The little plane that did

A farmer and a Toronto entrepreneur have taken their dream from door knocking to delivery in 2 1/2 years.

Norm Lamothe and David MacMillan came together to lift agricultural aerial drones to the level of large-scale service provider.

“When you have a family farm with limited acres you need another plan to ensure you have an income. I have done a few things in aviation. Precision agriculture makes a lot of sense as a farmer, so this business made sense too,” said Lamothe.

MacMillan has been involved in several public companies that were startups and liked Lamothe’s idea of providing farmers with aerial images and data from their fields on a timely basis, “even when there is cloud cover.”

MacMillan said the idea of being involved in “sustainable agriculture is also very appealing from a business perspective.”

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“Providing farmers with tools to be able to grow more and profit more from it, that is a good place for a business to be in,” he said.

The pair created a company called Deveron to provide Canadian farmers with a service that quickly delivered aerial reconnaissance data from farmers’ fields during the growing season.

Lamothe said Deveron provides its customers with bare soil analysis, for topography mapping that gives producers tools to plan tiling, ditching and other tasks.

They also carry out in-season normalized difference vegetative index mapping that can used to highlight areas in the fields that need attention.

“We also look for high-yielding zones that can help farmers make choices about their areas that aren’t doing as well,” said Lamothe.

The company has put together regional teams able to send out drones to fly fields on demand.

“Most farmers have enough to do. They prefer to get that work done by someone else and that would be us,” he said.

“We can deliver whether (or not) there is cloud and at higher frequency, so we compare favorably to satellites,” he said.

They began the business in Ontario before adding Western Canada. They operate in most provinces, from New Brunswick to Alberta, and work with crops that range from corn, soybeans and potatoes to grains and oilseeds.

But a recent deal with Monsanto’s Climate Corp. has put their business plan on a fast track, and as a result, they now operate in the U.S. Midwest.

Climate Corp.’s Fieldview software system provides producers with in-depth information about their crops and fields, and Deveron’s high-definition imaging can feed that system.

“That gives us access to the 120 million acres that they are serving now. That is one-third of the North American market. A real stepup for a start-up,” he said.

“That’s a lot of doors we don’t have make cold calls to.”

Deveron was already starting to work with some companies, but now that it is working with one very large client, as well as individual farmers, it can roll out plans for additional sensors and technology ahead of schedule, he said.

“Now, we are working hard on automation, to get turn-around on large scales as fast as possible for farmers,” he said.

Deveron, a public company listed on the Canadian Securities Exchange, also relies on good advice. It acquired help in that regard starting last summer with the addition of Art Froehlich, formerly of Alberta Wheat Pool and Hoechst Canada, and now on the boards of Richardson International and marketing company AdFarm.

“He knows western agriculture really well, and brings a great perspective for us. And Ian Grant, he has retired (as president from DuPont Pioneer) and has that large scale agricultural industry perspective and knows everybody, like Art,” he said.

David Massoti, formerly of Spar Aerospace and Rogers, and Dave Sippell, formerly with Agricore, Syngenta and Pioneer HiBred, are also advisers to the young company.

Climate Corp.’s platform allows producers to store and analyze their data, as well as create prescription maps. The Deveron imaging complements Climate Corp.’s satellite views already in place.

MacMillan said he and Lamothe are taking a longer-term view of growth for the business.

“We have seen startups get that hockey stick growth, raise lots of money and expand like crazy and then run out of steam and money, not able to deliver. We are planning to grow steadily with a plan for the long haul. We want to be in this business,” he said.

“We are encouraging producers to try it. No need to put all your eggs in one basket. Like farm inputs, they don’t want to do something new on all their acres right away. And that works for us too. We can grow our business for the right reasons, farmers can make more money with more information,” he said.

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