The Impact of Tech on Agriculture: An interview with Wilson Acton
Let’s join Tyler Chrisholm of Collisions/YYC and Wilson Acton of Verge as they talk about the different innovations, cutting edge technologies, and new ways of thinking in agriculture.
Tyler Chisholm – Hello and welcome to Collisions YYC. I’m your host Tyler Chisholm. Today on the show I sit down with Mr. Wilson Acton. Wilson’s the Chief Commercial Officer at Verge. Verge is an ag-tech company with offices in Calgary and Lethbridge. Verge lives in that intersection between the evolution of technological advances that are taking place in every industry and the industry is old as the day is long. In relationship to agriculture, he talks about the role technology has always played in innovating the ag industry and for an industry that is always trying to find a better way to outsmart the weather, outsmart the market, get ahead of things and how rapid adoption of new ways of thinking and new ways of doing things has been a cornerstone of what’s allowed the ag industry to thrive in Canada, North America, and globally.
Wilson Acton – Verge is our agriculture technology company. In a really basic way, what do we do? We write software for farm machinery and in particular, we are optimizing the flow of farm machinery as it moves through the farm and through the field in the most efficient way possible.
Tyler Chisholm – I’m really curious about an entrepreneur’s journey. I grew up in an ag environment and it was, I’m gonna use the word analog. You know, my dad still has the first tractor that my grandfather bought with rubber tires, like a 19 point Cockshutt 70. So I grew up with that being in the yard, as well as, the first combine. Just as I was getting out of it (farming), GPS mapping was starting to come in and I know that was 20 years ago. So things have rapidly evolved. Maybe give people a little bit of a history of agriculture and technology and how they have fused together.
Wilson Acton – A lot of people; when they think about agriculture and technology, even the mashup of the word agtech, they start at that point of when GPS was starting to become commercially available – post Desert Storm, post Gulf Wars sort of stuff, but…really, it’s been going on for generations. Technology was different then. We were making better planters and better harvesters. They were growing and making better genetics for wheat. All of these types of things that people forget. For example, during World War II, Canada never took their farmers off the land because we needed them to essentially feed the world. At that time, we were evolving the seed genetics so that we could grow better wheat in Canada, which can be long considered the bread basket of the world because of the wheat produced….so, what’s happened with technology and agriculture is that the evolution has just sped up.
Technology has been around forever. Farmers, out of necessity, have had to be rapid adopters of technology, on a relative scale, just to survive. Tight margins have always been a focus as farms got bigger and bigger. I’m a fifth generation farmer from Southern Saskatchewan. My father talks about when they first were getting cabs on the tractors and how terrible that was because they were noisier inside than if they hadn’t had a cab.
Tyler Chisholm – For anyone who’s listening, there was no air conditioning either. I remember our first combine that got air conditioning and that was a promotion when you got to drive that Combine.
Wilson Acton – You’re right, yes! That was the top job on the farm.
Tyler Chisholm – There was always a hierarchy. You’re absolutely right. That’s an interesting way to think about it. It’s so easy to think of tech now in this digital world, but the evolution of the industry and all of the research that went into it is very interesting. It kind of levels it out. today, it makes sense to think of it on a longer scale.
Wilson Acton – When you zoom out, tech is software, additional hardware, a lot of sensors and computing. That’s what we think of through today’s lens as the definition of “technology”. Like lots of things, there’s lots of potential, there’s huge amounts of data coming out of farming. The machines are loaded up with sensors, web connected and all sorts of things. When you climb into a modern day tractor you’re going to see the equivalent of about six iPads all running aspects of the technology. It’s more like running a spaceship than an old school analog tractor. When you start thinking about things on a greater scale, a person not only needs to manage the operator in the cab, but also the entire operation and scaling that operation.
Tyler Chisholm – Is it generational? You mentioned farmers are quick to adapt. That they are always looking at new and better ways of doing things. I wouldn’t have thought of farmers as “rapid adopters’, but as I listen to you talk that’s actually not true. They actually are, because they’ve always tried to find a better way to outsmart the markets, outsmart the weather, the millions of variables they deal with as a farmer that are sometimes really outside of their control.
It’s pouring rain today and you and I started the call with, okay, is this a good rain or a bad rain? Because it’s completely outside of your control and it can make or break your year.
Wilson Acton – When you think about technology today, I don’t think agriculture is unique. It’s the pace of change that technology is hitting the market at that has changed in so many industries. In the past, a technological innovation would take a decade to evolve. Examples would be the evolution of canola, the air seeder or the internal combustion engine. In these cases, people had more time to think about it and get comfortable with it. Whereas now, our products are evolving so fast – already onto our second and third iterations at only the 12 month mark since launching. Whereas, in the past, we would have been considered a start-up but that’s not the case in today’s day and age.
Tyler Chisholm – Change fatigue is a real thing. Technology is just the rapid pace. So when you think of agriculture; obviously it’s one of the key industries in Western Canada. You mentioned that Verge’s products are being used all over the world. Where does Canada sit in that cycle of technology and adoption in relationship to the agriculture industry globally? Are we second or third? I’m getting very specific. Do you know where we sit?
Wilson Acton – In Canada, we’d be right at the top. It depends on what “type” of technology you’re talking about. Some of the things we see producers doing in South America is super fascinating. It doesn’t tend to be focused around the type of technology we’re talking about – new sensors on tractors or GPS enhancements. They’re adopting all sorts of practices around regenerative agriculture. Focusing on growing crops that are improving the soil while also generating the food we need. When you look at the “whole” cycle from an environmental sustainability perspective, in South America, this is their focus. They farmed the land so hard for so many years that they’re now having to do that in order to make sure that they’ve got an industry tomorrow.
In the US, technological adoption around mechanical aspects is very high. Canada’s right in there with them, for sure. So, to answer you’re question Tyler, I’d say we’re a world leader relative to the type of agriculture technology we’re talking about.
When things are profitable and everybody’s making money, you don’t tend to adopt a bunch of new technology. It’s times when things are tight and you’re not sure you’re gonna get by. That’s when you start looking a ways to innovate.
Tyler Chisholm – From what I understand, there’s a base level of ag operation. Where could we diversify in the future that could build up some resilience. Let’s talk about ‘generational’ versus ‘boom and bust’. You talked about bringing more things in-house rather than sending it out into the world to do the value add. Can we do the value add here? I like that a lot. I’ve heard that from a few other guests in different ways. What about the tech space? Obviously, technology can be exported quickly and easily to other parts of the world once it’s been tested. I was proud to hear you say that we’re right up there in terms of being leaders. Are there other parts of the world that are looking to Canada to solve problems using a technological brush?
Wilson Acton – There’s absolutely no trouble getting an audience. We were in Brazil last summer and we met with one of the largest soybean producers in the world; who happened to also be the largest cotton grower in the world. It took about one mutual connection and two phone calls to develop a relationship. So, yes, there is a very willing audience. It helps that we’re known as innovators around the world because we’re willing to push boundaries so we’re able to help producers who are continually looking to scale their operation.
We’ve also seen the same thing in Australia. You attend a trade show or farm equipment show and as you walk around you notice that about two thirds of the equipment comes from Canada. Canada’s farm-tech is known to be innovative around the world and is being sought out by international producers.
Tyler Chisholm – So from a perspective, is there anything you see, as an economy or as a province, whether it’s federally from a government perspective or even business perspective, anything we’re doing where we’re getting in our own way when it comes to change evolution? I mean, driving us forward into this new world of Western Canada? Not having to rely on these boom and bust cycles? It seems like it might be a weird thing to rely on, but it’s true. Let me ask you this, “if you had a magic wand, what would you change?
Wilson Acton – That’s a tough question. I don’t think there’s any one thing. I’m sure there’s lots of people that would disagree with me, but I don’t believe there’s that ‘one policy’ or ‘one stance’. It’s a bit of a ‘death by a thousand cuts’ or ‘hands tied by a thousand cuts’. It’s a combination of the tax burden we have in Canada on revenues generated, et cetera, relative to the US under the Trump administration. There’s been a massive reduction in tax particularly for technology/software type revenues down there. Little things like that start to add up. So, when you’re trying to attract capital from local folks and they say they don’t understand the agriculture space, they are more versed in Energy and Gas, it makes it difficult. Meanwhile, when you go down to the valley in the US, their all ears when it comes to new technological innovations…
To hear Tyler and Wilson’s full conversation check out Tyler’s podcast here: https://www.collisionsyyc.com/episodes/e61-wilson-acton