FarmLogs Co-Founder on Growth, Agronomics, and U.S. Ag Policy
Ann Arbor, MI-based agtech company FarmLogs has been one of the fastest-growing startups in the state since its launch in 2012. Last month, it closed a $22 million Series C round led by Naspers Ventures, a global investing giant focused on companies addressing big societal needs in high-growth markets.
FarmLogs has developed software that enables farmers to track and manage their operations from mobile devices that run on the iOS and Android operating systems. The company’s app logs farm activities in real time, gives users the ability to monitor things like the weather, and collects satellite images to enable farmers to get a big-picture view of all their fields.
We recently caught up with Jesse Vollmar, FarmLogs co-founder and CEO, to hear more about what the company has been up to and his thoughts on how the Trump administration might approach agricultural policy. (More on that below.)
Vollmar is especially excited about FarmLogs’ new product offerings for the 2017 growing season, including tools for crop and profit planning, field data analysis, and automatic file transfers. To determine which new features to prioritize, the company embarked on a six-state road show over the summer and hosted user conferences in Lubbock, TX; Des Moines, IA, where FarmLogs has opened a second office; and Champaign, IL. This carefully chosen triangle of locations encompassed a large portion of the FarmLogs user base, Vollmar says.
“We brought users together with great speakers and cutting-edge agronomic concepts—things farmers can take home to help them run their businesses,” he says.
At each event, more than 20 FarmLogs employees were on hand to sit down with farmers one-on-one to offer help and hear feedback. “Even though we’re an Internet-based company, it’s a good way to get face time with our users,” Vollmar says. “We got the feedback we needed to finally knock out the features they wanted.”
One of Vollmar’s favorite new offerings is the ability to automatically transfer data files. FarmLogs is now connected to the John Deere cloud, he explains, so machine data from John Deere equipment can now be seamlessly integrated into the platform.
FarmLogs has also increased by a factor of 10 the capacity to monitor its users’ crops and is working with Planet, a San Francisco-based startup, to collect live data from more than 50 satellites.
FarmLogs can now help users make decisions based on profitability as well. “Profitability is pretty elusive in farming,” Vollmar says. “In the past, growers wouldn’t know how much money they made until the end of the season. Now, they can forecast and visualize potential profits in real time.”
For example, say heavy rain at the beginning of the season leeches the nitrogen from a grower’s corn fields. The farmer would then be faced with the decision to apply more fertilizer and hope the weather holds, or leave it alone.
“The only real question is how does it affect your return on investment?” Vollmar says. “Now, FarmLogs can help deliver that insight. It’s not necessarily sexy, but it’s very valuable.”
American farmers have had a tough couple of years, Vollmar says. Yields are up, but global demand is down thanks to a strong U.S. dollar. (Essentially, he says, it doesn’t make sense for China to buy soybeans from growers in the U.S. when they can get them for a fraction of the price from Brazil, where the dollar is weaker.)
“There’s less export demand when there’s a strong dollar and high supply,” he notes. “I don’t expect that to change anytime soon, so U.S. farmers have to find ways to lower the cost of production.”
Commodity prices aside, uncertainty over how and when the Trump administration might change American trade policies is also adding to farmers’ angst, Vollmar says. (Sonny Perdue, a former fertilizer salesman who also served as Georgia’s governor, is Trump’s pick to head the USDA. In December, he told the New York Times that Trump “believes that we in the U.S. have been sort of patsies over the years in the way we’ve dealt with our foreign competitors and international trade.”)
“It’s absolutely at the top of people’s minds,” Vollmar says. “There are a lot of things in motion, so it’s more important than ever to have the tools to make smart decisions.”
No matter how national policy unfolds in the future, Vollmar is bullish on the potential of FarmLogs, which now has more than 70 employees and is currently hiring for “a ton of open positions,” he adds.
“The new investment helps us to do more faster,” he says. “I feel like we’re on the right track.”