American agriculture is unmatched around the world. Yet with this success comes an even greater challenge: Who will replace the half-million farmers and ranchers who plan to retire over the next two decades? Look no further than our next class of America's Best Young Farmers and Ranchers. They are among the best of their generation. They embrace the future of agriculture and are developing the technical and managerial skills to build their own successful businesses.
John Deere screened a video earlier this year it called "Farm Forward 2.0." It envisions a connectivity of technologies and data to produce management guidance. One character is quietly central to Deere's vision as manager of the farm's data hub. That person meshes real-time agronomics with inputs and telemetry to produce "solutions." The video invites viewers to imagine the power of the digital wrench-turner on the future farm. Meet Brett Arnusch. The 23-year-old, from Keenesburg, Colorado, was hired by his father, Marc, to perform data comprehension.
"Data comprehension is a new position," says Brett, who manages new-market penetration and social media for Marc Arnusch Farms, an alfalfa and forage business. "Not everyone understands what I do, even on our own farm."
Brett was hired to fill a role that had not existed.
"But, I can assure you he may be the most important individual within our operation today," Marc says. "Brett sees technology in a different light. He sees opportunity."
Brett's job is to make data legible. "It is truly understanding what goes into each acre," he says, "and it is prescriptive analytics -- data will tell you, 'Hey, we're probably going to be getting some stripe rust here pretty soon; you might want to think about spraying.'"
Son and father believe data comprehension is changing their management expectations. "We simply didn't have the hard evidence of true costs that we have today," Marc says. He can quickly dial up an example where Brett's digital work is paying dividends.
Recently, the farm went from leasing a significant amount of land from a dairy to custom-farming that same land for the dairy. Marc wasn't convinced he was making a profit from the work. He asked Brett to drill down into the data -- fuel costs, depreciation, repair, maintenance, labor costs, number of tillage trips -- to show proof of profit or not.
"What [Brett] found was we were very profitable in certain aspects of our custom-farming operations, but we were losing money with each additional pass across the field," Marc says. "Brett drilled down into each additional task or pass to see where we could become more efficient and identified exactly our break-even costs for each operation." The work produced what Marc says are the most accurate machine cost evaluations he's ever had for the farm.
Arnusch Farms sits on the rim of the Prospect Valley, 45 minutes east of Denver. Brett's great-grandparents, Andreas and Katharina, emigrated here from Austria in the early 1950s. "Knowing that this land provided for my family, not just for one, not just for two, not just for three but for four generations. To carry these acres forward is everything. I hold it near and dear."
The farm is diverse, producing corn for grain and silage, alfalfa, seed wheat and barley, and wheat and barley for the craft brew and spirits industries. Brett's independent Arnusch Hay Co. will be 365 acres next year, producing alfalfa and sorghum-sudangrass. Unfulfilled demand gave him the confidence to launch the business. "I was running a custom hay-hauling business with a friend where we would haul alfalfa or grass all over our state, and I noticed a common theme amongst all the customers: They always wanted more hay," Brett says. He lobbied his father to put up a half-circle into small bales. "We sold bales faster than we could make them."
Data helps Arnusch Farms decommoditize production. Decommoditizing means understanding end-user needs and producing for those needs in the field. "It is not growing 15 different crops to diversify, rather [decommoditization] is producing for markets where the commodity is treated as a luxury. We try not to be a victim of the marketplace."
Arnusch Farms is significantly involved in the craft brewing and spirits industry. "We pair a specific commodity with the right partner to create a highly demanded product," Brett explains. That means understanding the customer appeal and using that data to produce the specific grain input.
Marc believes the investment in his son is paying dividends. "Brett is refocusing our farm to better meet the challenges of tomorrow," he says.
Brett's farming experience will be markedly different from the farm built by his father, grandfather and great- grandfather. "Being a millennial farmer is a daunting task. I'll be crunching a lot of numbers. But data-driven relationships will drive our diversity."