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How on-farm benchmarking datasets will drive the value of agriculture

The home-grown tool, FarmSimple, designed by software engineers and broadacre farmers in NSW’s Croppa Creek, is empowering producers with full visibility of their data cycle. “We can drive out of the paddock finishing harvest and already have 95% of this benchmarking process done,” said FarmSimple Co-Founder, Lee Coleman.

Ask an outsider to describe the ag industry. They’ll likely generate an image of a bloke in an Akubra with sunburnt forearms and a faded work shirt. He will be leaning against a paddock gate; there’ll be endless skies in the background. Ask a farmer to do the same and the image changes; they’ll describe a complex business with a multitude of moving parts. Ask FarmSimple co-founder Lee Coleman to describe his work and he’ll show you something revolutionary.

After 12 years working as a mechanical engineer for Visy Pulp and Paper, Lee returned to “Yamboon” near Croppa Creek, a broadacre cropping and livestock operation in northern NSW with his wife Cassie to take on his family’s farm. The previous generations kept little to no records that were handed down; simple cropping history was unknown.

“We really had no history of what had been planted, how the crops performed, or what had been used,” Lee explained. “My grandfather probably made shorthand notes in his notebook but I had no access to it.”

Lee saw communication, data and the benefits of data-driven analysis as vital to the success of his business. But with no access to farm records and no ability to trace them, he began again, creating excel spreadsheet records of farm plans and activities.

The process he employed was a common but inefficient one. Spreadsheets are not easily shared without replication and Lee found that constantly having to collate multiple files into one document for compliance or benchmarking purposes was lengthy and inefficient.

In the early years of returning to the farm, Matthew Higham, a family friend and software engineer, would visit, driving a header for Lee and Cassie during harvest. It was something he did for fun. But five years later, Matt left his role as a software developer in Manchester, England to become a full-time farm operator at Croppa Creek.

Cloud-based data system streamlines farm operations

Matt and Lee joined forces immediately to solve Lee’s frustration with farm data and Matt’s dislike for paperwork. The pair’s complementary skill set enabled them to create a system that simplified the running of the farm. The cloud-based system they developed allowed data to be collected, records to be easily stored, and information to be shared with others on the team.

There were already other cloud-based systems available, but none of them were able to perform all the functions Lee required. Double handling of data was a given, and there was no satisfactory means of communication between managers and their operators.

“Nobody was really looking at it from an operator’s perspective. Rather, they were serving the value chain that sits on the upside of farming,” said Lee.

“There was a huge gap between what was on the market, and what farm businesses actually need.”

In just three years that system has become FarmSimple, an integrated holistic app designed to help farmers become more efficient, that’s seen a 200% increase in clients since launch in mid-2019. Uniquely positioned to deliver valuable software solutions to producers and farmers, Lee and the FarmSimple team live and breathe the challenges they set out to solve every day.

RELATED: Australian livestock and farm record-keeping startup goes global

The app’s comprehensive feature set includes all the major farm management tools required for broadacre farmers to optimise their operation.

FarmSimple technology diagram

Agritech that works offline, a key feature for on-farm data entry

The app’s offline capabilities mean that it can be used in the office or out in the paddock – a necessary function for users in regional Australia, where phone service is often limited.

Lee explains that everything from harvester activities to spraying, fertilising, planting and the maintenance of vehicles, is captured via the Paddock module, while fuel, chemicals and the intricacies of ingoing and outgoing loads of grain and fertiliser are collated via the Inventory module. Timesheets, safety data and rainfall records are also collected. The Web Console is the analytics component. It aggregates the data and generates reminders, trends, and alerts managers to anomalies in the data set.

“If we didn’t have FarmSimple now, my team would have at least five different programs running and those programs would not integrate,” said Lee. “The holistic nature of the app means that, not only is data able to be entered into one system in the field, but we can critique that data as it’s entered, and then add value to it by redirecting it to other requirements of the business.”

A participant in the 2019 Farmers2Founders Bootcamp, a national accelerator program aimed at innovative producers looking to fast-track their agtech businesses, Lee said the intensive coaching was immensely valuable.

“The F2F Bootcamp put us into an accelerated evolution cycle. We started really interrogating what we did and how we did it. It forced us to complete the tasks set for us and put all of our energy into [the app’s development].”

The result is a system that not only replaced Lee’s pocketbook and spreadsheets, but gave their whole team access to a cloud-based system that out-performed the original, and changed the way many farmers operate.

“FarmSimple now supports 62 clients with over 300 individual users, covering 320,000 ha, 1600 pieces of equipment on 310 plus farms,” said Lee. “In grain movements alone, FarmSimple has tracked over 300,000 tonnes of grain from paddock to storage to contract delivery.”

Lee credits the success of the app to the fact that it was designed for farmers, by farmers.

“It’s a place where they can keep all their data and at the end of the day, it’s theirs to own, not someone else’s,” he said.

“Traceability and data are the tools for driving profitability”

The value of data cannot be underestimated, and Lee believes the advancement of the farming industry will come from insights gained from farm data and information.

“Being able to roll out the data for your agronomist, your bank manager or benchmarking consultant will become more important,” he said. “Traceability and data are the tools for driving profitability.”

FarmSimple pre-formats and expediates data collection ready for benchmarking. Without this platform, the benchmarking process becomes lengthy; collating and reconciling data from a number of databases before reaching a validation position.

“Our app accelerates that process dramatically,” said Lee. “We can drive out of the paddock finishing harvest and already have 95% of this benchmarking process done. You don’t need a data collection phase because it’s all there in the app – and you can very quickly get to a validation position.”

With so many arms of the business to manage, farmers are always looking for ways to be more efficient. FarmSimple is one of the leading applications in Australia, but there are many already designed to help with this, like Estonian’s eAgronom platform now serving a global market with over 1,400 clients and a million hectares under management.

FarmSimple focuses on single data entry – one place to manage farm operations, product traceability, compliance, staff and assets.

A far cry from the records kept by Lee’s grandparents, this cloud-based software development is proof that Australian primary producers are relentless in their innovations, and will continue to adapt with new technologies at the forefront.

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