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The Data Revolution? It's Coming to Farms Too

Meet the Y Combinator alum who's aiming to bring what he learned in Silicon Valley to farms across the country.

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Farming isn't the sexiest industry in the world, but it's one none of us can live without. And to the start-up community, it's a huge space primed for disruption.

That's according to Jesse Vollmar, CEO and co-founder of FarmLogs, a mobile app and online platform that helps crop farmers manage their operations data to increase profitability. Essentially it lets farmers quickly forecast and measure profits, track expenses, and more efficiently schedule operations.

With a mobile app in hand out in the field, users can input notes about critical data such as what variety of seed they're planting and at what depth. FarmLogs uses GPS to detect and record which fields they're in and tracks weather data at that point in time, correlating it to the relevant field.

"At the end of the year what they have is essentially an analytics platform for their farm that helps them understand where the performance is coming from on the farm and what that looks like is different levels of aggregation of the data," Vollmar says.

He says FarmLogs has a clear and friendly interface for a reason--the family farm he grew up on in Michigan tried to use the most popular, albeit difficult-to-use, desktop software for farmers at the time, Farm Works. It wasn't ideal because the data had to be backed up and protected and only one person had access to it at a time. Even worse, not only did they pay to install it, two family members had to invest in training to figure out how to use it.

FarmLogs, of course, keeps user data in the cloud so they can access it with a mobile device or with a browser at any time.

Why Farming Is Ripe for Better Technology

But what's really cool, Vollmar says, is the data side of what FarmLogs is doing.

"We're bringing this industry online and all the data that's trapped offline right now becomes available--in aggregate and anonymously--[so] we're able to learn from this agricultural production information in ways that we've never been able to before," he says. "We're opening new doors in exploration of the data itself in being able to drive new efficiencies in farming, which is going to be incredibly important as the population is growing."

For other start-ups who have domain expertise in farming, this is a good thing.

"It's exciting to see there are old, established industries that have room for disruption and the room for innovation is massive in the farming industry," Vollmar says.

As for FarmLogs' traction, it's still too early to say--the Y Combinator alum just closed a $1 million seed funding round last month and is using it to build out its team, which is now at seven employees. That said, Vollmar points out that FarmLogs already has users on six continents (there's not much farming in Antarctica, he points out).

The Market

In the U.S., FarmLogs is being used by farmers of all sizes growing crops such as corn, soybeans and wheat.

"A common misperception is that here in the U.S. we have these gigantic corporations that have gobbled up farming. That's not true at all," he says. "The American farm is a business that has been turned over in the family year after year. Yes, some of them are getting larger and there are more efficient operations but they're still run and owned by just a handful of people."

In addition to pointing out the family farm is not dead, Vollmar says it's interesting to see how agriculture looks different in other parts of the world: In China, the average size farm is less than two acres but in the Ukraine you'll find mega farms that can span 100,000 acres.

And while FarmLogs got its start in a well known Silicon Valley seed accelerator, the decision to locate the company back in his home state of Michigan was strategic.

"Ann Arbor is a pretty good balance of both having a technology and start-up culture and access to talent from the University of Michigan. We're also within a day's drive of anywhere in the Corn Belt," Vollmar says. "And Michigan itself is extremely agriculturally diverse so we've been able to stay close to our customers and interface with them much more effectively from there."

IMAGE: Getty
Last updated: Feb 28, 2013

CHRISTINA DESMARAIS is an Inc.com contributor who writes about the tech startup community, covering innovative ideas, news, and trends. Have a tip? Email her at christinadesmarais (at) live (dot) com.
@salubriousdish




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