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How Tech Startups Are Changing Farming

Bushel in the May Fargo INC

Walk into Bushel’s office in Downtown Fargo, you might think you’ve stepped into a tech startup in Silicon Valley. You’ll be greeted with an open office concept with standing desks, couches, glass meeting rooms and the requisite ping-pong table. While Bushel is about 1,800 miles from Silicon Valley, the work they’re doing to bring new and exciting technology to the agriculture space is helping make the Red River Valley the new Silicon Prairie. 

Planting the seed for Bushel
Bushel hasn’t always been in the ag space. The company has actually been around since 2011 as Myriad Mobile. After looking for a sustainable and consistent business model, they settled on Bushel after listening to their customers. 

Co-founders Jake Joraanstad and Ryan Raguse and the rest of the team at Bushel built an app for a sugar beet company where farmers got scale tickets. It was a huge success and 100 percent of the farmers were using it. They then replicated that for grain elevators and companies by initially working with Arthur Companies and Minn-Kota Ag Products.

This app became the Bushel platform, which allows grain elevators to more effectively do business with farmers through company branded apps and other tools. Each Bushel-powered app allows growers to do things like quickly accessing their tickets, contracts, commodity balances and much more. Perhaps the biggest purpose of Bushel is to organize the processes needed to send North Dakota products across the world. 

“What’s missing is what you might call the digital infrastructure,” said Joraanstad. “From a farm to the guys who buy your grain to the people who process it or export it, that data flow is almost entirely paper or paper being manually entered by humans. There is an opportunity with Bushel as we build out our network to help our customers who are grain companies, exporters and processors to do business better with each other through digital infrastructure to circulate this information in a more efficient manner so it can cut out costs in the supply chain. It can make us even more efficient to compete against the likes of China and other countries around the world.”

Once the app was released to the world, it quickly snowballed. 

“Bushel started as a team of two or three people working inside of the company,” said Joraanstad. “It quickly grew and fast-forward to 2019, we’re basically at 100 customers that have signed onto the platform and have over 2,000 locations in the U.S. and Canada that have access to this tool. The team is 110 and over half of those people are working on the product. As we focus on agriculture, we’re almost exclusively doing ag work now.”

Overalls and smartphones
There is a shift going on in farmers as the younger generation takes over farming operations. While the image of a farmer not being tech savvy is definitely debunked, this new generation taking over will only encourage more technology to be embraced. 

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, more than 34 percent of the nearly 3.4 million farmers in the U.S. are 65 years or older. Over the next couple of years, there will be an even greater shift as younger farmers take over. 

“There is a pretty decent gap between the generation that operates and the one that’s coming up,” said Raguse. “One of the questions that we always seem to run into is, are farmers older? Even the co-ops think that sometimes. The reality is that we get amazing adoption, even in those age groups. They all have a smartphone and know how to use it. When it’s something that’s valuable, they’ll log on, sign up and use it. The farmers are pretty tech savvy.”

When it comes to technology in agriculture, another common concern from farmers is that most tech companies don’t understand the real-life struggles the farmers go through every day. One of the big reasons for launching Grand Farm in North Dakota is that the tech people understand the struggles of farmers as a lot of them grew up on a farm. 

That is even true for Raguse. His dad owns a farm in Wheaton, M.N., and Raguse goes down and helps his dad farm every year. 

“Not everything, but a lot of the technology (that farmers have worked with) has had a difficult struggle to prove that value,” said Joraanstad. “I think farmers at one point were sick of trying new things that weren’t going to bring as much value as a lot of the other places they could be investing. Why would they spend tens of thousands of dollars on software that they do all the manual entry on when they could buy a grain bin to store their beans in longer and get a better price?”

Technology will be one of the enablers that can keep the family farm alive. Even in my dad’s case, it’s a struggle to find the help he needs, getting the information and making decisions. We’re affected by world economics. Technology is probably one of the only things that can help the family farm survive.”

– Ryan Raguse

“Technology will be one of the enablers that can keep the family farm alive.”
Since North Dakota’s formation in 1889, it has a longstanding history of technology in agriculture. With the background of large-scale Bonanza farms that would be tens of thousands of acres of farms, they had to employ a large-scale workforce and create mechanical automation in agriculture. 

“I think the economies of scale are such that farmers are great entrepreneurs. They’re great pushers and adopters,” said Raguse. “Farmers have a ‘whatever it takes’ mindset. As a result of this mindset, farms have adapted to fit the situation they’re put in.”

“Whatever they have to do to make it work, over the many years, they’ve become larger to do that. There have been periods of time in the past where farms got really big like the Bonanza days. They were 20,000-30,000 acre farms but they broke up. The smaller farms happened and the reason why that came about is that they had access to newer technologies that they didn’t have previously. We’re talking about mechanical technologies so you didn’t need to have 100 laborers. You and your kids could go farm.”

Most farmlands have been in a family for years. In fact, in North Dakota, you have to be a family or an individual to own farmland. Over the years, there’s been a consolidation of farms as fewer people are farming more land. So what does growing technology mean for the family farm?

“Technology will be one of the enablers that can keep the family farm alive,” said Raguse. “Even in my dad’s case, it’s a struggle to find the help he needs, getting the information and making decisions. We’re affected by world economics. Technology is probably one of the only things that can help the family farm survive.”

Why North Dakota?
From Bobcat to Steiger Tractor to Phoenix International, the history of technology in agriculture in the Red River Valley has been well documented throughout this magazine. However, what Grand Farm is hoping to do is to plant a flag in the ground that this area will be recognized for ag tech around the world. 

“All those things are the seeds to say, ‘We have the right to at least try and claim that,’” said Joraanstad. “I think we have a technical advantage because of the history, location, variety of crops and the types of things growing in North Dakota are significant enough that you can test a lot of theories and technologies right here without driving across the country or flying across the world.”

When you think of automation, it’s easy to just think of planting and harvesting with an autonomous tractor. However, the mission of Grand Farm goes much further than that. They’re working on the full operation of a farm, which ranges from fueling the vehicles to the delivery of the grain to the elevator down the road. This is important to the future of agriculture as a whole but it is also important to the state for another reason.

“In North Dakota, the other reason this matters is that we, unlike other places, have unemployment that is so low that farmers don’t have the hands and help they need every year,” said Joraanstad. “In my opinion, a farmer in North Dakota who wants to continue to grow and maybe be a bigger size farm, they need to look at automation as a solution.”

While workforce plays a problem in the future of the growth of farms, so too does the weather. 

“One of the things that I’ve seen that’s difficult to companies is to experiment,” said Joraanstad. “There are a lot of problems in agriculture. One of them is that in North Dakota, and most parts of the country, you only get one shot a year to figure it out. It’s not like you can do a constant iteration.”

Grand Farm will fill that spot for experimentation and allow companies to test ideas on a small scale before rolling out to the mass market. 

The Bushel platform provides producers instant access to their scale tickets, contracts, commodity balances, prepaids, cash bids, futures and more. The platform’s feature set and capabilities continue to grow, with a team of 110 people in Fargo.
Photo by Dan Francis

How to find the workers

With a reported 15,000 open jobs in March in North Dakota, workforce is one of the biggest struggles facing North Dakota. To address that concern, the Workforce Development Council has worked to understand this problem and what they can do to help solve the problem. They address five different areas (technical skills gap, need for youth engagement and earlier and more diverse career exploration, nursing and healthcare technician shortage, support for populations with barriers to employment and need for net in-migration of North Dakotans.) 

Right in the study, they address how automation will help solve our workforce shortage. They want to incentivize engagement and automation and recommends…

“The Council recommends that digitization and automation of business processes be an important part of the solution to address the worker shortage by remodeling and reimplementing the “automation credit” eliminated during the 2017 legislative session. The credit should target industries with significant labor shortages and not be limited to manufacturing, should increase the tax credit, and should expand allowable investments to include, for example, consulting services to aid in automation of a manual business process.”

To learn more about this, go to workforce.nd.gov


ND Farmer Demographics

The U.S. Census of Agriculture keeps a wide swatch of stats about farmers. Below is a brief breakdown of the demographics of North Dakota farmers.

North Dakota Farm Stats

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Written by Andrew Jason

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