From the Foundation: Seeding agricultural innovation

By: Tim Penny
August 1, 2017

When it comes to the faces of the future of agriculture, two jump out at me: Todd Golly and Orlando Saez. Golly and Saez are co-founders of Aker, a crop monitoring service firm based in Winnebago, Minnesota.

Golly grew up on the family farm in Winnebago, went to college at the University of Minnesota, and after working at the University (he is trained as an agricultural engineer), came back to continue farming. Like many farmers, he was constantly adapting to new technology.

Tim Penny

“It’s pretty amazing if you think my dad started with horses, and now our combines are driving themselves,” Golly said. He pointed out that faming often has a connotation of being stuck in the past, but in reality, it’s often farmers, especially young farmers, who are leading the way in adopting technology. “As margins become thin, farmers are looking more to technology.”

One new technology in particular caught his eye: drones. Given the growing size of family farms, it can be hard to monitor hundreds to thousands of acres for things like pests or poor drainage. Golly started Leading Edge Technologies to provide drone crop monitoring to farmers.

“My dad was a pilot and always saw the value of seeing crops from the air,” Golly said.

The drones, which fly at 400 feet, are equipped with three different types of imaging sensors. All of the data feeds into an app that can give farmers and crop monitoring specialists valuable information, such as where drainage tile is needed or where pesticide is best applied.

When he met Saez, who has his roots in the Dominican Republic and a career in investing, the two sepected the company name Aker. Rather than selling their services directly to farmers, Aker now primarily targets agronomists, retailers, suppliers and other crop-monitoring service providers.

In 2016, Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation made an equity investment in Aker to help with product development, operating capital, sales and marketing.

“We could have gone to the east or west coast because they throw money around easier,” Golly said. “Midwest investors are more cautious and require more hefty business plans, which really helps us, and they continue to help us. From ag retailers to SMIF, MN DEED, the Clean Energy Trust … we work with people and investors who actually care about our communities.”

Right now, Aker is poised for growth. They have five full-time staff and work with several interns. “There are a few other businesses out there doing something similar to this, mostly in Silicon Valley, but they don’t have the knowledge of how the farming business relationships work,” Golly said.

“I know that what we’re doing here can be replicated around the world,” Saez said.

To learn more about SMIF’s loans and equity funds, visit www.smifoundation.org.

Tim Penny is the President and CEO of Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation. Previously, he represented Minnesota’s First Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1982-1994. 

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