot is.”

The aforementioned benchmarking approach was another intriguing aspect that helped sell Gebhardt on making the jump.

“At the top of FarmLink there’s a vision for changing agriculture, to bringing a whole other level of data science to farming,” he explains. “It feels like we are adding something entirely new and innovative to the precision agriculture tool box, instead of just releasing new products. Benchmarking, I feel, can take precision ag to the next level.

“I turn 50 this year, and I’ve got a full tank of gas ready to help FarmLink make this run, and hopefully we’ll transform agriculture a little bit too.”

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