Small tech firm delivers new farm management tools

A small but established Winnipeg company thinks it has found a way to give farmers what they want in handheld farm management.

While heavyweight companies like John Deere, Climate Corp. and Farmers Edge are pleasing many farmers with the digital platforms they offer, Farm at Hand thinks its holistic multi-service app-based program is evolving into the farm management approach most farmers want.

“Previously, this might have been sitting in a filing cabinet somewhere,” said Farm At Hand developer Eric Ng, demonstrating the Farm at Hand mobile app’s equipment logging section, which shows machinery locations, serial numbers and maintenance records.

Mark Lepp, co-founder of Farm At Hand-owner FarmLink, said little things like having specific machinery model numbers contained within the app make mundane but concrete farm management challenges easier to handle.

“There’s a lot of times when the farmer tells the hired hand or the father to go to town to get a part for something (that) they forget, or a piece of paper flies out the window,” said Lepp.

Farm At Hand is evolving from being an inventory-and-bin management system toward becoming a single portal, through which a farmer can manage everything from cropping plans to pesticide scheduling to marketing strategy to agronomy advice.

Last year, the system, which is based on a mobile phone app but which allows a greater depth of control through a connected desktop version, was used for a test run of a pulse buyer’s traceability system. That buyer sees consumer demands moving toward requiring field-to-the-plate traceability and documenting of crop management for each delivery.

“Before they deliver, (the buyer) can see this checklist (of requirements and whether they have been met),” said Lepp.

“The farmer won’t have access to that market if they don’t have traceability back to those fields.”

Recently, the app has been expanded to allow farmers to apply for hail insurance directly, without having to drive to a provider with paper documents.

“We’re trying to make that a seamless process. Instead of hours, it could take 10 minutes,” said Lepp.

Eventually, the app could allow farmers to directly supply bankers, accountants and other service providers with data they require, while allowing the farmer to control what they are sharing with each provider.

“It’s the information the farmer chooses to share with that provider. The data is always owned by the farmer.”

App-based and digital farm management is a quickly evolving area, with major companies like John Deere aggressively moving into the space with systems that produce an enormous amount of data, and which allow tech-savvy farmers and advisers to analyze data down to precise levels.

But most systems created by specific service providers are customized for that service or system, not for overall farm management needs. That’s where Farm At Hand hopes to be able to stay alive among the giants.

“The opportunity in agriculture is that … over 50 percent of farmers use no (information) technology,” said Lepp.

Those who do often use only a tiny part of the data and few of the functions because they are intimidated by daunting systems.

Ng said the company is designing the app to meet both needs that farmers already identify and that they will probably want but have not yet realized it.

“You have to distill the core of what they want,” said Ng, speaking by video link from the Farm At Hand booth during Lethbridge’s Ag Expo in February.

Farmers have been keen to talk about what would help them and what they find most challenging in their operations, Ng said.

Figuring out how to address those concerns and designs is what information technology developers like him try to do. His background isn’t in agriculture, but he has been pleasantly surprised to find farmers having many of the same characteristics of technology users in the education field, where he has also done development.

“The (differences between farmers and other areas) are a little more surface level than at the core,” said Ng, who noted that the education field also sees a spread of early-adopters and tech-skeptics when it comes to new technology.

“Those we’ve seen in every other space.”

Farm At Hand and its parent FarmLink are small players in the world agriculture industry, but when it comes to good ideas during a technological revolution, size doesn’t necessarily count for much.

“Farm At Hand is a really great example of what disruption looks like in these types of spaces where you have smaller, nimble teams that are able to really build and really solve real-world problems,” said Ng.

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