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Silicon Valley reimagines row-crop agriculture

Ag’s west coast offense

Silicon Valley software engineers are reimagining the future of row crop agriculture.

Three years ago, on a quiet, nondescript street in downtown San Francisco, the world’s biggest farm equipment company opened an office – not to sell tractors, but to house software engineers.

Today the folks at the John Deere Labs on 2nd street still get the occasional confused look from curious passersby.

“I did have people knock on the glass and ask if we can sell them a lawn mower part,” quips Alex Purdy, who founded Deere’s Silicon Valley-based lab and led efforts to deliver AI on the farm through smart equipment.

Welcome to the new world of digital farming, where leading ag companies set up shop far from the corn and bean fields of their largest customers. Where, increasingly, Silicon Valley tech upstarts, fueled by venture capital, find strange bedfellows in partnerships with established, traditional agribusinesses from Deere to Corteva and beyond. Where the person most likely to influence how you farm next year is not your local seed dealer but a bespectacled west coast software engineer who has never stepped foot on a corn farm.

Cheaper technology

How did that happen?

The courtships between ag and the artificial intelligence community began long ago but grew more serious around 2016 when technology began getting both significantly better and cheaper. Problems that were too costly or complex to bring Artificial Intelligence (AI) to bear are no longer out of reach. Because of technological change around graphics processing, AI has been opened to a whole new class of problems that can be solved, including agriculture.

For farmers it’s meant a flood of new services and products driven by big data, artificial intelligence and machine learning technologies, built by software engineers raised and educated far from corn fields. 

So why would an urbanite work to solve farm problems when they could be building algorithms or fixing bugs at Facebook and Uber? The answers might surprise you.

“We’re getting top talent,” says Prospera CEO and co-founder Daniel Koppel, whose company is focusing on turning irrigation pivots into autonomous data-driven growing machines. “Our people in research and development, they could have worked anywhere else like Google, or Facebook. They work for us because they are keen on solving big problems for humanity on a vision level and solving problems for growers on a pragmatic level.”

The problems that must be solved – sustainable farm productivity - resonates in this market. Agriculture has a unique story to tell, and those software engineers like the impact they can have on the world.

“There’s a growing connection between Silicon Valley and the Midwest,” says Doug Sauder, Director of Applied Intelligence at Deere’s San Francisco lab. “There are a lot of people who care about farmers operations and profitability, who think there are novel ways for us to help.

“We all have to do a better job of making it easy for a farmer to choose tech that is simple and valuable. That is an industry challenge and today it is not as easy as I would like it to be. But there’s a lot of people helping.”

Mike WilsonDoug Sauder, Deere Labs

“We think, as a company, to have one foot in the Midwest and one foot in Silicon Valley gives us the best of both worlds,” says Deere Labs Director of Applied Intelligence Doug Sauder.

Ripe for disruption

Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and venture capitalists see agriculture as an industry ripe for digital disruption – one reason why billions of dollars are still pouring into the sector despite a wobbly farm economy. Unpredictable risk factors like weather and markets, along with its traditional family-business model, present multiple challenges: efficiency, cost savings, sustainability, and productivity to name a few. Agribusiness is concentrated, yet producers are fragmented, working at different levels of resources, acreages, enterprises, and crops.

The ‘mission’ of working on world food sustainability “gets people jazzed,” says Purdy. A lot of millennial-age data scientists and engineers like the idea of solving big world problems.

“Agriculture is clearly one of those big hairy massive challenges that we have to solve if we want to feed a growing world population,” he says. “They want to see their work have that impact.

“Even if you don’t care about the mission, this ‘problem’ fits so well with the technology, it’s compelling for someone who just wants to work deeply in AI and be a topic expert – even if they don’t care about food. This is a hard, challenging problem but not insurmountable, and we’re going to have to scale this all around the globe.”

Third, software engineers see a way to make a quick impact. In the ag tech world people can see their work in the field within months, instead of years or decades (see related Q/A).

“There are quite a few people who grew up on a farm, left the farm to do a computer science degree or biology at Stanford or Berkeley and never thought they would be able to work in ag again,” he says. “They are happily surprised that there are people like them working on problems that connect back to their background.”

Koppel, who earned a degree in computer science at The Hebrew University, says he fell in love with agriculture after he got into the field by mistake.

“It was part of another project and we happened to meet some growers,” he recalls. “My co-founder is a physicist; we started asking questions and we didn’t get answers we liked and saw there was a gap between what tech provides and how growers were leveraging that. We saw that this was a great chance to make a big impact on the world.”

Boots on the ground

But making an ag tech startup succeed takes more than just bright ideas from Silicon Valley and the entrepreneurs who fall in love with this new thing called agriculture. It also takes folks with farm experience to help answer real-world questions as products and services move from idea to farm field. The folks joining the payrolls of these new companies come from vastly different backgrounds.

“I joined Bear Flag to leverage my farm knowledge, my understanding of growers, and the issues they face,” says Daniel Carmichael, an Illinois farm boy who grew up surrounded by corn and soybean fields at his family’s grain elevator, ag retail and crop farm operation in Rochelle, Ill. He studied computer science at DeVry University in Chicago and returned to Maplehurst Farms to become Director of Technology in 2008. Last year he was lured to the west coast to begin work as Bear Flag Robotic’s field manager. Bear Flag is a startup working to perfect autonomous tractors.

Mike WilsonDaniel Carmichael, Bear Flag Robotics

Illinois-born Daniel Carmichael moved to Silicon Valley to leverage his farm knowledge and understanding of growers for ag tech startup Bear Flag Robotics. “California is a different animal than the Midwest, but it’s the overall issues like cost management that plague everybody.”

“California is a different animal than the Midwest, but it’s the overall issues like cost management that plague everybody,” says Carmichael. “In the Midwest we have one crop grown once a year; here we can do it over and over and that gives us that much more time and acreage to perfect what we’re doing.”

While west coast specialty crops may have a smaller acre base than the corn belt, California’s Central Valley is littered with progressive, business-minded farmers who volunteer fields for ag tech testing. And, it’s less than a couple hours drive from the heart of Silicon Valley, notes Bear Flag’s co-founder Igino Cafiero.

But, someone needs to know how to ‘talk farming.’

“Where I come in is, having that relationship experience with growers as we expand out here, and certainly as we scale up and eventually target the Midwest,” says Carmichael.

In fact, finding the Daniel Carmichaels of the world may be one of the toughest challenges for Silicon Valley ag startups, adds Cafiero. “We were looking for someone with deep agricultural experience, deep technology experience, who knows how to run equipment, knows what it’s like to run custom farming operations, and also has the patience to work with new technology,” he explains. “This was something that became obvious to me, getting into ag tech. A lot of companies fail pretty spectacularly because they built their products in a bubble and they didn’t leave their Silicon Valley office to go make sure it worked on the farm.”

Fresh ideas

Tech startups are aware of agriculture’s weighty issues. They’re looking for an outlet to apply the skills they have gained from other industries to solve those problems, says Sauder.

 “What Silicon Valley and the Bay area bring to agriculture is a breadth of different technologies and experiences from other industries, fresh ideas and thinking,” says Sauder, another Illinois transplant. “Having a presence here allows Deere to tap into a diverse set of talents that folks have had in other industries, as well as local connections with the many other ag tech players headquartered nearby.

 “There’s also a fascination with equipment,” he adds. “There’s something amazing about being in a combine or planter and understanding the automation and technology that’s involved. When you start explaining how much tech is in our modern equipment, people become fascinated.”

As a result, software engineers who never stepped foot on a farm find the work very appealing.

“Most of those people want to understand the real world, not just look at data in an abstract sense,” says Sauder. “We get fresh eyes and a diversity of experience from other industries that look at the same problem in a different way.”

In fact, row crop farmers may be getting new bells and whistles on their combines thanks mainly to folks who never even sat in a combine cab.

“In my experience the best products in the world are created by a team that has a large breadth of background and experiences,” says Sauder. “It’s powerful to say, when I was at Linkedin, Uber, or Apple, when we built that product for scale for tens of millions of users, we learned these things -- so to bring those perspectives together helps build the best type of product.

“That’s important for farmers to understand,” he adds. “We think, as a company, to have one foot in the Midwest and one foot in Silicon Valley gives us the best of both worlds.”

How do farmers react when they learn about the west coast connection to their machines? It’s been positive, says Sauder.

“At the end of the day it’s the application of technology to give farmers insights on their data and help them with their job,” he says. “If we can harness lessons from other industries, that’s what they want us to do as an innovative company within agriculture.”

And maybe some day folks will stop asking for lawn mower parts when they spy the Deere office name in down town San Francisco.

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