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During the digital agriculture revolution, digital technologies have become available for making better input decisions for crops, mapping crop productivity at high resolutions, breeding more resilient hybrids, and monitoring machinery performance, amongst many other things. One aspect of farming that digital technologies have hardly addressed is labor management. Finding the right labor and managing labor well is one of the most significant challenges that farmers face, and potentially one of the biggest inefficiencies in a farm operation. Tyler McGee, founder and CEO of Shepherd Farming, joins the FarmBits Podcast for this episode to discuss how Shepherd Farming is ushering in digital technology for farm labor management. Shepherd Farming, based in Raleigh, NC, is a digital platform that allows farmers to organize and control labor more knowledgeably through an app on their smartphone or other mobile device. This episode will cover the challenges that farmers are facing in labor management, the story behind Shepherd Farming, wat Shepherd does, and where Tyler envisions Shepherd going in the future. Tyler was recognized in the 2020 cohort of AgGrad's 30 Under 30 for his work with the Shepherd Farming platform, and his passion for what he does shines throughout the episode. If you're looking for digital solutions for your farm labor management challenges or simply curious about how digital technologies may impact farm labor, this episode is a must listen.
"I tell farmers, that when we look at what we're trying to do, who our biggest competition is, what we are trying to replace, it's a yellow legal pad and Microsoft Office. We're wanting to move farmers into that digital world but make it easy and make it really efficient and better for them than trying to keep it all down on a scratch pad somewhere. Because that data is vital - it's how you run your operation." - Tyler McGee
Opinions expressed on FarmBits are solely those of the guest(s) or host(s) and not the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
On this episode
Tyler McGee Contact Info:
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Samantha's Twitter: https://twitter.com/SamanthaTeten
Jackson's Twitter: https://twitter.com/jstansell87
Jackson: Welcome to the FarmBits podcast, a product of Nebraska Extension Digital Agriculture, and we come to you each week to discuss the trends, the realities and the value of digital agriculture.
Samantha: Through interviews and panels with experts, producers and innovators from all sectors of digital technology we hope that you step away from each episode with new practical knowledge of digital agriculture technology.
Jackson: Welcome back to the FarmBits podcast for the second episode in the digitizing farm management series. Samantha: Before we get started on today's content we'd like to remind you that Nebraska Extension and the Nebraska on-farm research network are offering several educational events for Nebraska producers during January and February.
Jackson: If you'd like more information about event opportunities, please reach out to your local extension educator or check out the website for the Nebraska on-farm research network listed in the podcast description.
Samantha: So, in this episode of the digitizing farm management series, we welcome Tyler McGee to the FarmBits podcast.
Jackson: Tyler is the CEO of Shepherd farming, a digital farm labor management platform built to improve the ease and efficiency with which farms get work done.
Samantha: Tyler grew up working on his family's farm in Montana and first devised the concept for Shepherd during his graduate studies at Texas AM university.
Jackson: Since Tyler first completed and tested the Shepherd prototype in 2017 the platform has grown and Tyler was recently recognized in the 2020 cohort of ag grads 30 under 30 for his development work on Shepherd's platform.
Samantha: And as you'll learn in this interview, Tyler is very passionate about what he does in his deep knowledge about farm labor management and agriculture as a whole has informed how Shepherd is designed and deployed.
Jackson: So, now that you have some background and have learned a bit about Tyler, let's get to the interview.
Tyler: I got my background growing up working on a family farm in northeast Montana, two miles off the Canadian border so you know it's as rural and remote as it gets for some folks. For me, it was very interesting because that was my first you know diving right down into agriculture but it was also especially as I was in high school and getting ready to leave for college it gave it an awful lot of opportunity to think and one of the things that I would do is I look around just the nature of me and see you know how do things work and how can they be better. I always joke that I can take just about anything apart with a phillips head screwdriver and put it back together. But, a better question is then you know how can things be better how can they be improved and what I saw on our farm was it you know it was run and managed by my grandfather and everything went through him and that meant a lot of our day was spent going back and forth to him what needs to be done next, where are things at what are we working on. And when you're a kid you don't notice that so much but as you grow up you realize there's an awful lot of time that's being eaten up doing this. So I went to college you know did undergrad at University of Montana and I was jokingly tell I still have professors I talked to that I terrorized my professors for four years with questions about agriculture. I had a professor sit me down junior year and she's like would you go do something with Apple or Amazon, stop this, but I kept on and this was you know 2008 was when we really started getting kicked off. So, Iphone and apps and mobile was really starting to come into its own and I had a good friend of mine where he and I looked at it and said there is so much potential here but especially at ag and here's this whole side that just isn't being looked at the way that it deserves and so after writing my research thesis for undergrad got picked up by Texas AM they took me down there for grad school, and I got my graduate degree at Texas AM in agriculture economics and business and about midway through that, Syngenta got word of what I was working on and they told me I was moving out here in North Carolina. So, had my mentor at Texas AM, he said I'm really disappointed that they're snatching you away from me but at the same point that's kind of what I did back when you're an undergrad so I can't fault them too much. I did six and a half years at Syngenta working their research and development technology group over here in the research triangle and about two years ago, I was sitting down with my managers and I said you know there's this concept that we were working on way back in undergrad and at the time it was all hypothetical but I think there's something to it, I think there's something here and they gave me this best most possible answer that I could possibly get and it was whatever you do nights and weekends is your deal. So, that was when I taught myself how to code it was very rough but I did I wrote the very first version of of the Shepherd app and tested out with some family farmer friends up in Montana and that's where we said yeah this this has legs to it there's value here you know, we're solving a real problem. And after that we got accepted into ag launch based out of Memphis and started working with farmers on research trials at scale and that was where we really you know got things kicked off you know really put gas on it.
Jackson: So, I guess you know for some of our listeners i'm sure some of our listeners are very aware of like what the issues are with farm labor management you know Sam and I are not necessarily farm labor management experts by any stretch of the imagination so before we kind of dive in a little bit more to what exactly Shepherd does and what challenges it's trying to address, could you just give us kind of a brief overview of what the biggest challenges are on on the modern farm and kind of what some of the trends are out there right now?
Tyler: Yeah, for sure so there's a couple of them that's a great question so the first one is just not enough people to do the work this is where you read stories about produce rotting in the field or you know that they just cannot find people no matter what they're willing to pay and that's a problem you see in a lot of rural economies a lot areas. The second problem is that you have you're able to find people but you're not able to keep them informed about what they need to be working on. This is an efficiency problem and especially when I was back at Syngenta I picked up on this a lot because I'd work with a lot of farms and I'd see you know I'd always go into the farm management office when we were testing things out and I would see farms where they had walls covered in sticky notes. That was always a personal favorite of mine, I saw one farm would print out paperwork orders and stick them on the seats of tractors and equipment and then people would do I call that Oklahoma land rush, but you know like trying to find the piece of equipment that they wanted and all of this sounds really funny but the problem is it's eating into your time each day. You're sitting down and having a 60 or 90 minute meeting each morning that's an hour and a half that you could be out working and getting stuff done and so really what it boils down to is you either have you know that you can't find enough people or the right people or people with the right skill sets or that the people you have it's not that it's a default of them but it's just that there's not this efficiency that's being gained. You know, I tell people that especially in ag we see the equipment is practically self-driving now right we've got seeds that are bio and genetic engineered we've got chemicals that are tailor-made to specific pests and then we have labor which really hasn't changed much in five decades and that's when we say yeah it's not that technology can't make this work better it's just that we haven't done it yet and that's what we're at Shepherd of applying technology to solve this problem and make it work just as well as the rest of the farm.
Samantha: And you've been all over the United States, so can you tell us a little bit about how like these labor management challenges are different different parts whether it's a small farm or a large farm specialty farms and things like that?
Tyler: Yep, so really good example and one that I love pointing out is with ag launch we did trials on quite a few farms but we did trials on one farm there was a 20,000 acre farm spread across three different states they grow cotton and they grow soy. I mean these people run their operation like a business and that's pretty common you know they have spreadsheets, they have data they you know everything is done with phones and text messages and calls and meetings but like this place runs like a business it's a very impressive operation. And another trial we did was with a produce operation in mid Tennessee where they have less than an acre in size but everything they do is under hoop houses so they're you know constantly churning out the most beautiful produce you'd ever see. It's gorgeous, the colors and it's all very manual intensive right because you've got to be planting it, you've got to be weeding it, you've got to be picking it and packing it and that was what we really wanted to find out was does something like Shepherd- if we make it flexible enough meet the needs of a farm that's 20,000 acres of cotton and soy but also work at a scale where if you have produce operations that are in a greenhouse environment they're getting benefit out of it too. That it's the same type of improvement for them and what we found is yes it does and that's what I love about ag is that there's such a variety and everyone's got a different way of doing things and it's it's like one big experiment to see how can we make things better, how can we improve and at the end of the season it all comes down to the the yield that's how we measure success and that's what I love is you know always testing new things out and finding ways to get just a little bit more.
Jackson: So, it sounds like that ag launch program was a really good opportunity to to get this kind of out on real farms and see a lot of different scenarios- would you mind telling us a little bit more about exactly how you set up those trials and how that collaborative process with those growers worked to kind of influence how you've designed Shepherd?
Tyler: Yep, absolutely so that actually comes back to what I was working on in my professional career which has always been on the research side, so when it came to setting up trials this is something that I'm quite familiar with, what we did is we would sit down with the growers we'd fill them in on what we're working on put it in their hands say this is how it works are you interested and that was the ag launch process really goes into a lot of depth with their former network on that of you know what are you interested and what do you want to be running trials on and then when we had a team of farmers who said yep raise their hands said we're all in on this we want to try this out. We'd start out by you know in the beginning of the season understanding what are your challenges, how do you work what's your setup like. Then we get them trained you know put it in their hand, get it installed on their devices, run through some training with their workers and then do check-ins especially in 2019. 2020 is obviously a little bit more challenging because travel was quite complicated but in 2019 especially we were out in the field every two weeks meeting with farmers, following up how are things going where are you getting stuck and one farmer in particular, Scott, said you know we would push out a new version every two weeks based on the feedback from them and that's something we can do with software is you know if it's something that needs to get fixed, we fix it. In some cases I would actually put my developers on speakerphone in their office and say you know guys would you describe the problem you're seeing and the developers would fix it and some problems were really big when we started out the season you would assign a crop to a field and that was it you had no option to do you know multiple crops or double cropping or you know even changing the crop at the end of the season. So, we had to get that fixed that was priority one but another problem we ran into was you know somebody raised their hand and said it'd be really cool if I had a decimal point on this keypad and I could put in you know tenth of an acre, 100th of an acre when I'm building a field and they said you know how hard is that going to be and I said it's going to take me about 15 minutes and you're going to watch. And I called the developer up, I said you know which is the keyboard type to the one with the decimal key on it and we push that out. So, all through our research trials it's constant iteration and it's based on feedback, so we're always talking with farmers you know what do you like, what is problematic what are you confused about, what should be really obvious and isn't. We've even gone to the point of of recording farmers getting their account set up so we can go back through frame by frame and see you know is this as clear as it needs to be or do we need to be more clear about the instructions for how to get something set up. We typically tell people it takes about 30 minutes to an hour to get you know everybody up and running and going and that's been the the benefit of doing a lot of testing, a lot of trials to get that.
Jackson: Yeah, one thing I just want to follow up on, you kind of brought up this this whole thing of you know being able to change crops later in the year and having this whole year to year you know difference between crops. I'm back home in Alabama right now and driving around you know my house there are still cotton fields here that are not harvested right now and they're going to get harvested obviously in 2021 but they were planted in 2020. How challenging is that on the software side to to deal with is that kind of a structural thing on the software side that has to be dealt with or is it something you can fix you know kind of once you get down in the development a little ways?
Tyler: So, it's always something that we can fix. This is one thing that I love about software is that you know no matter what it is we can go in we can check for bugs and we can fix it on the fly. It's something that you know way back in Syngenta we had a project where it was a physical sensor in the field and it got struck by lightning one of our test units and they came to me with this smoldering thing and they said you know what could we have done about that? I was an architect at the time so I just did a shrug and I said Acts of God are a little bit out of my jurisdiction here. But, with software we can go through and one of the things that we do is we have tracking on the app for bugs you know anytime there's a crash, anytime there's a problem whether or not the farmer reports it we get a log back that says hey this was a problem it was a crash it was unexpected and here's what what triggered it. I always tell farmers you know any information you can provide whether it's feedback or a crash that happened always provide it back but know that we're also keeping really close watch, so if you don't know how to describe you know what happened or if you're not a very technical person that's okay too because we're doing a lot of watching and we're looking out for the the types of problems and solving them proactively.
Samantha: Awesome that is awesome just a question just from a startup perspective like do you think that these challenges in troubleshooting is that like really wrapped in the beginning and like slows down or is that something you have to strive for you know year after year to continue to make these changes?
Tyler: Ideally it's something that should never go away it's something that you build into your team we have a really really good team of people, who it's all about iterative development where we say you know this is our milestone, this is what we're working on building and these are the iterations it's going to take to get there and then we just turn release after release after release out internally until we really like it and then we release it out to the general public. So, I always have a version that's a couple of versions ahead of what the general public has running on my phone and even if it's something just like watering a garden in the backyard I use Shepherd on that too just to constantly be testing it and there have been times I was like huh that doesn't look quite right. I'll take a screenshot and send it back to the team and they're like man it is eleven o'clock at night I'll deal with it tomorrow, but I found this weird looking thing. So, constant iterative development absolutely.
Jackson: So, we've talked a lot about development and I think there's one more thing that I want to get to before we get to what exactly you know Shepherd farming does for people and that is what is kind of the biggest challenge that you've faced when getting this platform out there? You know I think we've talked about a few of the different challenges you've had but one question that comes to mind for me is rural connectivity. That's a really big issue out there, I'm wondering how a wireless platform like this that relies on I assume an internet connection is able to deal with this connectivity issue?
Tyler: Yeah, so rural connectivity is an excellent issue because it's one that we know is getting better but slowly and so what we do with that is we you know we always have this optimistic view of the future that eventually this problem will go away whether it's satellites or 5G or something this will get better but it's going to be an iterative process. So, what we do in the meantime is what we call aggressive caching where the way the platform is written the way, that it runs right now is if you have an internet connection you're rock solid every change you make every task you send out or everything you complete is going to be live it's going to go back to whoever sent it to you or the master record instantly. It's going to be fine. When you have bad or poor connectivity, what happens is the platform is always checking you know if your number of bars drops below a certain point and if it becomes a problem it'll start just saving everything locally it doesn't tell you this it doesn't say you know pop up some warning that hey things are getting kind of rough over here it just quietly handles it itself and as soon as you get good connectivity again it pushes all those changes at once. So, for the end user perspective they don't notice any difference we handle that on our side and make sure that it's completely smooth. Rural connectivity is such an important issue and especially you know making sure people in government are aware of it that is a blocker for agriculture and it's not just us it's everybody and like I said it's getting better but it's got a ways to go for sure.
Jackson: Yeah, that's something that we're actually planning to get into with our next series here on the FarmBits podcast because it's something we run into with trying to get data shared between you know our people who are out in the field and people who are back on campus, and I'm sure you know everybody else who's got any internet problems at all it's something they deal with so.
Tyler: And that's one of the nice perks about how our platform works is because it's running on your phone at some point in the day you're going to be back through town or you're going to be driving along a place that has good coverage it's not the same with a sensor that's in a static position and if it doesn't have good coverage it just doesn't have good coverage. Yeah so we bank on that where you know people actually have quite a bit of of time each day where they have good coverage so regardless it'll work just fine for them.
Samantha: So, now someone is not familiar with Shepherd and if we can go into the features a little bit can you tell us how is Shepherd farming addressing the labor management issues?
Tyler: So, all these things we've talked about. So, the way Shepherd works Shepherd is a labor management platform and what that means is it's giving tools to the farm management side to be able to tell their workers tasks. You know we send them work orders, this is what you need to be working on it gives workers a way to know what they need to be doing and what they're responsible for and all the information in one spot. We call them task cards and for the farm as a whole it makes it really clear where they are through the season it catches anything that's getting behind it makes it really apparent. One of our farms the 20,000 acre farm actually was the one that brought it up he said his measure of success is if he could feel like he was standing in the middle of that field that was in a different state and know exactly where they were at without having to make phone calls you know two or three times a day. Where are you at, what are you working on, where are things getting stuck. So, that's what we built with Shepherd is a labor management platform geared at agriculture. When we started that was the the primary objective and then we started realizing that there were a whole lot of really cool things we could do with this. Now that we've got this rock solid foundation and one of my favorite ones is what we call weather intelligence where if and this is on Shepherd right now, this is completely active if you create a task and send it to somebody in the next I think it's 14 days. So, I'm going to say, I'm going to send a Jackson a task next Tuesday to go out and plant soybeans in the field, it might be a little bit cold but I think it'll work if I send that task to him. I've already included a location, I've included a time frame and I've included activity types. The system automatically checks the weather at that time, that location and figures out is it going to be a good time to do that or is it going to be a problem. If it doesn't look like there's going to be any issues it'll pass it right on to Jackson. Things will be great. If it looks like the weather is going to be problematic it'll actually kick it back to me and with a list of suggested dates that are plus or minus I think two in either direction. So, it's proactively catching things and saying hey this looks like it's going to be a problem if you didn't know there was a 60% chance of rain in that field next week. I'm going to let you know and I'm going to say Wednesday is going to be a lot better than Monday. And that actually came from direct feedback from a farmer where he called me up and I could tell he was in a foul mood. I just drove two counties over spent hours on the road today to get there and found out that the rainstorm had just finished up and so it's that level of understanding how farms work and solving problems but in a proactive way in a way that's out of the way so that it feels like magic where you know the platform is keeping track of things. It's meant to be that that magic farm manager that's just kind of keeping tabs how are things going and if something's getting behind flag it and bring it to people's attention before it gets slipped.
Jackson: Listen to you say that, I'm wondering where does the Shepherd name come from like is it does it have some tie to all of these ideas that you're talking about or is it you know just like the the picture in the left-hand corner of your screen there is it just a dog that everybody loved?
Tyler: It's such a good question. My partner and I have a german shepherd, an all-black german shepherd that's the name. I wish there was some grand story or that it spelled something out or something we have an all-black german shepherd named Sterling and we also have a siberian husky and that's the dichotomy of the husky is always looking for a way to get out of work. It's always looking for one more you know stunt or trick to pull and the german shepherd is always planning ahead it's always thinking, but it's always staying out of your way and the best example I can give is when we go on on walks or hikes with the two dogs the husky is held on a four- five foot long chain leash you know he's not going anywhere because he would get lost and have no way of finding his way back if he ever did find freedom but german shepherd spends a lot of his time off leash. He's always about 30 feet ahead and he'll walk at pace with us but every so often stop and look back make sure that we're okay and then carry on and that's what we wanted to design with Shepherd was something that is always thinking ahead is always proactive, is making sure that things are getting done but stays out of the way.
Jackson: It's an embodiment, I don't know it's so well named. But, I don't think you'd ever know that unless you heard the story.
Tyler: We have him on the website as our quality assurance officer. When people see the picture of the black german shepherd on social media, that's Sterling.
Samantha: That's good to know, so thinking about the weather is there any way that you can add like a soil temperature or if like you had a probe in the ground can that go to the app cause I just think about planting conditions or anhydrous and things like that?
Tyler: Not yet, these are things that we're working on in fact our lead data engineer is working on building out a really cool API set and one of the things that is going to be enabling is things like that. So, one of the other questions that we've got that I'm really excited about is you know for spraying type tasks could you be managing drift you know instead of just thinking about precipitation can we be thinking about wind speed wind direction things like this where absolutely and we want that same level of intelligence where if you were standing in that field would you give a thumbs up or a thumbs down for that work and then you know bringing that to people's attention before they have to go out and physically do it.
Jackson: You kind of got to a question that I think we were going to try to get to is about those APIs because I think with a system like this that's a really big opportunity. You know I'm thinking about with weather stations like I think Davis has APIs out there and I'm sure that you know y'all are using those weather APIs. Have you have you looked at all at the machinery side? I know a lot of machinery manufacturers are putting out their online you know cloud platforms. Are you looking at APIs with those as well?
Tyler: We are and that's something that we from the get-go said you know especially as machinery becomes more and more automated, we know that I don't see a day in probably any of our lifetimes where farms are entirely automated there will always be a human presence to some degree or another. But, you're going to have more automation and so we've built into the design the data model from the get-go was the ability to interact with those machinery APIs and if you have a piece of equipment that's getting more and more autonomous then if you send a task to that it should be able to react to that and it should be able to complete that. So, we've always said you know Shepherd for something that's so driven on being able to send stuff to the workers doesn't actually care if there's a worker there or not. What it cares is that the work got done. Jackson: Yeah, that's that's that's really important i think because you know you're seeing companies like Sabonto and Dot and everything that are coming along with all this and I think that you know like you said automation is coming and I like the flexibility of the platform in terms of being able to do both workers and automation at the same time.
Tyler: Yep, and that's still a ways out, I don't want anyone getting you know terrified that the driverless tractor horde is coming. It's in the future and it's something that you need to be thinking about. You know that's something that as we're designing things we keep in our mind is knowing that the landscape and agriculture is always shifting and you've got to be thinking ahead about that.
Samantha: So, building on this like working with other APIs or other companies how much like setup is involved for setting up fields or setting up parameters, operation parameters and is some of that coming from things like Deere operation center Climate Field View. Is there any interaction there so right now?
Tyler: It's strictly on Shepherd. You go in and map out your field just like any others it's one of the things that we're looking into is being able to pull in data from folks like Climate and Field View and John Deere. That's definitely critical because people don't like having to remap fields, obviously. But the other exciting thing about is not only being able to pull data in but also with APIs being able to push data out and one of the things that we've been talking with people is you know folks like Granular where we operate sort of as a farm management system. It's geared more at the worker and the labor side and the actual farm management and less about the financial bookkeeping aspect. But, if you have something like Granular in place we don't see ourselves as trying to replace that at all and the state that we want to get to is instead being able to send that data across and say if you want to use someone like Granular for financial and bookkeeping, that's fine and if you want to use Shepherd for the the actual day-to-day management operations that's fine too. It comes down to the APIs being put in place and making sure those bridges are in the right places at the right time.
Jackson: And that kind of brings me to another question i've had you know in our conversations with growers, we've heard a few times that they want to be able to have kind of the note-taking aspect that you know has that has all of the manual data capture with it alongside some of this digital data that we have that's coming out of yield monitors or it's as applied. Do you think there's any opportunity to kind of bridge anything that's captured within Shepherd with that as applied data or the yield data there is?
Tyler: So, we already capture some of that as applied data that's part of a task and it's more on you know telling the people for example if you were fertilizing I want this fertilizer content applied to this piece of land so that it's more as applied but anticipatory rather than recording side. I always tell the story of you know on my family farm everything was stored in my grandfather's head and it was kind of remarkable at times that he could tell you know there's 37 cows on that west pasture and somebody go out there on a four-wheeler and check and make sure they're all there. Nobody could figure out how he did it but when he passed away all of that information went away and that was actually a challenge in my family was that we had to go and find all this information out. I tell farmers that you know when we look at what we're trying to do who our biggest competition is what we're trying to replace it's a yellow legal pad applying to move farmers into that digital world but make it easy and make it really efficient and better for them than trying to keep it all down on the scratch pad somewhere. Because that data is vital that is how you run your operation but especially if you're more than just a one-man operation you have to have a way to be able to share that with your team and that's what Shepherd is all about.
Samantha: So, it sounds like you guys really have you know that recording and providing all that data for the farmer that parts down. Is there any moves to the next step of like providing recommendations so saying like oh this is really inefficient maybe you should think about trying this or oh today would be a really good day to go spray is there anything like that or is it mainly just providing the data?
Tyler: There's a lot like that. There are a lot of things that we're working on, we've got a whole wall covered with ideas of what we call proactive and predictive where it's taking things like the weather intelligence that I was talking about to the next level. It's trying to be less of the magic notepad that always says keeping track of what you're doing and more of a magic assistant that's thinking a couple steps ahead about doing. I always tell people when we were working on this in college you know one of the challenges that we ran into at one point was there wasn't enough computing power in the world to run some of the simulations that we wanted to do. You know he said I want to take satellite energy and you know find the acreage of all of the acreage in North America. I mean good luck that was yeah look at you know, captain marvel over here. But, now with things like cloud computing and with these these scalable resources that we have not only is it something that's doable but it's something that we're doing. I always tell the team and I tell farmers that we're working with I'm just as excited about the things that we're building as the people using Shepherd that you know in some ways I get more excited when we release something like guys we've got this awesome new feature and it's taking a lot of time and effort to get here but it works. That's one of my favorite parts of the job is sharing those new features as they come out with.
Jackson: It's i mean you you can tell that you're very passionate about what you're doing and I think that's a huge selling point. I think anybody who listened to you talk about this would know that you know you're fully gung-ho and committed to making it happen. I guess one thing on this recommendations piece that I guess I'm grappling with on my side because you know decision support software is my thesis project out here at Nebraska right now. I think one thing that I've learned from conversations with growers is they want to be able to have control of that software because at the end of the day they are the people who have expertise on that particular field right but there's also expertise on the software people side that have you know a lot of data and good recommendations to make. So, how are you striking that balance between your recommendations and what the farmer at the end of the day wants to decide to do?
Tyler: So, when we design these features and these capabilities we always design it with the mindset of a nudge of hey I found this thing it might be something important for you to take a look at but you the farmers are making that decision and that's something that especially you know back in my career with Syngenta and on the research side was there's a disconnect between people sometimes who have spent all of their time in the labs or in academia or in software development where they don't understand the amount of knowledge and experience that farmers have and if you go at this trying to say farmer you don't know what you're doing and I'm here to tell you how to do your job better you're going to fail every time. What instead what you need to be doing is saying here's this piece of information that I've found and that I've turned into something that is actionable, but I need you to take a look at it and decide if this is what you want to do with your land, with your equipment you know this is ultimately your decision. And that is something that really comes from having a farming background and an understanding of it is what you're doing is you're making a recommendation you're not making a demand and if you approach it that way you're going to be a lot more successful. Because there's nothing worse I found than something that is way too pushy with its demands and that almost becomes comical at times but where something that thinks it knows everything and in fact knows very little that becomes very frustrating to work around.
Jackson: So, is that something. I'm sure that you have some people who are not from an agriculture background on your team. Is that something that you have really worked hard to try to instill in your team, is it something that's been challenging to kind of get people to see I'm curious.
Tyler: It's a really good question. Most of the people on our team actually come from an agriculture background okay some of them are reaching a little farther back than others but that's something that we try very hard to find is if you're coming to the team we need you to be very very talented at what you're doing. You know if you're programming or developing or what have you, you need to be very good at that but you also need to come at it with a mindset of of how this works because otherwise it's going to be very difficult for you to understand why things are the way they are. Sometimes and for the couple of people who don't really have that agriculture background what we do is we do field trips. We you know we have them talk to farmers, we have them work in the field and I believe that every single person should spend at least some time getting their boots dirty especially when you're trying to design software and I remember I had just gotten started at you know in my corporate career and we decided to have a field day where we were going to go out and talk to this farmer and my manager had been with the company for 30 plus years and I'll never forget the look on his face where he was out there with me a farmer and another co-worker of mine because she came from Nebraska, so three of us quite a lot of farming background but he saw a center pivot irrigator and his face lit up and he just looked at the farmer like a little kid he said I want to drive that thing. He thought it was like something out of star wars and the farmer just started laughing and he said I mean you can go ride it but it's not going anywhere very quickly but that's what we have is when you have people who don't have this understanding of why things work the way they work in agriculture, don't shun them or turn your nose out to them. Bring them out in the field and show them have them spend a day out in the sun you know working and understanding that things are done for a reason and you have to understand that rather than try to constantly fight against it.
Samantha: That's awesome advice. So, what do you envision being the long-term goal of Shepherd farming?
Tyler: We've got, I was joking with my my partner that we've got about three lifetimes worth of ideas. A lot of that comes down to prioritization. I always tell the investors that there's no shortage of workers and one time my parents asked me you know when is this all done and I just never, it's never done. Constant improvement, constant new features and cool ideas to test out. But, what we see is the future of Shepherd is so we say right now that our our objective, our goal, our mission is to keep you know make sure nothing stops work from getting done on the farm and that I think is central to everything that we will continue doing is you know whether that's from a labor side from the workers, the teams all the way to you know making sure that things don't run out making sure that you're always thinking ahead to the next season. Anything that we can be doing to make it never feel like there's a roadblock in the way of getting work done on the farm. That's the key and I don't think that's going anywhere.
Jackson: That's amazing and I think it's it just seems like it's a relentless pursuit of exactly you know accomplishing what that that goal is which I really like to hear.
Samantha: So, if someone is as captivated of this as we have been listening to you where would you recommend that they go to learn more about Shepherd farming and is there a specific farmer out there that you think really benefits from this technology that you would encourage to go check this out right now?
Tyler: Absolutely, so we keep things pretty simple if you want more information go to shepherdfarming.com you can also find us on Twitter and Instagram at Shepherd farming. The types of farmers that we're really working best with right now is larger row crop operations that you know where labor optimization and efficiency is key where it's at the end of the day got to get stuff done, got to keep the team working especially if the team is spread out over any distance keeping the team together and making it feel like you're all in the same room even when you can't be and making sure that things are getting done in a timely fashion. That they're getting done right. We're working right now on adding produce module and an animal ag module, so that's going to be coming shortly and one thing that we've talked with quite a bit with farmers is I come from a family farm. Right now, the platform really really sings on larger farms but we're working on building out business and product models that work really well for family farms too. So fear not we're coming back for you. Nobody's been forgotten. But especially with the way that we've designed the business model, so we've designed it with a business model that's designed to be very fair and very simple and what we've done is we've said it's not a per acre pricing model it's not a per-user model it's one flat fee, one license per farm. And we've done that to make it a no-brainer for farms that want to be using Shepherd. It makes farms work more efficiently, faster, better and get more done out of every day and that's what we've designed it to be and the pricing works that way too.
Jackson: Awesome, so if you have one piece of advice besides you know go pick up Shepherd and try it for yourself. For those farmers who might be listening out there, what is that piece of advice that maybe is farm labor management focus that you'd like to provide to those listeners?
Tyler: I would say so in addition yeah go try it out we have a 30 day free trial so you can try it out and not even have to worry about if you're going to like it or not ,you've got a whole month to test it out with your team. The piece of advice I would give is don't take things as they are you know we talked about how the machinery, the seeds, the chemicals are always getting better and what has always struck me as odd is that with labor people just accept that it doesn't work very well and that it just kind of is what it is in terms of being difficult and expensive and cumbersome. It doesn't have to be that way. What it takes is people saying this can be better and it needs to be better and we have ways of making it better and that's what we've done with Shepherd and all through agriculture there are other examples out there too I'm sure of if something seems difficult or cumbersome it doesn't necessarily have to be that way. What it needs is for somebody to take a critical eye to it and say how does this need to be better what is causing this to be as difficult as it is.
Samantha: Yeah, so if someone has that idea of something that should be improved what's your advice for somebody who's looking to start up a business or start up an idea?
Tyler: That's an excellent question. I would say the model we've used has worked out very well for us and we've stumbled into it. There was no pre-planning it was if you see something that you think could be better try to fix it yourself. You know put a little effort into it but not a ton of money. Just see if you can you know make something together out of rubber bands and paper clips that goes ways to solving the problem that proves that there's something there and if there is then reach out. There are a lot of these ag and ag tech accelerator programs out there ag launches. One plug-and-play is another one that we've been involved with that are really good about saying all right you have an idea here you have a concept and there's some merit to it, let's take that the next step forward let's build it out put a little scale behind it and then put it in the hands of you know some users and get feedback on it and people ask you how did we get started with an accelerator. It was literally from listening to another ag tech podcast much like your own where another startup was talking and I was you know on my commute into work and I remember having the thought of this guy seems one to know what he's talking about and have a good head on his shoulders and two to be a couple steps ahead of where we are. And I reached out to him. I believe it was on Linkedin and asked him how did you get where you are. So, I guess that would be the other piece of advice that I'd give is talk to people talk to people that are a couple steps ahead of you and see how they got there and use that as a reference for how you want to move forward and it doesn't mean you have to follow them exactly but it gives you a pattern to work off of.
Jackson: I think it's great advice and I hope that we have somebody out there listening who's going to pick it up and run with it.
Samantha: Thank you to Tyler McGee for joining us today on the FarmBits podcast. Neither Jackson nor I are experts on farm labor issues and management. I think it's safe to say we learned quite a bit from farm labor management today and how digital technologies are helping to solve some chronic challenges in this area.
Jackson: Yeah, Shepherd is doing some really really cool things and I think my favorite part of this interview was Tyler's discussion of exactly how Shepherd was developed through collaboration with real farmers on real farms doing real work. You know many of their features were designed based on requests from the farmers that they were working with like the ag launch accelerator for example and Tyler emphasized that being in the field and meeting with farmers throughout the development process was critical to how they've developed the platform and so I think the deep knowledge that they've developed through that process will prove to be really valuable for Shepherd moving forward in the long term.
Samantha: I completely agree even when we talked about like making recommendations for farmers they never claim to know more than the farmer. I think that's such an important thing to make a company successful. My other favorite part is his advice on not just being satisfied with the status quo of how things are going, so you know labor is a huge challenge and I think a lot of people just accept that it's a problem and don't really think that there's a an easy solution but you know Tyler showed that he thought of something and used digital technology to try to improve it and come up with creative problem solving.
Jackson: Yeah, he's a great example of somebody who's is just kind of striving for a goal and doesn't want to let anything get in the way as long as there are tools there to get it done. So, with that said we hope you enjoyed this episode of the FarmBits podcast and we look forward to you joining us next week as we continue on in the digitizing farm management series. Thank you for taking the time to join us today on the FarmBits podcast, if you enjoyed this episode please subscribe to the podcast on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, YouTube or wherever you listen to podcasts to be informed about the latest content each week.
Samantha: We welcome your feedback, so if you have comments or questions for us please reach out to us over email, on twitter or in the review section of your favorite podcast platform. Our contact information can also be found in the show notes.
Jackson: We would like to thank Nebraska Extension for their support of this podcast and their commitment to providing high quality informational material to members of the agricultural community in Nebraska and beyond.
Samantha: The opinions expressed by the hosts and guests on this podcast are solely their own and do not reflect the views of Nebraska Extension or the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. We look forward to you joining us next week for another episode of FarmBits.
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