This post is part of our Future of Agriculture series which interviews the leading founders and executives who are on the front lines of the industry to get a better understanding of what problems the industry is facing, what trends are taking place, and what the future looks like.
The following is an interview we recently had with Jocelyn Boudreau, CEO & Co-Founder, Hortau.
1. What’s the history of Hortau? Where and how did you begin?
JB: We started Hortau in Québec in 2002 with the goal of delivering agronomic value from real-time field data that farmers could use to anticipate crop stress and make better-informed irrigation management decisions.
This wasn’t an easy task 15 years ago. In fact, we were doing Internet of Things (IoT) before it was even a thing. So there were a lot of communications hurdles in the rural areas we worked in, and so on. Every day presented a challenge. We had to develop our technology, deploy our field sensors and smart stations, and make sure they stood up to the daily rigors of commercial agricultural practices and Mother Nature.
That being said, the early years were really a goldmine in terms of learning for us, and we’ve really been able to accelerate the past 4-5 years because of it, and expand our footprint and our service offering.
Today, Hortau’s in-field soil tension, weather, flow meter monitoring and irrigation automation sensors work in just about every crop, soil type or irrigation system imaginable. Not many AgTech companies can say that, and it comes back to our history, our R&D efforts, and proprietary sensors that deliver the real-time data growers need to be successful.
2. What specific problem does Hortau solve? How do you solve it?
JB: There are a number of AgTech companies coming to market today thanks to improvements in mobile and IoT technology, cloud computing and solar power. But for us, it goes back to sensing the right parameters in the field and providing growers with simplified data they can make proactive decisions with.
A lot of today’s ag technologies only measure crop stress after the fact, when it’s already visibly evident and damage has already been done to the crop.
Our proprietary sensors are placed in the root zone for a reason: to measure the most critical factor to a growing plant – soil tension. Simply put, soil tension measures how difficult it is for the plant to extract water from soil, and this is directly linked to a plant’s metabolism and can help anticipate crop stress before it occurs. By using our real-time data and software, growers are able to monitor crop stress proactively and keep their plants or trees at optimal production levels, whether that’s knowing when to irrigate, when to apply fertilizer and nutrients.
To be successful, you have to measure the right parameters in the field, and providing the agronomic and technical support so that growers can utilize that information, anticipate stresses and act on it proactively.
We’re not just a tech company, a lot of our team comes from agriculture. They understand what it takes to be successful on a farm. They’re PCAs (pest control advisers), CCAs (certified crop advisers), soil scientists, and they understand agronomy and how concepts like soil tension and real-time crop stress management can help customers grow more with less inputs. But, beyond that, they know how to work hand in hand with growers to better understand our technology, get the most out of it in the field, and simplify their day-to-day operations.
3. What’s the future of agriculture?
Prediction #1: Agriculture will continue to get “smarter,” and I use that term tongue in cheek.
The general public doesn’t always look at farming as a tech-savvy industry. But the reality is technology has always had a place on our farms (think tractors, GPS, Radio frequency identification, irrigation systems and variable-rate technology).
Prediction #2: “Smart” precision tools and software will continue to make their mark on commercial agriculture, which continues to battle through limited resources: water, energy, labor and available land.
Prediction #3: Drought, extreme weather and those limited resources are forcing farmers to grow more with less. To meet the needs of our growing population they’re going to have to rely on precision ag technologies to improve production and overcome the many challenges they are faced with in today’s Ag environment.
4. What are the top 3 technology trends you’re seeing in agriculture?
JB: To meet those resource challenges discussed previously, growers will have to:
Trend #1: Incorporate more field sensors into their operations, tracking soil water, crop stress and weather data in real time so they can make better-informed decisions for inputs.
Trend #2: Adopt automated systems, to improve irrigation management, planting or harvesting practices. Labor is becoming difficult to come by, especially in major ag markets such as California, so anything that helps alleviate labor costs and improve on-farm efficiencies will be big. Sensors, remote sensing, and precision ag tools should ultimately lead to more automation.
Trend #3: Better leverage big data, which has been a hot topic for growers. That said, real-time data, blended with historical data and artificial intelligence can help forecast actionable data that helps growers remain proactive. It can let them know when to irrigate, when to apply nutrients, when to plant or harvest, and do everything possible to ensure optimal production. But it all starts with the data you bring in from the field. If the quality of the data isn’t there from the start, it affects all of the decisions and activities that happen downstream. A lot of the easy stuff has already been done, the next big gains will come from precision prescriptions based on a blend of real-time data and forecasting algorithms.
5. Why is the agriculture industry ripe for disruption?
JB: I don’t know if agriculture is “ripe” for disruption, per se. Agriculture also isn’t resistant to change like some may assume.
As mentioned earlier, technology has always played a major role in the evolution of agriculture and the growers who remain at the cutting edge of technology have seen the most success.
There are also a lot of AgTech companies that have failed in this space, because they treated agriculture like just another tech sector. Even in today’s digital age of smartphones and the mobile internet, you can’t take what works in Silicon Valley and expect that it’s going to work out of the box in today’s agricultural landscape. You have to take a street-smart approach and you have to read it correctly as a team. Technology has to be integrated and simplified. It has to enable and enhance day-to-day farm operations, and in that sense, they have to be seamless and non-disruptive at the farm level.
As cliché as it sounds, you need to have boots on the ground, who work with farmers and see what they need in the field and not cram technology they don’t need down their throats. If you can do that, and show growers an ROI and that your technology will make a significant difference on their farm, and support it with a great team in the field, then adoption will follow. But if not, farmers aren’t shy about telling you where to take your technology.
About Jocelyn Boudreau
Jocelyn Boudreau is the CEO of Hortau irrigation management systems, co-founding the company in 2002 in Québec, Canada.
Mr. Boudreau holds a Bachelor of Engineering and Masters degree in soil physics from Laval University (Québec).