Steven Valencsin, an agricultural entrepreneur and graduate of NC State’s Agricultural Institute, recently made Forbes’ annual 30 Under 30 list for enterprise technology.
Valencsin graduated from the institute in 2010 and has quickly made his mark in agriculture. He is founder and chief executive officer of Growers, a Raleigh-based firm with 19 employees and offices in four states. The company helps farmers make the most of new agricultural technology and, especially, to make economic sense of data it can produce.
“You just can’t make money farming today the same way you could six years ago,” Valencsin said. The market is tough, offering narrow profit margins, and that has “forced producers to start to think differently.”
“It has started to open up farmers’ mindset to new and emerging technologies and then also to lean on others … for help,” he said. “The analogy that I always use is that farmers are the best in the world at getting things done, and often when you are trying to get things done, you compromise on getting things done well. We work behind the scenes to help them make sure they get things done well.”
Here, Valencsin discusses how vital his NC State connections have been to his life and to his company and what the future holds for agricultural technology and precision agriculture.
Why did you choose the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences’ Agricultural Institute?
I was interested in the Ag Institute for two reasons: One was I wanted to get back into agriculture, and two was the speed and the ability that I would be able to get (a) formal collegiate-level education. It was a great program, because it allowed me to be laser-focused on a few specific things that I wanted to gain knowledge on – I majored in ag business management and field crops technology. It set me up on a faster trajectory to be able to get into the workforce after serving the military.
The reason our office is in Raleigh is because of NC State and the ability to attract talent. About 70 percent … of our employees are State graduates — most of them from either the MBA program or CALS.
How did your career unfold?
In 2008, which was my first year at NC State, I had an opportunity through being involved in the Ag Institute Club. We went on a field trip to Eastern North Carolina, and I got introduced to a large farmer out there. Through that relationship, I got to understand the intricacies of how farms in North Carolina operate, because that was a new experience for me coming from South Dakota. You know it’s the first time I’ve ever seen tobacco and cotton and peanuts being grown.
Through that experience I realized there was an opportunity to potentially explore getting into the private soil testing space. I ended up founding a company called Southern Soil and Water, which was based in Warsaw, North Carolina, and I ran that business for two years and had an opportunity to sell my interest in it. I ran Soil and Water while I was a full-time student for a year and a half and then another six months after I graduated. That’s when Growers was born.
I took the knowledge and information that I’d gleaned from my experience at the soil testing lab to … identify another niche, which was … helping farmers use technology and data, specifically soil data at that point, to help manage their farms better. Growers initially started as a consulting company to help farmers use technology to manage soil better.
How has the company evolved?
From its roots in helping farmers understand soil, what ended up happening is we started collecting lots and lots of data, and we backed into the data analytics corner almost on accident. It wasn’t our idea to come out and be this great big data analytics company, but when you go and acquire a bunch of data, there’s an opportunity to do something with it. This was before big ag data and the precision ag had taken off in terms of the data analytics. We felt like we had a pretty good leg up on the competition, because we just spend so much time collecting so much soil data. And then on top of that other field data — other fertility data, machine data, yield data, satellite imagery, weather — all of these different data feeds that we were using, we started putting them together and then using that to more fine-tune the recommendations we gave to farmers.
We had early success in helping farmers really tie what I call as agronomy, technology and data analytics together. There is a big deficit in this industry of companies that truly understand farming … and most importantly, the farmer and how to create and develop a business around the customer.
What motivates you?
Being able to take a business that started as a one-man consulting shop and grow it into a national platform company has been really humbling.
Having an understanding of the amount of risk that farmers are taking and what it means to actually ask them to pay you for a service is pretty powerful.
What have you been most proud of in your business journey?
Being able to take a business that started as a one-man kind of consulting shop and grow it into a national platform company that is able to help farmers in a variety of different geographies, different regions, different crops and different challenges has been really humbling and also something that we take a lot of pride in.
Are most of your customers large-scale farmers?
No. It’s a broad spectrum: Our largest customers are upwards of 25,000 acres, and then we have some that are 250 acres. It really is more about the mindset. We like to say that most of our customers are … very in tune with their cost of production, and they are trying to measure everything that they manage, and manage everything that they’re measuring. Acreage size and the size of the farm doesn’t determine that.
It’s a mindset. It’s really the individual operator that says, ‘Hey, I only have 250 acres, so I’m going to make these 250 acres the best they possibly can be.’ We love working with guys like that: They are serious about using the services that we can provide as a company, and we’re serious about helping them be better, even on very small acreages.
What do you see ahead for using big data in agriculture and for Growers?
Venture-backed companies are spending a lot of money trying to figure out how can we take all of this on-farm data and make it useful for a farmer. A bunch of companies out there are racing to figure it out. There’s so much great technology out on the market today — … a sensor-based package, a satellite package, analytics software, hardware, equipment — you name it. Technological innovation has outpaced farmer adoption. The exciting thing is that there’s just so much innovation that’s come in, and the adoption is still so low that I think the potential is still way, way out there.
What did you think about making the 30 Under 30 list?
The recognition that we’re getting (acknowledges the fact that) we are a very small company that’s competing with very big companies in an area we understand intimately: How do you get technology into the hands of farmers and turn it into value? Growers as a company essentially does that: We use agronomy, data and technology to help farmers simplify their business. And if there was ever a time that farmers needed that, it’s today.