The path to finer farming
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When Mark Lepp launched FarmLink Marketing Solutions 17 years ago he was pioneering the business of providing personalized marketing recommendations for Western Canadian farmers.
This week the Winnipeg company launched a new digital product called GrainFox that, through a combination of artificial intelligence, input from its own analytical teams, current and historical market data and regional aggregate data provides up-to-date, personalized crop sales recommendations to producers.
“Not only have we had the chance to be pioneers once, we are now doing it again,” Lepp said. “Revolutionizing is too strong of a term, but we are once again pioneering a new era in helping growers.”
The GrainFox mobile app and online portal will include up-to-date information on commodity pricing, weather, details on tracking a farmer’s entire portfolio and even cash flow planning assistance.
Farmers input their own crop mix, cash flow goals, storage constraints, and risk tolerance, impacting how the algorithm will respond to that specific farmer and provide customized sales recommendations.
It was a multi-million dollar undertaking for the company that was self-financed. The company now has a larger IT staff than its total staff count prior to GrainFox’s development, adding more than a dozen people (some of whom are located as far away as South Africa).
Neil Townsend, the company’s chief market analyst, said they have effectively converted the entire company to this online portal.
“But it is not a complete abrogation of what we were doing before,” said Townsend. “We will still have advisers out in the countryside as well as a group of new advisers that farmers can reach out to on the phone.”
Among other things, while the marketing consultant model was welcome and effective, it was getting harder to recruit qualified advisers and the model itself made it hard to expand geographically.
As it is GrainFox currently includes data covering 17 different crops. It expects to add livestock coverage next, but the intention is to expand elsewhere around the world.
“There are lots of crops that we currently don’t touch,” said Lepp. “We will be adding to that portfolio that will allow as to expand to the U.S. and other countries.”
The service will cost $200 per month and while some might say they don’t want another expense, Lepp and his team are confident that its service will add value.
About 2,000 farmers have been using the tool as it has been worked on for the past two years and have provided positive feedback.
Lepp said when the idea was hatched almost four years ago the company invested in a couple of market research surveys just to make sure they were on the right track.
“We spent money to find out what farmers are looking for,” said Lepp. “Farmers said they wanted a tool to help them make better solutions on their own and they wanted to use technology to help then with that.”
As well as serving as a one-stop shop for all the information a farmer might need about pricing and conditions and opportunities, it will help them take the emotions out of the process and it will provide unbiased advice.
The GrainFox mobile app and online portal includes up-to-date commodity pricing information and details on a farmer’s entire portfolio, as well as weather and other useful data.
It’s market research discovered that 75-to-80 per cent of farmers do not currently pay for any kind of strategic marketing advice.
“When we asked those who don’t pay for strategic marketing where they get their advice, the number one thing people said by a long shot, was from their grain buyer,” Lepp said. “I make no comment on whether those results are good bad or otherwise, but it is not unbiased.”
Lepp figures that if nothing else it will provide FarmLink’s existing customers with better tools to be more precise in their grain strategies.
The hope is that it will open up a whole new world of growers who haven’t had the opportunity for personalized sales recommendation because they’re not farming thousands of acres.
“We wanted to create something affordable that will let people try it,” he said. “Whether you’re farming 200 acres or 50,000 acres, it can impact operations of all sizes.”
Lepp sees the introduction of such a digital tool as no different than the proliferation of robo-advisers in the financial planning industry.
While there has been an awful lot of advancement in ag-tech in recent years most of it is focused on enhanced production.
Lepp believes this is the first digital tool that focuses on how to optimize farm operation to maximize farm wealth.