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Farmers have invested in technology for decades. Auto-steer, variable rate, biotechnology and other innovations were all quickly adopted by farms. But farms have not invested as heavily in Crop Management Software versus other technologies. Why not?

The real reason has little to do with farmers themselves. Until recently, Crop Management Software (CMS) couldn’t deliver significant value to farms because four critical foundational technologies were lacking:

  • Mobile networks to make software available outdoors across the whole farm
  • Smartphones to give everybody on team a powerful, easy-to-use computing devices
  • Broadband internet to allow any computer in office to access cloud applications without installing anything
  • Connected machinery to allow data to be pushed and pulled from the cab, irrigation equipment, etc.

These have finally come together and become reliable enough to support Crop Management Software (CMS). CMS supports team’s daily operations, monitors and optimizes field-level profitability, and manages inventories.

Granular has seen rapid adoption of CMS from farms of all sizes and in all geographies, even at a time when commodity prices are in a down cycle. So what’s so compelling? It essentially comes down to being able to get more done with less, and making better decisions for the farm’s profitability.

But CMS is a significant investment decision, one that requires resources, time, and team buy-in. Most farms use Microsoft Excel today to perform many of these functions, so upgrading to new software that costs thousands per year is a big deal. Successfully adopting CMS also requires the farm team to part with some old habits, to evolve the way they work together, and to believe that their data is very valuable.

Before buying CMS you should evaluate the product and the company that sells it carefully. No CMS product on the market is going to have every single feature you want today, but technology is evolving quickly. You should choose a CMS partner that you believe listens carefully to their customers and is expanding its product very quickly. Here are some of the questions you can ask when evaluating your CMS options:

  • Who owns your company?
  • Do I need an engineering degree to use this?
  • Who’s using this already?
  • How quickly do you update the product?
  • Who’s running the numbers?
  • Who’s available to help me?

Click the link to receive a Demo of our Crop Management Software.

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Jeana Harms is a CFO at Clete Inc., a family row crop and cattle operation in Gering, Nebraska. She has been a Granular customer since June 2015. We caught up with her recently to understand how she makes input inventory management decisions throughout the season.

Tell us about yourself and your farm.
Clete is a diversified farming and cattle operation. We farm corn, sugar beets, wheat, dry edible beans, and alfalfa, mostly under irrigation. We run a cow/calf herd as well, and operate three feedlots. My background is in finance, actually. I got a degree in Accounting and then worked as a loan officer at Farm Credit. That’s where I met Mike, my fiance, who runs the farm. My role officially is CFO but I take care of all of our data management – more than just the financials. I don’t decide what seed goes where, but I give the guys the data to help them make the decision.
Describe your process for planning what inputs you’ll need each growing season.
The five of us (the two farm owners, our agronomist, our ops manager and myself) sit together to figure it out. We used to decide how many acres of each crop we were growing where, and then manually estimate what inputs we would need. Now we use software to develop our crop plans, and it gives us a quick total of each product we’ll need the upcoming year.
What strategies or practices do you rely on to make sure you’re getting the best prices?
Based on our volume, we will check with a few different suppliers to compare prices. We do almost everything locally – we get good prices locally. We don’t switch for pennies, though. The relationship we have right now is important – we rely heavily on customer service and really value the ability to get our products right when we need them. Waiting a day is a big deal, so the delivery is important. We’ll probably get our own tanks soon so that we can do it on our own.
How do you keep track of your input inventory throughout the season?
We have software that keep track of this for us. As we complete our field tasks and put in our deliveries, we can easily access what our inventory to know what we have and what it should be. Since we get fertilizer delivered to the fields directly, we know how much was applied where and when. Everyone puts it on their mobile app and then I can see it on my side on my desktop.
We used Excel before. And we had to trust our suppliers a lot more and had to rely on a text message or a phone call. Now I’m much better at catching errors because I have an app I can hold everyone accountable to. When they don’t do it, I get on ‘em.
How do you manage unexpected changes in plans or field activity?
It depends on whether the operator is in the field already. If we know about it before the operator is in the field, we will change the task in our software so that his work order is correct when it shows up on his mobile phone. If, for instance, our spraying operator is in the field already and he needs to use a different chemical, he will change this on the phone app and then apply it.
Three days ago we changed a few fields from corn to beans. I can manage these from the computer, on my side, but then the guys see it when they’re out. And if they change what they’re doing and then enter it in the app, I see it on my computer when they hit “Complete” on the work order.
What advice would you give other farms to improve their inventory management?
Obviously for me, the most important is technology. But even with the technology, communication is key. Getting employees on board, and explaining to them why we’re doing what we’re doing. I have meetings with them to explain the importance of our data. They buy into that and they realize that this is their job, and that they can make a difference on whether the company makes money or not. Having the employee care about it. That’s helped us the most. Doesn’t matter what systems you have in place if the team doesn’t believe they can help everyone.
How has Granular’s farm management software caused you to think differently about your business overall?
We now utilize Granular to keep track of all of this for us. As we complete our tasks and input our deliveries, we can easily access what our inventory should be. It’s made it clear that we can’t really rely on our memory. We’re all so busy, and we all think “oh well, I’ll write it down later.” There’s a high chance that you’re not writing the right thing.

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Old habits die hard. Sometimes they don’t ever die, even if they come at an obvious cost. Author Douglas Adams wrote three principles about new technologies that could fit most farm CEO’s looking into new management technologies for farm operations:

1. Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.
2. Anything that’s invented between when you’re 15 and 35 is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.
3. Anything invented after you’re 35 is against the natural order of things.
It is second nature for a young farmer to check feeds, texts, and instant chats, wherever they are, at all times, and on all devices. The generation prior to him is now slowly adapting to mobile and web technology. And the generation behind that one is unlikely to be engaged with software technology at all. And yet all three generations are often working together on the family farm. They need to agree on how to get things done, what works, and what doesn’t.
The benefits of precision agriculture and data management systems are widely agreed upon. But beyond the subjective concerns about data privacy, cost, and operational fit, the generational gap in terms of technology adoption on and off the farm remains a significant barrier to the broad use of these management advancements. We often talk to young farmers about Granular who say “I love this, I can see our team using this every day, but my dad is set in his ways. He still has a flip phone.” Here’s what we found works:
1. Pair older and younger. Ask a younger tech-savvy (and patient) operator to serve as a guide for older farm personnel. They will be the most effective at navigating the software and showing how it can solve every-day issues in a fraction of the time it took before. This comfort and knowledge is contagious, and transmitted faster than you’d expect.
2. Let the technology speak for itself. Part of building comfort with technology is being able to see how it is “worth it” from the start. As soon as possible, produce reports, analysis, and summary records that quantify the benefits. Show how the technology offers more than just data-in/data-out quickly after a couple of uses.
3. Expect criticism. The choice to use an unfamiliar software solution will likely draw fire at the start, especially when it is replacing an established pattern of communication and working. Anticipate critiques, and use your software support team to actively address concerns and complaints.
4. Look long-term. Most advances in management take a year or more to embed into the fabric of the farm operation. One production cycle will show results; two production cycles will show dramatic returns if the software is being used correctly. Explain to the senior generation that their role in the business will remain consistent while new tools are put to work (and probably even after – they’ll just be better at it). Chances are, they went through the same transformations themselves.
5. Position software as a basis for farm succession. Information and records need to evolve as the farm moves steadily into the future. In a changing world, data management can help improve business decisions that have to be made quicker with less certainty by unlocking institutional knowledge.
Technology on the farm is not a threat to legacy. It is the best way to strengthen and keep that legacy.

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I joined Granular earlier this year for a number of reasons, but I was primarily excited about the opportunity to partner with the world’s best farms to make them even better through better farm management software, and strengthen the entire industry. In my mind, partnering with the “Fortune 500” of farming meant working with large, hierarchical and industrial organizations, owned by shareholders managing the farm remotely. I was wrong – most of the successful, high-growth and technologically advanced farms are still family businesses.

The USDA has reported that up to 96% of farms today are family owned. Farms may be growing, incorporating and adopting leading-edge technologies to become more professionalized, but family ownership is not disappearing. While our customers might not fit the public’s romanticized view of agriculture (small and artisanal farms sitting quietly on an idyllic countryside), they are complex organizations run by fathers, mothers and their relatives trying to leave the business in better shape than they received it.
Why is it that family farms often defy the common notion we have of family businesses? I see three primary reasons:
1. The industry demands and rewards scale. Most people know that agriculture is a risky endeavor, and that it takes a large capital investment to be able to generate a somewhat steady income year after year. A 1,000-acre farm (which by many standards could be considered a small farm), can barely produce a family income, but yet sits on roughly $10 million worth of land.  Add to that other fixed costs like equipment and labor, and it becomes clear that scaling is required to be profitable throughout generations. As a farm grows, so does its ability to buy in bulk to lock in lower input prices. Size also brings better access to credit. More credit means more means to expand, and so on.
2. Family farms remain devoted to agriculture across generations, and this commitment pays off in real terms.   If you’re a farmer it pays off, literally, to remain in the same place for a long time. Take, for example, a family settled in Iowa in the late 1800’s to start a typically-sized 40-acre farm. An average 5% annual growth rate would mean that this same farm would be roughly 32,000 acres today, five generations later.  An intimate understanding of soil conditions, weather and other agronomic factors results in productivity gains year over year. Longstanding relationships with suppliers result in more favorable terms relative to market and community newcomers.
3. Technology helps farms overcome the challenges inherent in managing and transitioning family businesses.  In every industry, each generation struggles to not only to retain the next to join the family business, but to set them up for future success. In agriculture, this issue is particularly salient. Technology can help generations pass down knowledge on the land, agronomic practices and management decisions. It can help attract young talent to learn and take over the businesses. The right software can generate data that uncovers critical efficiency gains to improve processes that have been in place for years, and helps younger generations make smarter decisions in increasingly competitive ag markets.

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