Briana Tanaka

Revolution to Evolution:  The Emergence of Ag Technology

Briana Tanaka, Business Advisor-BMC

Entrepreneurs will enhance agricultural technology to create myriad benefits – improved efficiency measures, faster responses to changing consumer preferences, consistent top-notch quality, etc. These innovators foster a distinctive mindset called the “entrepreneurial spirit.” It’s a difference maker in agriculture, and those who adopt it will break down current challenges facing the industry. So, what does it look like to adopt the entrepreneurial spirit?

Dave Staheli was staring at a tortilla steamer in a fast food restaurant when he was struck by a solution to the exceptionally dry season: integrate the same basic principles used to steam a tortilla to moisten his dry hay. 

This was the moment Staheli attributes to the inception of the hay steamer, a revolutionary enhancement in agricultural technology that took an uncontrollable variable – weather – and created a mitigating answer. Staheli’s steamer demonstrates the power of an idea put to work. His entrepreneurial spirit made it happen. 

Entrepreneurial Spirit Begins with Identifying Opportunity
So maybe for you the innovative moment won’t happen when you’re ordering tacos.  The moment, however, might happen when you examine your operation, identify specific areas of improvement and begin brainstorming potential angles for development opportunities. A testament to this theory is Bob Schaefer, a Christmas tree producer in Oregon.

Bob remembers overseeing all the trucks, trailers and CATs on his operation in 1975. The harvesting techniques were far from perfect – they were slow, costly and detrimental to quality – but they were the industry standard. Bob knew that, with all its flaws, the harvesting system was not sustainable. Something had to change. One year later, working with a helicopter company, Bob developed tree slings and started contracting with a helicopter company to complement his production needs. Using this method, harvested trees went from approximately 550 to 650 trees per day to 8,000 trees per day. The new harvesting system allowed for more efficient production, fresher trees and a shorter harvest season. It was also more ecologically responsible. Bob exercised his entrepreneurial spirit using a business-savvy approach:  He examined his entire operation for areas of improvement, identified an underperforming hauling system affecting his production capacity and brainstormed his way to Helicopter Harvesting – a system still used today.

Entrepreneurial Spirit is a Nice Sentiment, But...
Maybe you’ve already identified specific areas of improvement and you know what type of innovation your operation needs, but you’re not certain. After all, what if you change the fundamental way your operation functions and it doesn’t pan out? Adopting innovation can feel like a gamble; it would be easier if you had a crystal ball and the winning lottery ticket. Derek Schafer (no relation to Bob), a grain farmer from Washington state, is familiar with the stakes of implementation.

Derek purchased a Dutch weed sprayer called WEEDit, a technology known to create chemical savings of up to 90 percent. Because the sprayer had not been adopted by the U.S. and therefore was not modified for U.S. equipment, Derek knew the risk and work required to reap the benefits. He also knew his current model of equipment was not sustainable. We asked Derek how he made the decision to invest and he pointed out key business tips.

  • Find opportunities that can make you more efficient. 
    WEEDit  is a conservation tool in saving money, but also helps the environment and sends a positive message to our consumers.”
  • Right-size technology to your own operation. 
    “Just because your neighbor has adopted it doesn’t mean it will work for your farm.”
  • Run the numbers. 
    “Calculate your Return on Investment and if you think it makes sense – that it will pay back in the short term and continue to pay back in the long run – then do it.”
  • Remember:  Investments are a long-term strategy. 
    “It's hard to get past the capital expenditure when times are tight. But continuing to invest can be a good thing.”

Entrepreneurial Spirit:  What’s Next?
As any good farmer knows, harvest is not the end of the season. The same goes with technology. Whether you made the investment or not, the work isn’t over. Agriculture is in a never-ending revolution of technology and innovation, and the advancements developed next year could completely change the way you do business. Creating a sustainable business looks a lot like mining for opportunities.

Follow innovators and agricultural entrepreneurs such as AgTech Insight (@agtechinsight) or New York Times Technology (@nytimestech) on Twitter. Read about up-and-coming technology. Attend a technology trade show. Scan the internet for sectors that may be innovating in ways you could easily adapt. If Amazon can dream up delivering packages to your doorstep using drones (Amazon Drones), who’s to say we can’t deliver cows the same way. Okay, maybe that's too far-fetched, but you get the idea.

The future of agricultural technology belongs to those who embrace the entrepreneurial spirit, and who knows? Maybe those solutions will be yours, and maybe they’ll come from staring at something like a tortilla steamer.