Online Software Streamlines Planning and Management for Small Farmers, Enhances Sustainability
June 4, 2012 | Jessica Vernabe
Farmers all over the United States and beyond have cast aside their notebooks, paper calendars and spreadsheets in exchange for an online software program called AgSquared. The product is designed to ease some of the farmers’ planning, management and record keeping woes by providing a comprehensive tool that helps keep data organized.
Giulia Stellari and Jeff Froikin Gordon founded AgSquared (the company has the same name as the software program) in 2009 after they both received their doctorate degrees from Cornell University, Stellari said. Stellari earned her doctorate in plant molecular biology and genetics, and her graduate research relied on keeping detailed growing, observation and harvest records in both field and greenhouse environments. Gordon earned his doctorate in plant breeding, and his research involved studying crop genetics with smallholder tomato farmers in West Africa. Gordon’s focus was on helping the small farmers learn the benefit of keeping detailed farm records so they could increase the sustainability of their farming operations.
The idea for AgSquared sprouted after the duo (who often worked sitting back-to-back in their shared office at Cornell) realized the need for better record keeping tools for farmers—small farmers, in particular.
“He (Gordon) was working with small-scale growers in West Africa and was observing firsthand how challenging it was for those growers to learn from their operations year after year,” Stellari said. “When we talked about it, we started to wonder whether the situation was the same in farms in the U.S.”
Stellari said she and Gordon started interviewing farmers and discovered the problem was “cross-cutting.” She noted that any farm planning and management software that did already exist was geared toward larger, corporate farm operations and had a price scale that was out of reach for small farmers. Other programs were not comprehensive and only focused on specifics aspects of the farming business, such as CSA management, Stellari added. So in response to the unmet need, Stellari and Gordon started their company.
Today, AgSquared offers a farm planning, management and record keeping software program that can be accessed using the Internet, meaning farmers can connect to the program when using their smartphones. The company now has about 2,700 active accounts.
Keeping Data Organized
Here’s how AgSquared works: First, farmers set up their farm plans at the beginning of the growing season. They can use AgSquared to calculate a variety of factors for each planting, including how many seeds must be planted, how much space is needed and when they should harvest, according to the company’s website.
Next, farmers use their season plans as a framework for managing their operations. Farmers can use AgSquared’s interactive field layout tool (which creates customized farm maps) to help visualize and simplify crop rotations. They can also use AgSquared to create task lists and activity schedules for each crop or field. Farmers using AgSquared can collect data as they go, with each day’s schedule being converted into journal entries.
“You can easily and efficiently collect information about what got done, what got postponed, what you harvested (and) what you decided to plow under, all with the same framework,” Stellari said. “(Then) when you go at the beginning of your next growing season to review and decide about your (next) farm plans, you can then consult and look at all the data that you collected.”
Data can be downloaded and used to generate reports, which are printable.
At regular price, an AgSquared software subscription costs $60 per year. However, the company is also offering a three-month free trial and a discount for the remainder of the year with the support of its sponsor, seed producer and merchant Johnny’s Selected Seeds.
Stellari said that while the software currently serves as a record keeper that focuses on individual farms, the hope is to eventually be able to use the data it collects to benefit farmers on a broader scale. This could be done by referring to the data on an aggregated level. This concept is reflected in the company’s name—AgSquared stands for the double “Ag” in “Aggregating Agriculture,” Stellari said.
While Stellari and Gordon started their business in late 2009, they didn’t start developing their software until early 2010 when they teamed up with their current acting chief technology officer, Stephen Simmons. By May 2011, the team had a working data prototype of the software and launched it to about 50 farmers who tested it, Stellari said. (Before that, the company had only been showing mockups for software interfaces at conferences.) In December of that year, they had 150 farms testing the software.
“It was great to get feedback on the design (at conferences), but to actually see the software in use and be able to interact with growers gave us a lot of information,” Stellari said. “It gave us an opportunity to really refine the software to what was important to the grower.”
Primrose Valley Farm, located in Belleville, Wisc., is one of the first 50 farms that tried out the software. Jamie Baker, who owns the certified organic farm with her husband, said AgSquared has saved her a substantial amount of time compared to when she kept all her farm records on spreadsheets.
“A diversified vegetable farm is quite different than your conventional farm would be,” Baker said. “They (conventional farms) are just doing acres and acres of maybe four or five different products. At a vegetable farm like ours, we are running 75 different products through our field, so it’s a much more intense process keeping track of those types of things.”
She noted that using cover crops only complicates the process of record keeping and maintaining planting schedules. Being certified organic (and soon GAP- and GHP-certified) also creates a strain on record keeping, which is where AgSquared becomes beneficial, she said. Baker said she also likes how AgSquared works with its customers.
“They’re the kind of company that’s very, very responsive to the end user. If there’s things we want to have modified, things that we feel should be done differently, they’re very accepting to that input and very open to it,” she said.
The company’s customers are mainly in the United States, though there are a handful of customers in Canada and a very small number in other countries, Stellari said. The company has about 10 team members, who are located in various parts of the U.S. and some overseas. Stellari works out of Long Island, New York and Gordon out of Washington D.C. The company has no official headquarters.
Stellari noted that one of the goals of AgSquared’s leadership is to increase its user base in certain parts of the country, particularly the nation’s Breadbasket region, the Southeast and the West. (There is already good coverage in the Northeast and upper Midwest).
Other goals include developing additional software tiers that would add new layers of functionality (such as resource management or financial management), and creating a dedicated mobile version of the software.
Stellari said she still considers AgSquared to be in its startup phase, even though it has officially launched its software product. It started as a self-funded venture and currently has seed investment from angel investors.
While all kinds of small farms use AgSquared, Stellari said she believes the software is particularly useful for farms that are certified organic since they are required to keep such extensive records.
However, Stellari noted that AgSquared doesn’t only help certified organic farmers. She said improved information software can potentially help all farmers attain sustainability, and that’s in every senses of the word—economic, environmental and social.
As for the focus on small farmers, she said it’s because the need is so great.
“Small farmers in the U.S. are still the majority of farmers, and globally, they are the vast majority of farmers,” she said. “If we can help thousands of small growers improve the sustainability of their enterprises… then we also feel like we’ve benefited a very large number of people.”