Ag Innovation Forum: “Tech Not For Tech’s Sake”

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (February 14, 2022) – One of the speakers at the Council’s 2022 Ag Innovation Forum asserted that developing technology for its own sake was not the best way to connect digital engineering and advance science to the farm. Matt Olson, manager of John Deere’s Precision Ag Go-To-Market group, said “Technology was moving as fast as it ever has, and will never be slower.” But he noted that advancing tech needed to blend with “farmer intuition and institutional knowledge.”


That notion of connectivity was a strong underlying theme of the day-long forum at Union Station that featured 17 experts in ag innovation, participating in three panel discussions. Chelsea Good, vice president of government and industry affairs, Livestock Marketing Association, served as event emcee.


In his keynote address, Ben Johnson, vice president of programs, BioSTL, said growers are overwhelmed with innovation from various pathways – from input companies; coops and retailers; equipment suppliers; processors, USDA/Land Grant Universities; startups. “As distractions, they can all add up to reduced grower production.”


Dr. Parag Chitnis, associate director for programs, NIFA, talked about data science application initiatives that would lead to a national community learning network to promote economic mobility. He described an agriculture of the future that would produce food that is sufficient, sustainable, safe, affordable, nutritious and culturally compatible.


Keynoter Dr. Elena Rice, chief science officer, Genus PLC, made the point that healthier animals create a more sustainable food system. She described her company’s research in gene-editing as an ethical commitment to advance new breeding science to earn consumer trust.


Dr. Michael Helmstetter, co-founder and CEO, TechAccel, wrapped up the Forum with a challenge to attendees – and a broader audience of Midwest tech innovators – to make Kansas City America’s most entrepreneurial city. “We owe it to ourselves,” he said.


This year’s Innovation Forum featured three panels: Geospatial Engineering, Automation & Digital Technology; Sustainable Agriculture; Focus on Entrepreneurship.


· Geospatial Engineering, Automation & Digital Technology: Moderator Brad Fabbri, chief science officer, TechAccel, observed that the climate for ag tech investment was good. Panelist Matt Olson observed that digital ecosystem apps for farmers had to be designed to fit their needs – “not just tech for tech’s sake.” As for autonomous vehicle operation, he said it is not coming; “It’s already here.” Dr. Raj Khosla, agronomy department head, Kansas State University, stressed that monies earned from technology systems must not be made from the sensors and equipment per se but from the data it gathers. Dallas Ford, director global business development, Sentera, claimed that improved digital technology was improving engagement between growers and field consultants. Dr. Tom Eickhoff, chief science officer, The Climate Corporation/Digital Farming, predicted agriculture’s future would be influenced by Major League Baseball’s MoneyBall model. Baseball changed when it became data driven. “Agriculture will follow.”


· Sustainable Agriculture: Moderator Amy Skoczlas Cole, executive vice president, Farm Journal, led a group environmental and forestry expects in a discussion which concluded that any system changes in sustainable agriculture will likely start with producers. And 70% of them are not using sensor data apps. Michael Doane, a farmer and a director with The Nature Conservancy, said agriculture offers the best changes to mitigate land degradation. “This issue gets less attention than climate change,” he said, adding the solutions are hopeful and exciting: “So why are we not doing it?” Dr. Sarah Lovell, director, Center for Agroforestry, University of Missouri, added a new dimension to the common perception of agriculture. She asked why not look at agroforestry as equal to crop growing and livestock production. Forests are part of the ag landscape, she said, as windbreaks and habitats for various wildlife species. Trees also sequester carbon. Dr. Sara Place, chief sustainability officer, Elanco Animal health, pointed out the short comings of ESG (environmental impact, social impact and governance) scores as they relate to livestock production. Groups have tried to assign limits for food animal carbon emissions. But they’re difficult to administer. If regulators severely limited carbon emissions from food animals, the negative ramifications would include a cutback in overall protein production. “We’d be eating a diet of sugar,” she scoffed.


· Focus on Entrepreneurship: Moderator J.J. Jones, co-founder, Roots & Legacies, guided a panel of energetic entrepreneurs through a discussion of ups and downs and reasons for starting tech businesses in agriculture. The consensus was that tech’s mission was to make producers’ lives easier. Tech startups can help farmers and ranchers comply with environmental rules or be part of the solutions to lower emissions and mitigate soil degradation. Entrepreneurs, the group agreed, are disrupters and can have meaningful, lasting impact on growers and food animal producers.


The panel included Kevin Johansen, founder and CEO of Ag Butler; Shekar Gupta, founder and CEO of MyAniML; Ryan Raguse, co-founder and president, Bushel; Rob Forsythe, co-founder and CEO, Milk Moovement; and Martha Schlicher, entrepreneur-in-resident, BioGenerator. Some of the advice they offered:

· Be clear about your direction and be ready to adjust course;

· Know when to pivot;

· Be a listener;

· Be patient;

· Cultivate a network of savvy advisors (not agents);

· Be careful when “taking early money; keep financial options open.


All of them concurred that passion drives successful entrepreneurs. And they suggested not focusing on successes alone. Learn from the disappointments.


Dr. Schlicher with BioSTL’s BioGenerator, described the current investment climate between Coastal and Midwest/Heartland. There is not a lot of companies in the Midwest to lure Coastal money, she said. Coastal investors have high costs and lately are having a difficult time keeping employees. “But they’re thinking are about the opportunities emerging in the Heartland.”

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