How Michigan Agriculture Companies are Taking Innovation to the Next Level

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In partnership with: Michigan Department of Agriculture & Rural Development

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iStock/Simon Lehmann

Clean water from cow manure? That’s the kind of game-changing technology being developed in Michigan.

Ann Arbor-based Digested Organics, which specializes in sustainable waste management and alternative energy, converts organic waste into water clean enough to reuse on the farm for irrigation. One dairy farm north of Milwaukee is using the technology to process an estimated 20,000 gallons of manure per day into clean, usable water.

Digested Organics got help putting the idea into action from ACRE AgTech, a Michigan-based entrepreneurial support organization that provides resources and connections in the field of agricultural technology.

“The potential for Michigan to be a leader in supporting ag technology is tremendous,” says Paul Sachs, executive director of ACRE AgTech, headquartered in Ottawa County. “We have such an incredible manufacturing base. We have a driven entrepreneurial spirit. We have community leaders and private-sector businesses willing to engage, and our food and agriculture industry is a powerhouse nationally. All those ingredients combined make the ideal platform for Michigan to excel at creating new technologies for agriculture.”

ACRE AgTech (short for AgTech Connections and Resources for Entrepreneurs) was founded in 2015 by Ottawa County economic development professionals. Staff works to deliver multiple layers of assistance and brings together public- and private-sector supporters who can help with anything from development to funding.

While most of ACRE AgTech’s clients reside within western Michigan, the nonprofit will assist tinkerers, hobbyists, creators, farmers, engineers and innovators in any part of the state. Clients originate in a variety of ways, from word of mouth to staff physically scouting for innovators with the potential to solve some of Michigan agriculture’s biggest challenges.

For example, Sachs learned in speaking with the Michigan Potato Industry Commission that golf balls mixed among harvested potatoes ranks a top problem in potato processing. Farms situated near a golf course or next to residents who like to hit golf balls from their yards face this issue.

ACRE AgTech contacted ImpactVision, a California-based company, to develop optical scanning technology that identifies golf balls on the processing line before those balls cause costly downtime and $50,000 in damage to equipment. Golf balls harvested with potatoes prompted a recall of a major brand of frozen hashbrowns in 2017. While that recall did not involve a Michigan company or consumers, it emphasized the dangers posed by the issue.

FarmLogs is another Michigan company developing technology that impacts producers’ bottom line with easy-to-use software that helps them run their operations more efficiently. Jesse Vollmar founded FarmLogs in 2011 after realizing that the rate at which technology was expanding wasn’t being applied to the farm. Today, FarmLogs’ products have a nationwide reach, with 1 in 3 U.S. farms using the products to manage their operations, and 80-plus million acres under management by FarmLogs.

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Keep it simple. Vollmar says that’s what sets his company’s software tools apart from the competition. With many farmers using customized spreadsheets or even scratchpads to calculate costs and monitor the value of their crops, the risk of leaving money on the table is high. FarmLogs’ marketing tool makes it easier to know how making a sale or hedge will impact profitability by calculating the action against factors like yield and previous sales and automatically updating the information as the markets are moving.

The bottom line: Make it easier for farmers to get paid more for their products by helping them manage their risk.

Entrepreneurs like Vollmar are the type of clients that ACRE AgTech aims to identify and support.

“One part of our job is understanding the challenges in the agriculture community, so we meet with farmers and processors and other agribusinesses,” Sachs says. “We connect technologies with these needs, or scout for technologies to meet those needs.

Helping to solve agriculture challenges with new technologies is critical, especially as the demands placed on agriculture continue to increase. Building stronger support statewide to nurture ag technology innovation is an incredible opportunity we see for Michigan.”

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