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Farmers Business Network Announces New Products and Services

Farmers Business Network, Inc., (FBN) a rapidly growing data sharing and analysis service for farmers, announced new products and services this week to help farmers buy inputs at lower cost for the 2016 growing season.

Yields and other data provided anonymously by growers have allowed FBN members to make agronomic comparisons with others but for 2016, FBN is starting services that combine agronomics with economic analysis. That includes the return on investment for seed varieties and hybrids used by members, Charles Baron, FBN cofounder, told some 650 farmers gathered Wednesday at the company’s first Farmer2Farmer Conference in Bettendorf, Iowa. FBN will also act as an agent to buy inputs, mainly chemicals, at the lowest price available and will provide interest-free financing through next August.

“Information is a leveling force, and it’s a world where you create the data you consume,” Baron said, contrasting that with a top-down approach to data controlled by a few agribusinesses that isn't transparent to farmers.

Data for Over 5 Million Acres
For an annual fee of $500 per farm (regardless of size), farmers can anonymously upload data on yields, planting populations, seed varieties, fertilizer, chemical treatments, and more, as well as the prices they pay for those inputs. Launched commercially a year ago, the network is growing at a rate of about 200,000 acres a week and its member base already comprises about 5 million acres, an area about the size of New Jersey.

“You should farm with the confidence of New Jersey,” Baron said, prompting laughter from an audience that included many young farmers, some arriving on charter buses from Indiana, Kansas, and South Dakota. 

FBN already has data on over 1,000 seed varieties that farmers can compare by region, area, soil type, and practices. They can compare data on the return on investment on those varieties.

“We’re tracking traits. We’re actually looking at how much difference they make,” Baron said.

FBN’s chief operating officer, Larry Trebesch, described a new service, FBN procurement, which farmers can use to buy inputs.

“Price transparency doesn’t exist in the market,” said Trebesch, who is from a fifth-generation farm and ranch in Montana. Chemicals and seed are often bundled. And incentives, such as a free elk hunting trip for North Dakota farmers, helped drive sales of one corn hybrid that turned out to be the most expensive and least profitable in that area, according to data from those farmers.

More transparency does exist in the network, however, and it’s showing big differences in prices for chemicals like glyphosate, sometimes between farms only a few miles away.

The idea of offering input procurement came from farmers who belong to FBN, Trebesch said.

In an interview with Agriculture.com later, Trebesch emphasized that FBN isn’t selling anything. “The farmer needs to tell us what they want, and we’ll go and procure that product for them,” he said.

He said that FBN started the service in November with a few dozen members and that it’s mostly buying chemicals right now. Generic products from the manufacturer can offer savings over branded ones. Although 78% of chemicals used on farms are off patent, more than 60% of the products growers buy are branded, according to Trebesch.

Another way farmers are saving is by lowering corn plant population in fields. In Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa, the data is showing optimal performance at 32,000 to 34,000 plants per acre, instead of at 36,000 to 38,000, Trebesch said. One grower estimated savings at $12 per acre from that change.

With revenue of $500 fees per farmer, FBN might seem like an unlikely lender for inputs. 

“We do have the capital to be a lender if we wanted to be,” Trebesch told Agriculture.com. Yet, the financing will come from private investors and banks. “I can’t disclose those yet, but we do have them lined up.”

FBN cofounder Baron told Agriculture.com that FBN is backed by long-term investments in the startup company, including money from Google.

Compare Thousands of Fields
Farmers who are getting in on FBN’s field-level floor of data seem to agree with the company’s number crunchers that even a lifetime of doing your own field trials will never give you the accuracy of being able to compare thousands of farm fields online.

“We’ve got all these yield maps, and they’re basically report cards, but we never had the lesson plan to go with it,” said one FBN member, Steve Pitstick of Maple Park, Illinois. “Our data sets individually are too small.”

"Price transparency doesn’t exist in the market"

“Looking at a bigger data set, that’s really where it’s at,” Pitstick, who farms 10,000 acres of corn and soybeans with two brothers, told the Farmer2Farmer audience.

The network has allowed him to go from “somebody’s data that’s selling something” to more useful information.

Crop production agriculture is following other industries that have used data analysis, including baseball.

The conference theme was “The Moneyball Farmer,” inspired by the book and movie, Moneyball, which described how the Oakland Athletics used data analysis to recruit players overlooked by other team scouts. It led the underdog team to a record-breaking winning streak.

FBN managed to recruit its own big league speakers to the conference, including Paul DePodesta, head of scouting for the New York Mets. Podesta was the person who brought sophisticated data analysis to the Oakland A’s (but was portrayed in the movie as a geeky character named Peter Brand).

DePodesta told farmers in Bettendorf that he helped Oakland's general manager, Billy Bean, put together a team that didn’t include expensive heavy hitters who could do everything. Instead, Bean assembled a group whose diverse talents got the players on base enough to win.

It was like putting together a gourmet meal, DePodesta said. “The only caveat was that we were shopping at 7-Eleven.”

With commodity prices low, farmers, too, are looking at assembling a modest team of inputs that can win more profits.

Jonathan Czerwonka, a young farmer from Neoga, Illinois, graduated in 2014 from the University of Illinois with a degree in finance. Today he’s helping his family’s crop and hog operation look for more efficiencies.

With his finance background, he looks at the return on the farm’s investments, he told farmers. “It has to be so much more of a presence in your operation,” he said. 

 

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