Lachlan Sutton on decision making in family and corporate farms.
Tim Rethus and his family- brother, father, and uncle- are cropping farmers near Horsham in Victoria, Australia. They are early adopters and innovators who are leveraging best practices in technology, agronomy, and business to achieve their commitment to “sustainable, low cost farming”.
Tim has some valuable insights to share about adopting (and building) new technology, where to look for inspiration, deciding to shift to a whole new farming system, and more. Here are five that we think are broadly applicable for farmers looking to get the most out of their technologies.
This episode is the first of four that we will be releasing on the theme of “getting agtech ready.” This theme is brought to you in partnership with Decipher.
Know where you want to go and why
For Tim’s dad, the goal was to transition to Controlled Traffic Farming (CTF). This came about after seeing- with his own eyes and on his own farm- the negative impacts of compaction, and realizing they were leaving money on the table.
Much of the research on CTF (for example) discusses the need to and conduct a thorough cost/benefit analysis, and recommends a slow transition to what is ultimately a very different farming system. For the Rethus family, though, they made this leap in one go.
Why? Tim emphasizes the importance of knowing where you want to go, and why. This is- not surprisingly- consistent with business literature and best practices that emphasize the need for a vision and mission. It also makes sense: if you don’t know where you’re going, how can you get there?
For the Rethus’, knowing where they were going had other benefits. It made smaller choicies, like which discs to use, much easier. And, it gave them a common goal that the whole team could work toward. As Tim says, “once you’ve made up your mind, you’ll commit to it properly.”
Spending the time and collecting the evidence to establish a long-term goal has been well worth it.
Play to your strengths
Tim and his family all bring different skill sets to the farm, from chemical engineering and business to telecommunications and agronomy. Having skills, especially technical ones, available on farm is a huge advantage. But, how do you use them right and not step on each other’s toes?
Tim says the key for them is that they all take responsibility for a different area of the operation, according to their strengths and interests. Because they all bring different strengths and perspectives but are united in their common goal (see above), everyone is able to look for innovations in their area that can help advance the business.
Everyone also stays interested in and engaged with what they’re doing, which is critical over the long run.
Tim says this applies not just to technical skills, but also to the whole business. Why take on sheep if you love crops, or mechanical work if you love agronomy? It can feel like pushing shit uphill.
Instead, identify and stick to your strengths.
Think- and look- laterally to find ideas
New technologies are everywhere these days. Online, at trade shows and magazines, and even next door or coming up your driveway. Where can farmers look to find the best and latest?
Tim suggests looking far from home for inspiration. This might be other geographies, in different farming systems, or even across industries. When you’re trying to push the boundaries, looking close to home and in the same places will not get results- you have to think and look laterally.
One example for Tim is on Twitter. Here, he can see solutions in other markets or locations, from other farmers that have designed products for their local needs, and from new players like startups and entrepreneurs. He has many examples, like getting inspiration and key parts for their custom planter, via social media, from farmers in other countries.
Ask for what you want
Technology providers want to hear from their users. This applies for both large, established, and mechanical companies as well as small, entrepreneurial, and digital ones. Collecting feedback helps them ensure that their product is useful- a clear win-win.
Tim works with his suppliers in a couple ways. First he works to figure out their strengths, so he knows whether he wants to work with them, and what range of solutions they may be able to help with. Then, he tells them what he wants.
Tim has many examples of how this has had huge benefits, like having a largely custom product built where he didn’t have to take on the cost or risk. There were benefits for the company as well: they realized the product was a new offering they could sell to others, who also had the problems that Tim faced.
“They take advantage of you and use you for R&D but that’s alright because you get what you want”
So, can this work for digital products as well? There are two reasons it might not. First, as Tim explains, in the digital world products are mostly built to be custom for your type of business, not for you specifically, as is more true with mechanical products. Second, for digital products it’s harder to know which agtech company to work with give the market is both crowded and noisy, and you “dont want to back a loser”.
That said, asking for what you want does still apply. By working closely with your providers and giving them feedback, they learn more about what you want and what you need. For Tim in the digital realm, this looks like helping developers to move toward second and third order correlations and recommendations, rather than obvious conclusions that he already knows.
And by the way, the advice to ‘ask for what you want” applies in relationships just as well, or better, than in agriculture :)
Keep your options open
In addition to buying technology, Tim has taken matters into his own hands with the decision to build a custom planter that is seriously decked out (see below). There’s a lot to be learned from this journey- take an incremental approach to documenting features, look to buy first and then build only when you need to, and the importance of bringing the tech teams to the field to test test test- but a key takeaway that applies to both digital and mechanical products is the importance of keeping your options open.
In the agtech world, solutions that help do this are often called platforms. Rather than solve one specific problem, they are built so that other products can work with them, data can be shared, and new features and use cases can be added.
The key here is to make sure that the product you’re using, or building, does not limit you in terms of your future options. Make sure the tool will grow with you.
“You want something that, even if it starts basic, in the future when something new comes out, it doesn’t limit you. Nothing is a finished product.”
You can follow Tim at @TRethus on Twitter.
Useful (hopefully) Resources and Links to Things Mentioned
Controlled Traffic overview and benefits: https://www.agric.wa.gov.au/soil-compaction/developing-controlled-traffic-tramline-farming-system
Adoption of CTF: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0167198707001456
Report on agtech value propositions, with a specific recommendation for farmers to evaluate more than the product when working with startups: https://www.agrifutures.com.au/product/accelerating-the-development-of-agtech-solutions-worth-adopting/
Precision planting and singulation research results: https://groundcover.grdc.com.au/story/5938413/lifting-canola-yields/?cs=14008
Mission, vision, and values. What’s the difference? https://hbr.org/2014/09/your-companys-purpose-is-not-its-vision-mission-or-values
Giving employees meaning through your mission. https://hbr.org/2012/12/to-give-your-employees-meaning.html