This week, Hortau is celebrating its 15th anniversary as a pioneer in the AgTech industry.
To commemorate the company’s 15 years, Hortau co-founder and CEO Jocelyn Boudreau took time to discuss the milestone in a Q&A with communications director Brian Milne. Here’s his take on the evolution of AgTech and what’s in store for the next 15 years:
Can you believe it’s been 15 years?
It’s been an unbelievable journey. Being able to establish ourselves like we have in Canada, the U.S. and now globally, I’m just so proud of the team and how we’ve been able to evolve and adjust in a fledgling industry.
When we started in 2002, AgTech wasn’t a thing. But we started building a great team and an amazing technology, and fortunately we had friends and family and some progressive growers who really believed in us early on.
When you co-founded the company, did you ever envision it would grow like it has, expanding globally across hundreds of crops?
Being able to establish ourselves in hundreds of crops across every major agriculture region in North America means a lot.
It goes well beyond proof of concept. Our system works in any type of crop, soil type or irrigation system. Not many AgTech companies can truly say that, even today.
In cranberries, for example, which is a very water-dependent crop, we were able to prove our growers can drastically cut back water use and push yields above what was previously believed to be the genetic limit for the crop. That’s a shocker for a lot of people, and we’ve been able to expand that into other crops such as almonds, strawberries, it’s amazing to see the results that we have.
What were some of the challenges in growing an AgTech company during the early stages?
Well, for agriculture, we were doing Internet of Things before it was even a thing. So there were a lot of communications hurdles in rural areas early on, to go with the everyday challenges of developing a technology, building a team and executing a business model.
On the technology side, our system had to stand up to the daily rigors of everyday agriculture. The technology we could control, but a lot of times the infrastructure hurdles were out of your hands.
In the end, we spent way more time and energy on infrastructure (moving to cell networks and solar-powered devices) then on the technology and sensors. That happened because we wanted to deliver agronomic value and real-time information that farmers could use to anticipate and make informed irrigation management decisions with.
That said, those early years were a goldmine of learning for us, and the past 4-5 years we’ve been able to move a lot faster because we don’t have to learn as we go.
You earned your Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Ag Engineering, but you also grew up on a farm and have a deep appreciation of agriculture. Hortau, as the name suggests, has helped bring technology to horticulture and commercial agriculture. What has that been like, bringing two of your passions together with this company?
It’s hard to explain. It’s a fascinating feeling when you’ve helped create something that’s become larger than you. There’s a point where the technology, and the system, starts belonging to the people — our employees, and, equally as important, our customers.
It’s something I never thought of coming into this. We have growers that talk about waking up each morning and the first thing they do is grab their mobile device and see where their soil is at. That’s fascinating to hear of the ownership our growers are taking with the system, and it’s rewarding for the entire team to know we’re making a difference in their lives.
How important is the measurement, and ensuring your precision ag technology is just that — precise?
Now that the enabling technologies are in place, and AgTechs can leverage mobile technologies, cloud computing and solar power, it goes back to sensing the right things and understanding what you’re measuring and why it’s important.
A lot of the failures in the industry have come from that, not using the right sensing parameters and failing to create value for the grower. Soil tension is the foundation of our platform, because it’s a crop-centric approach that is based on water availability in the soil and it maximizes photosynthesis and production.
For today’s growers, when margins are slim as ever, you have to create value and you have to support it with an agronomic service and grower support. And if you’re not supporting it and delivering the right data, consistently, in real time, it won’t foster adoption.
How critical is that grower support, and providing agronomic support at the farm level to your growers?
This is agriculture. If you’re not supporting your platform the right way at the farm level, you’re not going to survive.
Even in today’s digital age of smart phones 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 agriculture.
You have to take a street smart approach and you have to read it correctly as a team. A lot of our team comes from agriculture. They understand what it takes to grow up on a farm. They’re PCAs, CCAs, 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. But, beyond that, they know how to work hand in hand with growers to better understand our system, get the most out of it in the field, and simplify their daily management burden.
You’ve mentioned the team a lot here. How important is the team in terms of building a successful technology platform in agriculture?
The people are everything. Without our team, we don’t have anything.
During my time with Hortau, there have been highs, there have been lows, so you have to find people with the right entrepreneurial spirit. They have to have the talent obviously, and we have a lot of talented people, but you also have to be willing to be part of that adventure.
The past 15 years have been just that, an adventure, and I can’t wait to see what the next 15 bring.