In the Spring of 2017 GiSC was winding down a project and seeking direction regarding its future. We were trying to generate advantages for the farmer from ag tech tools we encountered across the sector. We spoke to growers, ag tech providers, input providers, universities, bankers, crop insurance agents, and any stakeholder that would give us the time of day. We were quickly becoming discouraged because the apparently logical approaches needed fuel. The fuel needed was real, high quality farm data.
We were faced with the classical chicken and egg problem. The farmer wanted to see the solution at work and the solution didn’t work without lots of quality farm data. In the bleakest of moments, I felt like Ag data science was dead on arrival. It had been a long journey and even in those moments when it appeared that the next big thing would be here “soon” I would speak to growers and would have to say: “The dirty little secret in ag tech is that there is no ag data”. The room would sit in silence and stare at me as I explained there was not enough farmer collected quality data in any repository, including our own, to be confident of our assessments and business insights.
GiSC’s had a vision to be the incubator of “Big Data” for the grower’s advantage. All we had to do was bring together thousands of members and amass the data. We believed we could build unbelievable insights that would be independent and objective – not tainted by the desire of someone to sell us a product or a service. The grower members of GiSC could own this new world collectively. The vision was grand, but the reality was harsh. We worked hard, but we learned it takes more than hard work to build a well-designed collaboration platform. It takes money to build those dreams. It takes real money to put the data science into action that will create the actionable insights. There were real obstacles at every turn.
One obstacle that I did not foresee was the data quality issue. We slowly learned that the quality of the data varied greatly. Most was of unknown quality or was not to be trusted even assuming extraordinary post processing. The latter required what we did not have – “deep pockets”. No post processing can ever take the place of great data collected in a very controlled process, including meticulous calibration and maintenance of the equipment. We knew that these items were not generally priorities for growers. Farmers’ priorities were getting the crop out of the field.
In April 2017, I sat in a meeting with Ron LeMay, Managing Director of OpenAir Equity Partners, founder of Main Street Data (MSD), in his Kansas City Boardroom. Ron had been President of Sprint PCS, past CEO of Japan Telecom, a founder and chairman of the Board of GoGo Inflight, a founder and CEO of FarmLink, and an early investor in MachineryLink to name a few. He had a long history of success in any business requiring connectivity to gain decision-making insights. I was intrigued with Ron’s past and the collection of corn, soybeans and wheat yield data I had heard about over the past couple of years. I had seen it described in farm articles and it had been mentioned to me in conversations with ag tech founders, venture capitalists, private equity board members, and the leadership of farm groups. I felt like I was in search of a mythical creature as I sat there waiting to hear if he really had any data or if it was another jar of thumb drives.
I was intrigued as he showed me the parameters of the collection of yield over a seven-year period and including the driest and the wettest years on record as part of his collection period. The data collection involved a proprietary micro-field reader installed on a combine fleet owned by one of his investments. The combines were leased to farmers who contractually gave FarmLink the right to collect data from the leased machines for FarmLink’s use. The coverage was millions of acres and more than two dozen states. I was more than intrigued when he said these collections were really 1.3 billion micro-fields of data and they were baked into insights around yield while correlating over fifty uncontrollable environmental variables associated with yield – all at the granular resolution of 150 sq. ft.
I wondered what it would take to create such a data set and so I asked. Ron replied it would take 7 years, $80 million and the hope that you get the right weather variability to get the data they collected. He also mentioned that the combine needed to be put through a rigorous process of maintenance and calibration before each collection event. He said good luck and then told me that he had always hoped he could work directly with growers or grower groups to improve their insights. He had become discouraged with that goal as he had struggled for traction and farmer adoption.
I hoped I could convince him to rethink his position and work with GiSC. Ron is a gracious and reasonable person and the rest is history as we have spent the last year working with Main Street Data and its team to create real business insights for growers at very affordable pricing. We believe the capabilities we have gained by partnering with Main Street Data around the data science are invaluable. It is time to bring real data science to growers. Coming this summer of 2018 two farmer tools built from the knowledge gained from mining Main Street Data’s collected data will be available to growers. GiSC calls the data set owned by Main Street Data the “Rosetta Stone” of ag data and the two products are “The Validator” and “Market Vision”.
The Validator — This benchmarking tool will assist farmers in identifying whether farming practices are producing the expected outcomes. It further ranks farmers’ operations at the subfield level on a scale of 5th to 95th percentile by comparing the yields at the micro field level with other farmers growing under comparable conditions. The Validator is the only independent benchmarking tool to help farmers determine if their plans are creating a positive return on investment.
Market Vision –An in-season productivity assessment and decision tool, as well as a grain trading tool will help growers maximize the marketing opportunities of their grain. Market Vision is a highly quantitative, data analytics-based tool as sophisticated as those utilized by the largest grain traders. It is designed to level the playing field for the benefit of growers.
GiSC is ready to deliver on a vision of a grower centric eco-system. It is an exciting time to be part of this grower driven cooperative that is “Built by Growers, For Growers”. Consider signing up today and be a part of the community platform for farmers to collaborate with Main Street Data and its partner, IBM to prioritize and seek the independent answers and solutions for our farming operations.