Startup Profile: Software Brings Cost Savings into Line with Sustainable Agriculture Model
September 12, 2011 | Jon Christian
Could contemporary technology let growers enter field data on water, nutrition and pests into an algorithm – and receive predictive results more consistent and accurate than traditional record keeping? And can high tech agricultural software bring cost savings into line with the model of sustainable agriculture?
Agricultural information technology firm SureHarvest is based on the idea that they can. Founded in 1999 and based in Soquel, CA, the company aims to provide holistic management and software services to improve growers’ efficiency and impact – often in accordance with the sustainable agriculture standards established by SureHarvest president Jeff Dlott’s non-profit sustainability certification program ProtectedHarvest, a sister project which sets standards for an “eco-label” which appears on conforming products.
SureHarvest’s flagship Farming Management Information Software (MIS) tracks soil, plant health, pest and other field data, which the software crunches into reports and farm operation recommendations. Farming MIS runs on consumer-level Apple and Windows systems, and the field collection interface can be run on any device running Windows Mobile, or on a smartphone with Android or Apple iOS through a remote desktop client.
Predictably, the perfectionist SureHarvest ethic has gained its strongest foothold among wine grape growers, mostly in the company’s home state of California (though they have made inroads in other produce, including olives and artichokes). Growers who have used the software for several seasons are cautiously optimistic.
“It’s not perfect,” said Beckstoffer Vineyards’ Dave Michul. “But I like it; it’s been very good, very helpful.”
The software’s recommendations, according to growers, operate on two time frames. Within one growing season, SureHarvest makes recommendations based on how the crops have responded to weather and treatment. And in the long view, it lets growers compare growing seasons over the period they have used the service.
“We’re constantly inputting information into the software,“ Michul said. “[That continuity] is the thing I’d always really wanted.”
SureHarvest emphasizes a five point model they call “The 5Ps of sustainability” (principles, process, practices, performance and progress) which sound Dilbertesque, but make some pragmatic sense in the context of the company’s model. They detail a gentle transition from business vectors into a comprehensive plan, concrete practices, and performance analysis of the final product which is clearly targeted at growers who want low-risk results. And the goal in terms of sustainability, of course, is to see improved growing techniques reflected in better soil, air and water quality.
The software is licensed by the acre (although the company does not publicly disclose that rate) so it is nominally accessible to small farmers. In practice, though, the data-intensive farming model is best suited to medium and large-scale growers – an economy of scale SureHarvest acknowledges with volume discounts. Growers can license any subset of the software’s six modules, which are scouting, sampling and food safety; pest and nutrition; soil and water; contracts, harvest and quality; planting, canopy management and field maintenance; labor and resources.
SureHarvest president Jeffrey Dlott faces the delicate balance of promoting environmental consciousness within the confines of the for-profit farming model. The trick for SureHarvest is to sell the idea to growers that sustainability and cost saving are complimentary goals for for-profit growers.
To the person, SureHarvest users praised the company’s responsive customer support and willingness to integrate new features.
Before SureHarvest, Dlott worked in a variety of sustainability and agricultural capacities, including as an instructor of ecology at UC Berkeley and in a consulting role for sustainable agriculture projects in almonds, raisins, dairy and peanuts funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts. He also founded a non-profit which provided strategic and technical expertise for public and private sustainable agriculture initiatives before SureHarvest or Protected Harvest.
What that experience translates to at the company level, according to company spokespeople, is a team dedicated to making environmentalism good business for a variety of clients.
The litmus test for potential game changers like SureHarvest, of course, is whether they’re effective in the field. To wit, viticulture growers working with SureHarvest resist the idea that Farming MIS has improved the quality of their product, but they acknowledge that it now takes less effort to attain the quality they demand.
“I don’t think it’s had any effect on our product,” said Michul. “But we have become more efficient. I think we’re doing things in a more efficient manner.”