Built Oregon -Oregon's Entrepreneurial Digital Magazine

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From electric vehicles to the internet of herds: The Rogue Rovers story

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Bringing innovations that make sense for farming and ranching is not always an easy thing to do. It’s a market segment that moves on the basis of relationships, as opposed to quick scaling user acquisition platforms and plays.

Rogue Rovers, an Ashland based company, is focused on not only the development of technologies for this massive industry, but also on building solid and long term relationships with the farmers and ranchers whose innate knowledge will be the ultimate driver on how technology can effectively engage and help.p02lfbqp

Connecting the EV market to agriculture

There are two big problems in agriculture today – the ability to gather, and then generate, data. Rogue Rovers was started to address those two big challenges through advanced technology and engineering.

What many people in urban areas take for granted in regards to localized content during their everyday lives, apps for everything and constant connectivity, are not the conditions found in agriculture. Moreover, the specialty farms that are smaller, more specialized and in more varied terrains have an even greater challenge – getting low cost solutions that can help them.

This is where Melissa Brandao, CEO & Founder of Rogue Rovers, saw not only an opportunity, but a way to create a company that focuses on bridging technology with real world agricultural problems.

IMG_7773“ We came together to create an AgTech company that was doing more than just web-based solutions. We wanted to make advanced hardware systems that could solve real world problems, while keeping it simple and low cost.”

Melissa is a self described technologist with a lot of maker mixed in. She started her career at Apple and has spent the past 10 years in the AgTech space. And while a tech evolution from Apple to AgTech may not make sense to some, Melissa’s background is rooted in farm life, as she grew up on one.

This farming background gave her an innate understanding of the challenges and opportunities around farming and agriculture, especially those associated with equipment and processes. Farming is still pretty simple and basic when compared to the fast moving world seen in urban areas.

Enter the development of the FarmDogg, an electric four wheel drive vehicle.

The term “Dogg” is widely used by the Rogue Rovers team and Melissa explains its significance, “ Dogg means Data Generator-Gatherer. We developed our FarmDogg rover as the platform that will replace existing farm equipment because it’s a versatile, fully controllable mobile platform, and can support robotics.”

A data generating electric four wheel drive vehicle.static1.squarespace

If it sounds unique, that is indeed true. But the uniqueness is built on a solid vision about why and how this vehicle will help farmers. Electric propulsion is focused on precision control, which is an essential factor in autonomy and smart vehicles.

The precision control allows for pin-point accuracy in speed control, location and performance, all while having a low decibel level that allows you to hear your surroundings and not spook the animals. The FarmDogg’s data collection is done with delicate sensors and cameras. The smooth motion helps to protect these elements and creates a more stable data collection process. Electric vehicles also have fewer moving parts so the downtime is less than gas powered vehicles, which is an important benefit to farmers in rural areas.

But Melissa didn’t set out to create an EV company in Southern Oregon.

“ I kind of fell into electric vehicles on accident. Up until then I had been working with disruptive technology but it was always software. I spent four years abroad building companies in emerging markets providing market data so capitalism and investor access to markets could work more efficiently in places like Russia and Latin America. Electric vehicles are one of the examples that Chris Christensen sites as a disruptive technology and it was hardware–tangible–I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to get into this technology. But as you know the EV industry has had many ups and downs and has yet to gain the market traction to become the norm. I always have been about focusing these technologies on solutions that are a best fit for them. Ag has made sense to me and as I stated earlier there’s a need to move Ag forward in its technology development.”IMG_6723

This need to move Ag technology forward has brought much well deserved attention to what Rogue Rovers is building, including a trip to the White House to participate in the first ever Demo Day at the White House.  From Southern Oregon to the White House. The team at Rogue Rovers had created a product that effectively helped farmers in their day to day work and the pre-orders were coming in.

Everything was going great, so the time was perfect to focus on the next evolution of the company.

Creating a product for the Internet of Herds (IoH)

Rogue Rovers started with the intent to design and manufacture rovers.

But during the process of talking to farmers and ranchers about the FarmDogg, what they began to realize was these folks were struggling to retrieve the most simple ID information off of animals, and that the current retrieval process was both stressful to the rancher as well as the herd. This was especially true on ranches where the animals are free range or pasture raised.

Screen Shot 2016-04-25 at 9.53.12 PMThe Rogue Rover’s team saw the opportunity to create a product that could directly address a problem in ranching today, and thus was born the HerdDogg.

“ We developed HerdDogg, which is a wearable device for improved accuracy of livestock traceability and biometrics. The HerdDogg eco-system is made up from three parts: the DoggTag, the DoggBone and HerdDogg.io.The DoggTag is an ear tag designed for generating biometrics from livestock and herd animals. The DoggBone, is a small multi-pairing device that reads data from the DoggTags with an estimated range of 30 feet. It connects, transmits and stores the data using Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE). When the DoggBone is near a cell phone or laptop it can then transmit the data to the cloud at <HerdDogg.io. HerdDogg.io is your dashboard access to all your herd’s data available from anywhere on mobile or computer. “

One of the key features is that ranchers can put the DoggBone anywhere they want to collect data; the watering trough, a favorite tree, on your own herd dog, or even just in your pocket. The Bone is going to collect data as often as the rancher is near the herd, but because it’s using Bluetooth instead of RF or other more expensive and complex protocols, Rogue Rovers can keep it simple and low cost.

David ‘Duppy’ Proctor, the CTO of Rogue Rovers, explains how the tech is similar to some well-known wearables.doggbone.doggtag.noAGM

“ The Bone is constantly collecting herd data. The data collected includes temperature (ambient and animal), light, activity via an accelerometer and relative location – it’s like a fitbit for cows”

But the data collected goes far beyond the number of steps a cow takes in a day. The data received by the rancher is both beneficial and actionable. Cows that are sick get lethargic, and the via the dashboard, the rancher can identify potential sick cows. How quickly an animal lays down after they eat is relative to the quality of food they ingested.

The Bone’s constant gathering of data is also allowing ranchers to evolve how they breed the cows. The current method is to use tail chalk, which is a process of putting chalk on females and the chalk rubs off once the female is mounted. The Bone allows ranchers to see which cows are fidgety at night, a sign that they are in heat. Once these females are identified, the ranchers know that they have roughly 16 hours to breed them, and once the female is pregnant, this pattern of activity ceases to occur.

The percentage of cows that get pregnant during a breeding season is vital to the profitability of a ranch, and the Bone is helping ranchers increase this percentage via data gathering.Screen Shot 2016-04-25 at 9.53.50 PM

Engaging farmers and ranchers in a collaborative manner is something that Melissa has focused on from the beginning.

“ The truth is that I just really like working with farmers and ranchers. They are the original makers. They’re clever how about to build something, being independent thinkers. Yet hey have an immense responsibility being the growers of our food and I want to help to support them. What is so exciting is to see how many of our engineers are emerging from rural Oregon and how excited they are about supporting the industry in their backyard. Rogue Rovers supports the eco-system of rural makers and engineers. The farmer’s daughters and sons today are tech savy but when it comes to applying that to the family farm–there’s still a long way to go. That’s where Rogue Rovers wants to operate.”

It is an operation that is looking to make the Rogue Valley home base for a flexible and sustainable business that is internally focused on implementing ideas and processes more similar to Silicon Valley, and putting those to work in rural areas of Oregon.

Melissa is keenly aware that creating a company for the long haul starts with creating a team that can deliver on the initial mission and goals.

IMG_5770 copy“ My team is fantastic collection of people that I have worked with, and people that have come to us. Our CTO David “Duppy” Proctor I have known since I was in elementary school. He’s a brilliant hardware technologist. I knew he was the right guy for the job but it took some convincing for him to consider doing tech outside of the consumer products and gadgets that he was used to. Now he’s completely converted. He just as happy to go out and work on site with our farmers and ranchers and get some dirt on his boots. We all like that–that’s really the best part of the job.  Our firmware engineer was referred to us by one of his partners and our web developer contacted us looking for an internship and on it goes. “

On it goes indeed. Rogue Rovers was recently featured on the show America’s Greatest Makers to pitch HerdDogg. And even though the team still believes in EV’s as a platform, they are just as excited about being the cornerstone technology around the Internet of Herds, which they all really believe is the future of Ag.

And even though the future of Ag may sound like something reserved for farmers and ranchers, there are applications some of us may see and use in the near future. The DoggBone can also generate SMS alerts, and yes, be connected to social media. So if you go in on say ¼ cow with some other folks, you can now keep track of said cow via a mobile device and possibly see some tweets about its daily activities.

Welcome to the future of ag.

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For more information, visit www.roguerovers.com. You can also follow them on twitter and instagram.

 

The proof is in the pork: The Elkhorn Farm and Forge Story

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Matt Alford quit eating meat in 1997 after reading Diet for a New America, which details the plight of animals raised in factory farm conditions.

It was the beginnings of a  journey that eventually led to the founding of Elkhorn Farm and Forge in Gaston, OR. It was not a predetermined journey or one that has been easy, but it certainly was rewarding.

The beginnings of a pig farmer

Matt’s vow to not eat meat took a bit of a turn after two years of soul searching.

“ I started hunting and gathering my own food so I could know exactly where my food came from, field to table. It was a  journey that led me to start raising my own goats as pack animals, and eventually I raised a few heritage breed pigs for my own consumption. “

He started with goats as the primary livestock on the farm, but the focus started to go towards pigs. The land and infrastructure requirements are similar for both animals, but pigs are easier to contain than goats, and they don’t need as much land or fence as cattle.  20150909_104307

“ I was able to start raising pigs using the farm assets I already owned (truck, trailer, shelter, waterers, fence, etc.) and that allowed me to get started without spending much additional money.  Along the way, I discovered that I really love being around pigs.”

His approach is based on pre-industrial methods where the pigs live outdoors on the pasture and forestland; free to roam, root, and run – in other words, be happy pigs. But starting a farm is anything but an easy task, and not for the unpassionate. But it’s a life that Matt had glimpses of in his youth.

“ As a kid I picked pole beans, strawberries, and raspberries for money.  In high school, I worked four years on a local farm growing and harvesting row crops, grass seed, and tending a small herd of cattle. However, I started my farm from scratch.”

Matt’s home and farm is situated on 1.8 acres and he leases and manages several properties nearby, which brings the total acreage up to 40.  In his perfect world, all the farmland would be contiguous, but as a startup, he is working with what is available.

“ It’s less efficient having multiple parcels of land, but I’ve been able to pick up under-utilized plots of ground and that has helped keep the costs down.”

But as with any startup, the costs to get going can add up quickly.

“ My biggest challenge was and continues to be time vs. money.  I scaled up the herd and grew the business by doing everything myself, working long hours 7 days a week to conserve cash.  I’m past the point where I can continue to grow the business simply by applying more of my time, so I need to invest in people and more infrastructure in order to keep up with the growth.”

1-20140531_165506Being out by yourself on 40 acres with nobody to talk to but the pigs can be refreshing, but Matt has also had the benefit of connecting to a community of resources as Elkhorn has grown.

“My friend, Will Woolley, is a co-founder of Templeton Hills Beef in California, where they raise grass-fed beef exclusively.  There’s a lot of overlap between our operations, and his willingness to share his experience has repeatedly helped me think through road blocks.  Locally, the non-profit Friends of Family Farmers has been a tremendous resource in terms of networking. The one thing that really gave me the confidence to buy a few pigs initially was the fact that my friend Brandon was already raising a few pigs each year for his own family.  We call each other when we have goat problems, and knowing that I could do the same with pigs was really important to me.”

With the farm and support network more established, Matt set out to source the pigs for Elkhorn. He searched and found a professional local hog breeder whom he could trust, one that could sell him top-quality stock and be another source of advice.

“I already had a great relationship with a local large animal veterinarian so I felt like I had a good support system in place.”

Bringing quality pork to the market

The taste of Elkhorn Farm and Forge’s pork is amazing, and it didn’t take long before the demand expanded beyond his family and friends. One of the most important aspects of being able to deliver quality pork on a consistent basis rest in the skilled hands of the butcher, so Matt set out to locate one by reaching out to the community for references.

“ I started calling and visiting slaughter facilities and butchers, while talking to everyone I knew who raised their own livestock.  As a livestock producer, your business is only as good as your last delivery from the butcher.  They can make or break your business, so I choose them carefully and make sure I’m a great customer to do business with on an ongoing basis.”1-LO4M0993

Elkhorn’s marketing started out as word of mouth and continues to be the best sales channel.  Matt sells directly to consumers and a few chefs over the phone and on his website. He’s purposely avoided selling to wholesalers and retail stores, primarily because he hasn’t needed to up to this point, and it doesn’t make sense from a margins standpoint. The farm is looking to potentially sell via farmer’s markets in the future.  

Matt’s foray into the farming business has opened his eyes to both the needs and opportunities in agriculture.

“ Farmers need technology that reduces labor and increases efficiency without abusing animals or the genetic integrity of plants.  In some places, technology is overused, while in others, technology and automation are sorely lacking.  As one example, a critical indicator of animal health is their internal body temperature, yet the market has yet to produce an affordable, reliable body temperature monitor for swine.  I should be able to get a proactive text message telling me when a pig’s body temperature is out of range or their daily exercise level is below normal.”

As it turns out, the local food culture really wants to know their farmer, and buy humanely-raised great tasting meat, which has resulted in the explosive demand for organic food in the United States. In Matt’s mind this creates great opportunities.

“ Forward-looking investors are forming real estate investment trusts (REITs), with the express purpose of buying conventional farmland and converting it to organic.  They hire consultants to manage the transition and lease the land back to farmers.  It’s a smart solution that solves critical financial hurdles for farmers while meeting a market need. Longer term, a big opportunity lies in urban agriculture.  There’s so much more that can be done to grow food within urban boundaries rather than trucking food in and trucking waste out.  People who live in cities yearn for the connection to the land and the taste of real food.  Urban planners, architects, and real estate developers who integrate the ability to grow food into their buildings and living spaces will capitalize on the deep seated emotional need of people to return to the land.”

Returning to the land is what he has done and it’s been a challenging, but hugely rewarding journey. It’s one that has taught him both entrepreneurial lessons and insights.

“ When things aren’t going as planned, be more flexible and take a step back rather than pushing forward.  I’ve made some bad situations worse by not wanting to deviate from my plan, when things would have turned out better if I’d just decided to give it some space and find another way.  You can get a long way applying steady pressure, but there are limits too.”

These are words that anyone who has started a business can relate to. But there are more intrinsic feelings and beliefs that truly sum up what Matt is doing at Elkhorn Farm and Forge. “ I really love being around pigs.  Being able to give them a great life on the farm and provide premium quality pork to local families is a win for everyone. “1-DSC02760

For more information visit, www.elkhornfarmandforge.com. You can also support them by liking them on facebook and following them on twitter.