As a fourth-generation Yakima hop farmer running a century-old family business, Patrick Smith has deep roots in Washington state’s agriculture sector. He also has a master’s degree in business analytics.
In nearby Prosser, Wash., Dan Maycock grew up in the farming town of 6,000 where his dad was a pastor and his mother was a teacher. Maycock now has his own 10 acres there — after earning a software management degree from Carnegie Mellon University and working some 14 years for Boeing, Amazon and tech startups.
Smith and Maycock are merging their farming and tech skills to launch Loftus Labs, a data analytics consulting company with an agriculture focus.
The Loftus Labs team plans to bring digital know-how to farmers in every aspect of the business, including yield forecasts, monitoring crop health, tracking irrigation and pesticide use, and managing supply chains and labor costs. For those packing and shipping fruit, they can help with keeping tabs on fruit quality, prices, and supply and demand. They can aid farmers in evaluating the costs and benefits of adopting some of the groundbreaking new ag tech, including drones for surveying crops and IoT devices for monitoring field conditions.
“Farming has always been a data-driven sector,” Maycock said. “Think of the Farmer’s Almanac.”
But smaller, private farms have limited budgets for tapping advanced data analytics resources or employing their own experts. Loftus Labs aims to provide affordable, strategic advice to keep people in business as climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic creates additional challenges.
“There is a unique need for all-hands-on-deck in the ag industry to help out,” Maycock said. “If we do right and help farmers out here, we keep private farms private.”
Loftus Labs has received financial support from Smith’s hops business, Loftus Ranches, and has not sought outside funding. The startup includes two data scientists that Smith met in college: Jeff Bevan and Tim Raiswell, who serve as principals of advanced analytics. Smith is managing director and Maycock is principal of engineering and analysis; the two originally met through mutual friends. The startup signed up its first client this fall and currently has “a handful” of other customers.
There are multiple Pacific Northwest efforts underway to help farmers adopt digital solutions. There’s Innov8 Ag Solutions, a tech-focused farm management venture based in Walla Walla, Wash., for example. Seattle startup IUNU raised $7 million earlier this month for its greenhouse computer vision system, while fellow Seattle-based company Pollen Systems pitched its drone tech for farming at last year’s GeekWire Summit. Washington State University hosted its Digital Agriculture Summit in October. Also this fall, Innov8 Ag, Microsoft and WSU organized a “Digital AgAthon” to develop data-based tools for farmers of the future.
There have been tremendous tech advances in some aspects of agriculture, experts say. Technology has improved soil moisture monitoring, led to the precise use of pesticides, and the development of vision-based technologies to manage blossoms and fruit density for tree crops. There have been game-changing innovations in fruit packing facilities where each apple, for example, is electronically screened to determine its ideal storage conditions.
While some of the tech is straightforward in its adoption, in other cases it can be confusing and tricky to determine which investments will pencil out. And even when farmers do incorporate new tools for their fields, there can be a disconnect between turning colorful maps showing soil moisture or detailed weather data into meaningful management actions, said Lav Khot, a WSU associate professor in precision agriculture.
“Growers need to have data products that they can use,” Khot said. “That transition has not happened.”
Karen Lewis, director of WSU’s Agricultural and Natural Resources program unit, said that those advising farmers need to have a solid understanding of the unique hurdles that farmers face and the decisions they’re making on a day-to-day basis.
“If you are a master of spreadsheets and analytics but don’t understand [farming], there won’t be that meeting of the minds,” she said.
Given the founders’ experience, Loftus Labs could be able to build that connection.
In addition to growing up in ag country, Maycock has been working at the intersection of farming and tech for many years, primarily for fruit packing companies. He is also the Ag Tech Programs Lead at the 5G Open Innovation Lab, and organized Yakima AgTech, a monthly meetup group that before the pandemic would draw 50-to-70 participants each month to chat about tech issues and applications. Loftus Labs is eager to include training and education as part of its role for customers.
“Community is at the heart of what we’re trying to do,” Maycock said. “It’s not us coming in and trying to solve problems.”