By Katherine Davison - AgriDigital
Being idle doesn’t come easily to AgriDigital Co Founder, Ben Reid. Growing up on the family farm in New South Wales, part of the Australian grain and sheep belt, instilled a love of the land into Ben from a young age. Add to his rural background, a strong, natural curiosity and desire to challenge the status quo, Ben has taken a number of different paths in agriculture, including partnering with Bob McKay and Emma Weston to launch AgriDigital in 2015.
I sat down with Ben and asked him a few questions about life on the land, founding AgriDigital and his plans for the future.
K: What was life like growing up on the farm and was there the expectation that you would come back to the farm after you’d finished school?
B: Growing up on a fairly traditional mixed farming enterprise in Young, I had a pretty idyllic childhood and can remember helping out my dad and grandfather with farm tasks like fencing and going out mustering from a young age. Farming was life and we didn’t really know anything else. I headed to Sydney to go to boarding school followed by university, where I studied Agricultural Commerce. After I graduated I came back to the farm for a while. Although I loved farming (and still do), I was lucky to escape the ‘succession plan pressure’ that many children of farmers feel - I guess that fell to my eldest brother! I had a little more freedom, which was fantastic as I felt like there were so many other things out there that I wanted to try alongside farming. I ended up taking a job in grain trading and never really looked back.
K: How did you make the move from working in grain trading to co-founding AgriDigital?
B: After I’d been working in grain trading for a few years, I landed a job at Agfarm, a grain and cotton marketing company that was founded by Bob McKay in the early 90s. Emma Weston was also an important part of the Agfarm team when I started and that was where the working relationship between the three of us really began. Along the way, I had the opportunity to buy into the business which cemented the relationship even further. It wasn’t all good times of course - we went through some really tough times, particularly when much of Australia was in drought in the early 2000s but we managed to work together and come through the other side which put us in really good stead in terms of running a business together.
After Agfarm sold we all did our own thing for a while. I went back to farming for a year (editor note: by this time, Ben’s father and grandfather had both retired with Ben and his brother dividing up the existing property) which was a great opportunity to think about where to go next. Bob, Emma and I all stayed in touch. We were keen to work together again and we were also keen to tackle some of the challenges that we’d seen facing the agricultural industry. There was a real lack of digitization and automation across agricultural supply chains and we saw the potential that digital and cloud-based technologies had to help farmers optimize their operations and directly connect their farms and grain into the supply chain.
So we took the plunge! And while we worked to our own strengths and weaknesses, we all wore a lot of different hats, particularly in the early days. With a great team behind us now we are able to focus more on our strengths. My role is really customer focused and I’m responsible for sales and growth, while Bob’s strengths are in finance and and the longer term vision for the business. With Emma’s strong leadership skills, it was natural that she take on the CEO and strategy role.
K: How does AgriDigital’s new Waypath platform help farmers?
B: AgriDigital exists to enable small to medium size grain buyers, processors and farmers to be active participants in a digitized agricultural supply chain. Waypath is our newest product and is initially focused towards the farmer. Too often, farmers will see their grain loaded into a truck and leave the paddock or field come harvest, unsure of when (or if) they’ll be paid for it. The Waypath app is designed to help farmers track every load from paddock to payment and means farmers can manage all their supply chain transactions in one place; from contracts, deliveries, storage, payments and invoices.
This is a real game changer in terms of data visibility at a farm level. Coming from a farming background, I can tell you visibility over what is happening on the farm is generally always a challenge... all the important information is usually stored in one person’s head and has been for many years. Say you’ve got a couple of generations working on the farm together, as was the case for us, knowledge sharing is an issue, and the little that does happen is not usually documented or recorded officially or in an easily accessible way. With Waypath, data on all the key transactions such as contracts, deliveries, payments and invoices can be entered into the app and accessed by those people on the farm who need it - anytime, anywhere. To be able to deliver an easy to use product across mobile and desktop that solves some of the challenges I and many others have experienced working in farming gives me a real sense of achievement. Of course, we have a lot more we are building out. This is our first version and our first harvest, so we know we will learn a lot and Waypath will just get better and better.
Simplifying and streamlining supply chains is also a big part of our vision at AgriDigital. I think back to my days in grain trading, when you’re dealing with multiple grain storage sites on a daily basis. Every single site would use a different system to manage their transactions and share reporting with us - sometimes it was a spreadsheet, or a faxed document, perhaps a software system. To collate all this information and get it into one usable format was nothing short of a paperwork and data nightmare! With both the AgriDigital Platform and Waypath we’ve designed it so that all key information can be entered once and can then be accessed by anyone on my team with permission to do so.
K: Has there been much time for farming while you’ve been building AgriDigital and have you ever been tempted to pack up and move to the city to run the business?
B: There are times when I thought it would have been easier to leave the farm and move to the city, particularly when we first started AgriDigital, but I have always felt a really strong tie to the land and I made the personal choice to remain regionally based for my family. Now of course, thanks to COVID, location doesn’t matter so much anymore - the majority of our team is working remotely!
I can’t imagine ever leaving the land, and whilst I’m not a ‘full time farmer’ (editor note: Ben has a farm manager who helps him with the day to day running of the business) it’s still a significant part of my life. I don’t like to sit still and am a big believer in the mantra ‘you’re only here once’ so I tend to pack in as much as I can! Plus, the majority of our customers are in the bush. Being a farmer and living out here in Young means I can maintain a close relationship with them, which is so important.
Maintaining an understanding of what is happening at the farm gate level is also really crucial, both personally and for the business - it gives me a greater understanding of how customers think and the challenges they face day to day. I’m just not sure I would get that if I was living in the city.
Being a farmer and living in Young enables Ben to maintain close relationships with AgriDigital customers
K: You’re making some big changes on the farm - can you tell us about them?
Ever since I studied ‘holistic management’ at university I’ve always wanted to put regenerative agriculture principles into practice. About eighteen months ago, my wife and I decided to take the plunge and we essentially moved away from our conventional mixed farming approach, which included pure cropping to pasture cropping. For us, this means we no longer sow for the purposes of producing a grain crop for sale, we plant purely with the intention of grazing. Anything that we do harvest is a bonus.
Our focus is on resting and renewal of the land. We’ve moved away from applying chemicals and fertilizers to our paddocks and set stocking, to a system of running large mobs of sheep and cattle that are regularly moved. This means heavily grazing our paddocks on a rotational basis - moving large mobs in between paddocks to give each paddock time to rest and recover. While the paddock is resting, the pasture grasses have a chance to fully recover and regenerate right down at the root level, improving their ability to access moisture and nutrients deep in the ground. Using this theory, we’re creating a biodiverse pasture that has enough groundcover to withstand water and wind erosion, as well as improving the microbial health of the soil.
Anecdotally, we’ve noticed our animals are stronger and healthier because they are eating a more diverse feedstock. And the soil and the land is really coming back strongly. The changes we’ve made so far have been relatively subtle yet they are destined to have a profound impact on the land. We’re really focused on improving the land and leaving it better than we found it.
K: What’s next for you both professionally and personally?
B: Personally, we’re just starting out on the regenerative farming journey and I’m really excited to see the positive impact we can have on the land over time. We’ve also just started selling our own branded beef and lamb direct to the consumer. It’s an amazing experience to watch something literally go from paddock to plate and this is something we hope we can continue to grow.
Ben with his wife Jane and youngest daughter Lani at home on the farm in Young, New South Wales
In terms of AgriDigital, we’re five years in but we’re only just getting started. I’m really excited about what the next few years will bring. Our vision is to have multiple supply chain participants using the digital platform so that we create incredible operational efficiencies and we improve trust and transparency the whole way through the value chain. It’s a network effect really, the more people that use AgriDigital and Waypath products, the more people benefit. It’s so important to us to continue to add value to our customers; their success is our success. We know that finance is the next frontier for us and just like we are ensuring that great tech is available for all grain supply chain participants; we are also working to ensure that we support their operations through flexible access to working capital.
I get my energy from doing things that matter; and personally as well as through AgriDigital, I feel like I’m in the right place at the right time. It’s challenging for sure, and incredibly exciting.