Kiwi Agritech companies taking on the world
This is the first in a series of articles celebrating New Zealand Agritech entrepreneurs. We talk to Don Sandbrook (Greentech Robotics), Clare Bradley (AgriSea) and Aaron Pannell (FlipFarm) about how they’ve taken what they’ve learned in New Zealand and applied it overseas. We discuss their close connection to the land and consider the challenges and opportunities of scaling a global business.
“I consider coming from New Zealand to be a massive advantage over any other country in the world. There are no real barriers to innovation and we can build and develop anything here. We’re cowboys in the best possible sense.”— Don Sandbrook, Greentech Robotics
“Like many Kiwis in Agritech, I grew up on a farm,” says Don Sandbrook, CEO of Greentech Robotics. “There’s a real practical value that comes from being able to jump on a tractor and work with soil, plants, and people. That grounding gives you a great head start.”
“I’ve dealt a lot with companies in America and Europe and very few Agritech entrepreneurs grow up with that multiskilled, small-farm experience you get in New Zealand. One day you’re baling hay, the next you’re cultivating a paddock or planting a maize crop. You get a lot of variety and that experience is a big advantage in this industry.”
Sandbrook has had more varied work experiences than most. He left school at 15 and worked in 36 different jobs before setting up his own business. One of his first jobs was with an engineering shop where he did a fitting and turning apprenticeship that sparked his interest in electronics and inventing things.
“I’m a bit weird,” he says. “I can visualise a machine in my mind and build it. I’ve always been able to do that.”
While working as a technician at Massey University, Sandbrook worked on a direct drill seeding system he describes as ‘a heap of junk’.
“It was designed by academics with no practical sense of what problem it was designed to solve,” he says. “A lot of government money went into developing it but nobody stepped back and said, ‘Hang on a minute. This has no practical application. It’s a stupid piece of machinery.’ I could see a way to make it simpler and more effective but nobody would listen to me because I was just a technician.”
Determined to prove he could build something better, Sandbrook spent weekends and late nights puttering around in his garage trying to invent an accurate, automated seed dispensing system.
“I spent well over a thousand hours trying and failing to make something that worked the way I wanted it to,” he says. “Then, one morning I got up, put my boots on, walked 10 metres to the garage and on the way I saw this machine in my head as clear as day. I thought, ‘that’s what I’m going to build.’”
Like many entrepreneurs, Sandbrook thought coming up with the idea was the hard part but when he tried to sell his invention to Kiwi dairy farmers it turned out they didn’t need a seeding system to grow good grass. Nobody was interested until a representative for Watties saw Sandbrook’s system at Fieldays and asked if it could sow carrot seed.
The challenges of going global
Sandbrook modified his machine to cater for carrot seed and Watties planted 40 acres using the first iteration of the SeedSpider. Sandbrook drove down to Canterbury to see the results.
“I remember it was just before sunset and I walked into this field and saw this beautiful, perfectly-spaced, weed-free crop of baby carrots. I cried my eyes out. I’d always wanted to work for myself and I knew the SeedSpider would help me put food on the table for my family.”
Watties introduced Sandbrook to one of the UK’s leading suppliers of fresh produce and salad greens and that led to relationships with distributors and growers all over Europe. The US was a tougher nut to crack.
“Every time I went to Europe I flew home through the US to see a distributor. I’d show them the SeedSpider and photographs of crops planted in England using the system. ‘This is not goddamn England,’ they’d say to me. ‘Show us some crops in America planted using the SeedSpider.’”
“It was a chicken and egg situation. I desperately needed someone in the US to give me a break and I finally convinced a distributor to trial our system at a trade show in Las Vegas. I literally had to chase after him and drag him back to my stand to show him what it could do. My big break was down to sheer bloody-minded persistence.”
The company did a 2,000 acre trial which resulted in a 10 percent increase in yield compared to their existing seeding system. Today up to 80 percent* of salad and baby carrot crops in the US are planted using the SeedSpider and Sandbrook is convinced that ‘sheer bloody minded persistence’ is still the key to building a global business.
Footnote: *It is estimated that California and Arizona produce 95 percent of US leafy green crops. Monterey County alone produces over 100,000 acres of lettuce valued at US$1.5 billion annually.
“I’m not frightened to knock on the door of a CEO or an agronomist or jump on a tractor and demo some equipment,” he says. “I’m happy to get dirt under my fingernails and talk to the workers in the field to get their opinion on the problems they face every day. I have no fear of dealing with people up and down the business.”
Greentech Robotics mission is a bold one: to future-proof farming by developing cutting-edge robotic capability across the agricultural and horticultural sector. The company is set to launch the WeedSpider in the US in late 2022, a fully autonomous robotic weeder which aims to quickly and accurately remove weeds from commercial vegetable fields.
The technology aims to address a substantial pain point for growers, namely labour cost and supply. Research shows 55 percent of farms in the U.S are experiencing severe labour shortages. On top of this, due to population growth, demand for food is set to increase by 70 percent in the next 30 years. The WeedSpider won’t replace migrant workers but it will boost productivity and increase yields.
“Don is a really sound, strategic thinker and he’s got a great ability to see where there is a need or gap in the market and come up with a solution,” says David Fountain of the Solex Corporation, a leading distributor of horticulture and agriculture equipment in the US. “He’s fearless when it comes to investing time, money and resources into designing and delivering a new product to the market because he’s got such a good feel for the global problem to be solved.”
Taking on the world from your own backyard
Despite the fact that almost all of Greentech Robotics customers are overseas, the company is still based in Palmerston North, two hours north of Wellington.
“We’re fortunate to be able to hire a lot of bright young minds out of Massey, including a lot of their best mechatronics graduates,” says Sandbrook. “A lot of Massey students have grown up on a farm so they have a real practical, can-do attitude. My role is to channel their energy and expertise. I provide the sandpit for people to come and play in.”
“I consider coming from New Zealand to be a massive advantage over any other country in the world. There are no real barriers to innovation and we can build anything and develop anything here. We’re cowboys in the best possible sense.”
“We do things by the seat of our pants but we have a can-do attitude. The first prototype of the SeedSpider was built using bits and bobs lying around my garage. I used the sponge from an old wallpaper roller and routed a few holes in a piece of wood for the casing.”
“I started with nothing. I didn’t have money to buy good tools or good equipment and so I had to make do with rubbish. I had to make something out of nothing. Now I use top end German motors and stainless steel, injection moulded components. My goal was always to build the highest quality machine I could. I wanted to build the best in the world.”
We’d love to hear your stories to help inspire other Kiwi AgriTech entrepreneurs. Get in touch!
AgriSea: The power of local knowledge to shift mindsets around the world
AgriSea is an award-winning, family-owned seaweed company delivering high value nutrition products for the primary sectors including soil, plant, animal and bee nutrition. Their products are widely used in the dairy, drystock, viticulture, horticulture, and apiculture industries in New Zealand and overseas.
The company’s biostimulant technology and advanced fermentation system is unique in the world and utilises the brown kelp Ecklonia radiata which is native to New Zealand. Hundreds of people in remote coastal areas in the North Island harvest the seaweed for the company’s processing plant in Paeroa in the Hauraki Plains.
“Ecklonia radiata thrives in the warmer North Island waters and we’ve got whānau all along the coast with mātauranga Māori, or local Māori knowledge, collecting seaweed for us,” says Clare Bradley, a Director of AgriSea. “They know the weather, winds and sea conditions that deliver the best seaweed crop. Making sure we’ve got the right people in the right areas with that local knowledge and connection to place is a big part of our success.”
“As a Māori-owned, intergenerational business, we have a different lens on the business than a large corporate might have. That influences our long-term vision. We’re not here to pillage the sea and retire to a bach (holiday home) with a Beemer (BMW) and a boat. Māori values like kaitiakitanga, manaakitanga and whanaungatanga are part of our DNA.”
Kaitiakitanga (which means guardianship for people, place and planet) is a responsibility to look after resources and the environment for future generations. Manaakitanga means to extend aroha (love, compassion and generosity) to others. Finally, whanaungatanga is a foundational value of Māori culture that emphasises the importance of relationships, togetherness and a sense of family connection.
AgriSea is a natural nutritional and soil supplement that is sustainably harvested, something that is increasingly important for farmers and growers around the world who are embracing regenerative agriculture methods — a way of farming that helps reverse the damage done to our water, soil, climate and biodiversity.
“Our values are not a PR exercise for us,” says Bradley. “They’re part of who we are. We feel it is our responsibility to look after our natural resources for future generations.”
AgriSea is proud to call itself a family-owned business. Jill Bradley and her husband Keith Atwood first heard about the nutritional benefits of seaweed in the mid-1990s when they were keen amateur gardeners. They started harvesting seaweed and brewing all these weird and wonderful concoctions for their home garden.
Local gardeners soon discovered their secret (seaweed) sauce and so Jill and Keith started selling it. They sent a batch to the famous rosarian, Allan Scott, that he credited with saving a rare rose at Morrinsville Church. An apple grower in Hawkes Bay rang looking for two 200-litre drums and sent a big truck to their quiet suburban street in South Auckland.
Jill and Keith realised they were onto something, so they quit their jobs as school teachers, sold their house and set up shop in an old butter factory in Paeroa. They were attracted by the cheap rent and the proximity to the orchard growing regions in the Hawkes Bay and Bay of Plenty but the location also gave them easy access to dairy farmers in the Waikato. Very quickly, the dairy industry became their biggest market.
The downturn in the dairy industry in 2015 turned out to be a happy accident for AgriSea. Forced to consider other markets for their products they talked to a number of beekeepers who had been buying their products for years.
“Previously, we compared the size of a bee to the size of a dairy cow and we weren’t convinced that apiculture was a sector worth investing our time and energy into,” says Clare. “But the beekeepers told us that when they fed it to their bees, they had healthy, happy hives.”
Research proved that the bioactives in seaweed help treat a gut parasite prevalent in bees. Now apiculture is a big part of AgriSea’s business and they export their product to beekeepers in the US, Canada and Australia.
While building a successful global business is a goal for AgriSea, they’re also committed to building a sustainable business with a strong emphasis on R&D to come up with global solutions to the economic and environmental challenges in agriculture. The company recently partnered with a US company on a pilot seaweed farm project in Auckland’s Hauraki Gulf. Seaweed farming has a number of environmental benefits including removing carbon emissions from the atmosphere and helping to improve water quality by absorbing contaminants.
“It’s one of the things that gets me out of bed every day,” says Bradley. “I want to be able to look my children in the face and feel confident that I’m doing my best to make a better future for them and the generations to come.”
As well as the regenerative seaweed farming project, Bradley says AgriSea is committed to changing how Kiwi dairy farmers think about the soil.
“We’re in the middle of this revolution in terms of our understanding of the role of soil microbiology. The soil is the equivalent of the gut of the planet and we need good, healthy microbes in the soil. AgriSea is like a probiotic for the soil and farmers who use our product are able to reduce the amount of fertiliser they use. It requires a shift in mindset and an understanding that a healthy functioning soil ecosystem creates healthy plants, healthy animals and healthy profits. We’re not just selling a product; it’s an education process.”
We’d love to hear your stories to help inspire other Kiwi AgriTech entrepreneurs. Get in touch!
FlipFarm: Necessity is the mother of invention
Farmers in New Zealand have a reputation for innovation and inventing practical solutions to make their life easier. The world’s first electric fence, tranquiliser gun and jet boat were all invented by New Zealand farmers.
Kiwis are also renowned for what’s commonly known as their ‘number eight wire’ mentality to problem solving. Number eight wire was typically used for fencing but farmers living in isolated parts of the country didn’t have easy access to rural supply stores. So they came up with ingenious ways of solving mechanical or structural problems using a piece of number eight wire and whatever scrap was lying around the farm. That mentality is a testament to Kiwi farmer’s ability to innovate and come up with technological solutions to challenging problems.
Unlike Don Sandbrook who has had a lifelong passion for innovation and engineering, Aaron Pannell’s FlipFarm system is a perfect example of the proverb: necessity is the mother of invention.
“FlipFarm wasn’t driven by innovation,” says Pannell. “Our first priority was to stop losing our gear and our oysters. That was the motivation for coming up with a better system. The stormy weather in this part of the world and our isolated location had a big influence on the development and design of FlipFarm.”
“Apart from the challenges Mother Nature threw at us, we were also short-staffed. Oyster farming is tough, hard work and it has traditionally been a male-dominated industry. It’s dirty, uncomfortable, backbreaking work. Each growing bag has to be handled individually, multiple times. Staff turnover and burnout is high and I found myself working 12-hour days, six days a week. Something had to give or something had to change.”
Pannell’s oyster farm in Croisilles Harbour in Marlborough Sounds is at the end of a long and winding road, which is appropriate considering his journey to becoming an Agritech entrepreneur.
“Farming is in my blood,” he says. “I grew up on a sheep farm and I’ve always been passionate about primary production. Before I got into aquaculture I worked on dairy farms in New Zealand’s South Island. When you work on a farm you learn how to fix things and make do with what you have. Without overemphasising the ‘number 8 wire mentality’, Kiwis definitely have a knack for problem-solving creativity. We’re constantly looking for new ways of doing things.”
Pannell came up with a new method for growing and harvesting oysters that reduced wear and tear on the equipment, provided an ideal environment for oyster growing and conditioning, while also controlling pests and predators.
“It reduced our workload significantly and made it much easier to find suitable staff,” he says. “It also changed the demographic of the staff we can employ. The beauty of the FlipFarm system is it opens doors for people who might not have considered oyster farming before because it was too physically demanding. The machinery is safe and easy to operate and it makes life easier for people working in the industry which is very satisfying.”
“We built the system for us but once we saw that it worked we knew it was going to solve a big problem for farmers around the world. We didn’t know how people would react to it. We just put it out there.”
“We did things differently to a lot of startups. When we started we didn’t have a sales and marketing strategy. We didn’t even have a website. I don’t think you need a global strategy until you start getting a lot of interest. Instead, we invested a lot of time and energy into perfecting the system.”
One of Pannell’s key suppliers had a database of oyster farmers around the world and they sent an email to their customers with a YouTube video of the system operating on his farm. He got all these replies from oyster farmers desperate to get their hands on the gear. Keith Butterfield, an oyster farmer in Maine, USA, was one of those who watched the mesmerising footage on YouTube. The automated efficiency of the FlipFarm system was in stark contrast to what he was used to in the US.
“I was just blown away as I watched it,” he says. “I kept saying to myself, ‘Is this real?’ Because there’s nothing like this in the US. New Zealand is way ahead of the US when it comes to aquaculture. We’re farming on the water like it’s the early 19th century, heading out into the field with a wheelbarrow and a shovel. It’s changing though.”
“Mechanisation has transformed the way we farm the land and we desperately need to farm our seas more efficiently and sustainably. We’re seeing a lot of people with different backgrounds coming into the industry who are really concerned about the ocean and how we’re treating it. I’m one of those people. I came from the medical devices industry and I started oyster farming as a hobby. But I learned the more shellfish, algae and kelp products we can grow on the water, the better it is for the marine ecosystem and for carbon sequestration.”
Caring for the environment is one thing but If you’re using manual labour to farm oysters you are severely limited to how many oysters you can harvest. Watching the FlipFarm video, Butterfield realised it could dramatically reduce the labour hours and allow small oyster farmers to build a sustainable business. He jumped on a plane to New Zealand to check out the system for himself and was impressed by Pannell’s engineering brain and his number 8 wire approach to the solution.
“When you can take that fix it mentality and build something for your own farm, that’s great. But when you create something that changes the game for everyone else, then you’ve done something really special. That’s what Aaron has done. He’s given us a gift.”
“The old way of farming oysters was hard labour. This system gives oyster farmers more money and time. It’s perfect for small family farms who can now build a sustainable business. It’s going to change lives.”
The FlipFarm system is now used by more than 70 farmers in 12 countries worldwide and won the 2021 Global Seafood Alliance Aquaculture Innovation Award.
Pannell’s advice to other entrepreneurs is to do as much research as you can before going to market.
“While I was developing the system. I spent a huge amount of time researching the industry,” he says. “By research I don’t mean the size of the market or who your customers are or how much you’re going to charge. Learn about the industry and the real problems on the ground.
“I had a massive advantage because I had 30 years experience in aquaculture. I lived with the problem, trialled different solutions and tested them on our farm. This is the eighth growing system I’ve tried. I launched two others that didn’t take off but all the time I was drawing on all of those little things I learned along the way and some I’d forgotten.”
“A lot of people invent solutions and then go looking for a problem to apply it to. I’m a firm believer in finding the problem and then coming up with a solution. Innovation can come from anywhere. People on the edges of an industry can come up with some really good ideas but usually the ones that work come from people who have a close connection to the problem they’re trying to solve.”
Is connection to the land important to you?
What does ‘place’ mean to you and your business? It might be where you grew up, where your business is based, or the unique characteristics of the region you live in.
We’d love to hear your stories to help inspire other Kiwi AgriTech entrepreneurs. Get in touch via our channels below.