Skip to main content
decision makers

The series: We look at decision makers among Canada’s mid-sized companies who took successful action in a competitive global digital economy.

Wade Barnes grew up in rural Manitoba and has always been involved in farming, and he’s still at it, but in a different way — growing data.

“My vision has always been for the farmer’s benefit. To understand what farmers need, I had to put my money where my mouth is,” says Mr. Barnes, president and CEO of Farmers Edge Inc. in Winnipeg.

Perhaps the biggest decision he made in his career was to become a co-founder with Curtis McKinnon of Farmers Edge in 2005. It meant shifting from working as a crop advisor to developing cloud-based information tools that help farmers manage their operations from a laptop or mobile phone.

“Farmers make a minimum of 50 key decisions in a cropping season. One poor decision can affect the next one, and can ultimately affect their [crop] yield,” Mr. Barnes says.

“There’s a wealth of information available at their fingertips to make the best possible decisions to support their operation.”

‘One thing I learned about success is that you don’t have to have $500-million to make a change. Technology has made it possible for anyone to make an impact — with a great idea that truly makes a difference,’ says Wade Barnes, CEO of Farmers Edge.Yevgeniya Lapanov/Handout

The idea of Farmers Edge is to deliver that data, literally, to farmers’ fingertips, wherever the farmer may be located.

“Farmers should be using their data to make independent, informed decisions that bring more value to their operations,” Mr. Barnes says.

Today, Farmers Edge has grown to more than 450 employees and operates in five countries, with its headquarters in Winnipeg. It’s part of a digital revolution in agriculture — referred to as precision agriculture — moving faster than you can spell E-I-E-I-O.

A 2015 study by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln found that in that year, more than 90 per cent of farmers in that state who were surveyed were already using scientific soil sampling techniques and were connecting their farming data to cellphones and high-speed internet.

Farmers there were adopting satellite and aerial imagery and using sensors to detect chlorophyll and “greenness” levels to analyze their growing crops. A 2016 report by Goldman Sachs predicted that by 2050, world yields will increase by 70 per cent thanks to digital data being applied to farming, even though the amount of arable land available will either remain the same or shrink.

Mr. Barnes rents land from an Indigenous reserve and farms it. ‘You get a different appreciation when it’s your money in harm’s way and the decisions that you make can cost you,’ he says.Yevgeniya Lapanov/Handout

“The world faces a substantial challenge to feed itself …,” Goldman Sachs says. “How in a world of falling arable land is this possible? Our answer is the end of the analog age of farming.

“New winners and losers will emerge from this shift to digital agriculture, as will new entrants who want a slice of a total addressable market growing to [US]$240 billion by 2050,” the Goldman Sachs report says.

Farmers Edge decided more than a decade ago to be part of this growing market.

“One thing I learned about success is that you don’t have to have $500-million to make a change. Technology has made it possible for anyone to make an impact — with a great idea that truly makes a difference,” Mr. Barnes says.

Ron Osborne, chief strategy officer for Farmers Edge, says a key decision for the company has been to avoid being dazzled by the technology itself and to focus instead on what the technology can do for farmers.

“We took the consulting business that we had, and the information we had for farmers and automated it,” Mr. Osborne says.

To build the company, Farmers Edge also had to make some important business decisions, Mr. Osborne adds.

“The first was to go out and seek external investment capital. We’re doing hard things — there’s no ‘easy’ button in agriculture,” he says.

“We used [venture capital] funding to build out our technology, including an accurate weather data system. We built our own system with thousands of data gathering stations around the world,” Mr. Osborne explains.

In addition to Canada, Farmers Edge now operates in the United States, Australia, Brazil and Russia. It has about 2,000 clients among the 200,000 farms in Canada.

Rather than rely on government weather data, which is collected over larger areas, Farmers Edge deploys its own sensors at closer range on clients farms. Farmers can use the precision data to provide more accurate information about weather conditions to insurers, to make sure their farms receive coverage or payouts from crop insurance.

In the era of climate change and cataclysmic weather swings, “the more accurate your weather data, the more accurate your crop growth models will be. With our model, there’s tangible value — the farmer can see the weather data being gathered at the end of the field.”

A mule deer bounds through a field of canola near Calgary. Rather than rely on government weather data, which is collected over larger areas, Farmers Edge deploys its own sensors at closer range on clients farms.Dave Buston/The Canadian Press

Another key tech decision has been to make sure the various types of agricultural data Farmers Edge gathers can be connected and interrelated quickly, so farmers can use it. “We built our own proprietary system,” Mr. Osborne says.

Mr. Osborne and Mr. Barnes know they will face headwinds as agricultural giants such as Monsanto move rapidly into digital farming.

“Monsanto has a different vision of the world than we do,” Mr. Osborne says. In his view, the large competitor’s vision is to connect its farmer clients to an entire digital farming operating system, the way computer users opt to tie in with either Apple’s iOS or Windows, and then collating the information it gets from all clients to build its products.

“We envision empowering farmers in a more independent way, so that farmers can make their own decisions without a corporation using the information they gather for the corporation’s own purposes,” he says.

That’s why, as Farmers Edge is growing as a tech company, Mr. Barnes says he has gotten directly into farming again.

“To truly understand what the farmer needs, I rented land from an Indigenous reserve and farm it. You get a different appreciation when it’s your money in harm’s way and the decisions that you make can cost you,” he says.

“I’ve embraced Silicon Valley, but we put the farmer first. I believe that we can disrupt things.”

More from the series