Brian Hayward used to run a very big agribusiness company known as Agricore United. But since 2007, when AU disappeared in a takeover, he has been running himself – as a consultant and director to a host of companies. Self-employment was a hard adjustment, he admits, but it has its satisfactions. He recently became chairman of Farmers Edge Laboratories Inc., a Winnipeg company that deploys scientific tools to map fields, and areas within fields, for their crop-growing capability. This variable, field-by-field approach to crop inputs, he says, may be the future of agriculture.
So how does it feel to go from CEO status to consulting?
The great thing is the diversity of the work, and that makes it refreshing. The part that's difficult is I am not part of any team. I don't get up in the morning and pull on the same hockey shirt as the other guys. Working in a corporation also provides structure in your life. You get up the same time, you take the same highway to work.
Sometimes I'm extremely busy and sometimes I'm not. It took me three to four years to shake the monkey off my back. Now, if I am sitting out and enjoying the sunshine, that is just part of my new life.
Is it less stressful?
As I said to my wife yesterday, my blood pressure over the past five years has steadily dropped. There used to be this piano wire in my body that isn't quite there now – although the piano has come into the auditorium from time to time, like it used to.
What's so different about Farmers Edge?
Let's use this example: When I started in the business, we planted the same varieties of wheat right across most of Western Canada – and it was the case for canola, as well. Everybody would plant the same basic genetics. Then, with biotechnology, there has been more precision in taking a more regional approach.
Now, what we are doing [with Farmers Edge] is leveraging computer technology and satellites to take it to a level of field by field in a single farm. There is a linkage created between satellite, global positioning systems and wireless technology: This [information] gets delivered through an iPad. And it hooks wirelessly to computers in the seeding equipment and harvest equipment.
So it is a further step in the automation of farming?
It's not unlike vehicles these days that can park themselves. It doesn't take a big stretch to say, if I can actually buy a car to parallel-park for me, I can use this same technology with a tractor – and without a person [guiding it]. It used to be you had to be trained to drive a subway train. Now, the guy just sits there and it is the computer driving the train.
What's the potential here?
This isn't just a little Manitoba, Saskatchewan, or Western Canada story. This kind of technology is widely applicable. Those [satellites] fly around and take pictures of the U.S. and Russia and Australia. This company has every opportunity to leverage its situation and become international.
What do you bring to the game – money?
I am not bringing money but they don't need it right at the moment. They have an investor putting money in, and company is actually making money so it is not a sinkhole – and it has enough momentum commercially in Canada and Russia.
I bring the fact that I've been involved in other situations – in governance – and I have experience [as a director] at the Business Development Bank of Canada.
I've seen small to medium-sized companies get to the point where they need to be relying not just on one entrepreneur, who is the cook, bottle-washer and everything under the sun. To continue the momentum, they need to bring a different style to how the company is organized from the top.
For example, we need audited statements if we are going to be growing and attracting other partners.
For 16 years, you ran some of Canada's biggest agriculture companies. How do you deal with the fact this is a startup?
The last capital injection from Avrio Capital was more along the line of venture capital, in fact. But I like the variety in what I do with smaller companies. I've also been involved, for example, in financial institutions, and in a company that is developing a phosphate mine in Brazil.
Is this technology the answer for food security?
I don't think there is a silver bullet. What has happened in the last two to three years has been poor weather in some critical growing regions and, in the case of corn, the growth of a biofuels industry. You might not be sure that supporting ethanol is a great move for the U.S. government. But it is huge. It is now three billion bushels in a 12-billion bushel U.S. corn crop [estimated this year at less than 11 billion, because of drought]. You can probably find stories of people questioning that.
The hog industry and cow-calf side of agriculture are bleeding now and not in the way that is normal in the business. There is liquidation going on, and there is demand destruction – people are making choices to do without, or buy less, which is what happens when things get to be higher-priced.
Will the approach of Farmers Edge and its rivals provide a boost for the supply side?
I've seen this technology going into a field and showing dramatic yield increases – and potentially higher profitability. For example, if you apply fertilizer at one uniform rate across the field, you have one expense [number] per acre. But if you go in and you vary your fertilizer, so you put less fertilizer on areas that are less fertile, the cost per acre drops. So there is a profit potential, no matter what the price level is.
Will this fundamentally change the industry?
The fascinating issue is that farmers demographically are older than the rest of the cohort. There is a consolidation that needs to happen.
At one time, if you were a child of a farmer, you could have purchased the farm. Now with the size of these operations, Dad can't say simply: "Son, pay me." There is a lot of interest by absentee owners to own land and that is a natural for this technology.
Let's assume we put together an investment trust and bought a bunch of farmland. What makes sense is to have someone run it for us. The guy who ran the farm has probably retired, but we can actually replace him with technology. We can use GPS, satellites and a variable-rate prescription [for planting, fertilizing and harvesting].
Title: President, Aldare Resources; Non-executive chairman, Farmers Edge Precision Consulting Inc., Winnipeg
Personal: Born in Montreal, 56 years old.
Education: Masters in agricultural economics, McGill University
Joined United Grain Growers out of university.
In 1990, became chief executive officer of UGG.
Led co-op through demutualization in 1993.
In 2001, became CEO of Agricore United, formed through merger of UGG and Agricore (former Alberta and Manitoba grain pools).
In 2007, AU was taken over by Saskatchewan Wheat Pool, later renamed Viterra Inc.