Photo by Michael D. Tedesco

In 2018, Northwest Tennessee farmer Grant Norwood tested cutting-edge irrigation technologies from two startup companies. Both designs intended to help farmers like him conserve water and still effectively grow crops.

The testing aligns with his farm’s conservation mantra. All the while, it helps startup companies with the potential to impact the way farmers farm in Tennessee – and perhaps beyond.

AgLaunch, in cooperation with the Tennessee Department of Agriculture, created the Farmer Network in 2018, a group of Tennessee farmers testing new technology from ag-tech startups. The collaboration aims to benefit both parties and strengthen the state’s reputation as an ideal location to develop innovations in agriculture.

“I joined the network because I saw it as an opportunity to help with the development of up-and- coming businesses and ideas that could potentially help Tennessee farms and possibly create more industry in our state,” says Norwood, a fifth-generation farmer in Henry County. “The Tennessee Department of Agriculture has been very supportive in all of this and with getting everything going. If these companies can get a start here, maybe they can base here. That’s a benefit to everybody in the state of Tennessee.”

Tech Supports Farm Progress

Along with his wife and parents, Norwood grows about 3,000 acres of corn, soybeans and double-crop wheat near Mansfield. They farm some of the same land his ancestors settled in 1894 and showcase a lengthy history of land stewardship. Irrigation systems support about one-third of their crops.

During the 2018 growing season, Norwood tested pre-commercial irrigation technologies from startups GroGuru and Kilimo through the Farmer Network. The first system monitors soil moisture with in-ground sensors. The second predicts moisture with satellites and weather. Both intend to improve irrigation decisions and water usage.

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“I think our natural resources are here for us to use but not overuse,” Norwood says. “I see this project with the Farmer Network as a tool to give us a clarified goal in how to accomplish our end result of growing the crop.”

farmers and technology

Alex Forsbach and his wife Katherine. Photo by Michael D. Tedesco

Farm Testing Supports Startups

Likewise, Alex Forsbach and his father, Karl, tested Kilimo technology in summer 2018 on their farm near Savannah in Hardin County. Karl, who grows corn, soybeans, grain sorghum, winter wheat and cover crops, says he received weekly text messages with recommendations of water output based on statistical models.

“I’ve seen a lot of changes in agriculture as far as technology goes,” says Karl, who remembers a farm employee who worked fields with horses where he grew up in Germany. “Over the last 50 years, there has been a tremendous change in technology. This network is trying to bring new technology on the fast track to practical agriculture.”

Forsbach’s farm, called Growing Acres, held a field day in 2018 to showcase the network’s efforts and some results of the in-field testing.

farmers and tech

Photo by Michael D. Tedesco

In spring 2019, the Forsbachs plan to try new technology from WISRAN, which collects real-time data from machinery to calculate the true run cost of equipment, labor and fuel. It hopes to help farmers make better, more profitable management decisions.

“I feel the real heroes are the startups who put everything on the line,” Alex says. “These are often young people full of ideas who are spending their whole time on a dream that doesn’t have a monthly or weekly paycheck. They are doing the legwork to bring new stuff to market. We’re just trying to help them the best we can.”

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