Wilbur-Ellis’ Vradenburg: ‘Complexity of Ag Is Going to Increase Exponentially’
Wilbur-Ellis announced last year that Dan Vradenburg, longtime Agribusiness division president, will take on a new role in the company as board chair of Cavallo Ventures, its venture capital arm. The Agribusiness division tripled in size under Vradenburg’s leadership, as he oversaw more than 35 acquisitions and relocated the division’s headquarters to Denver. CropLife had the opportunity to chat with Vradenburg about his career, the second wave of ag tech, and where the next chapter will take him.
You’ve been at Wilbur-Ellis 36 years, and for the last 16 years have served as president of the Agribusiness division. That’s quite a career. Can you reflect a bit on the evolution in ag and technology from where you started out to today?
I started out in southern Wisconsin in 1982. I was working at a new branch for a company called Brayton Chemicals out of West Burlington, Iowa. They were acquired in 1983 by Wilbur-Ellis. I was fresh out of school, a field sales agronomist, and I worked my way up through the organization. Fast-forward 36 years, I’ve moved five times, and had exposure to several different parts of the country: Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, Texas. I spent a fair amount of time in Mexico, and then went to California. I had the opportunity to serve in several different roles as well as different states and cropping systems before going out West. I went out there as a regional vice president, was promoted to executive vice president, and then president of Agribusiness.
When we started in the business, agriculture was popular. It was a gratifying industry to go into, and of course, as I entered in 1982, farm incomes had dropped due to the Russian grain embargo imposed by President Carter in 1980. In 1983, President Reagan implemented the Payment-in-Kind Tax Treatment Act and the government paid growers to set aside, idle, a third of the grain acres in an attempt to reduce huge stockpiles. That was a tough year on the crop inputs industry. But then the industry started to rebuild.
For those who had entered in the industry during that period, there was a lot of training and education that took place. Back then, the manufacturers did a really good job training us on their products, we had a lot of university support and there was a lot of trial work happening in the field. Much of that changed and went by the wayside in the ’90s.
The really big event was around 1995 with the introduction of genetically modified crops. When Monsanto came out with GMO soybeans, and later corn, crop inputs needs changed significantly. It really simplified production agriculture, particularly in broadacre where I spent the beginning of my career. You just needed to put your nitrogen down, plant your corn, and spray Roundup over the top, that was pretty much it. When I moved to Michigan in 1994, I was introduced to the complexity of specialty crops that weren’t that easy.
During the ’90s, there was plenty of research and development, but training and education seemed to have subsided. Then when we started to see glyphosate resistance. And, we started to learn more about how to grow greater quantities of crops through plant health and the use of fungicides. Then it became more technical again. Now, we’re rapidly approaching a period where the complexity of agriculture will increase exponentially, because we’re learning a lot more about plant biology.
You saw training and education go a bit by the wayside. Did that come into play at all with the dicamba issues we saw last year?
The nature and severity of dicamba problems are being disputed, and I don’t think it’s a lack of training and education. At Wilbur-Ellis, we had very few problems. We did a very extensive training program for all our applicators and equipment operators to make sure that our applications were according to label, we were using proper equipment and nozzle sizes, and that proper clean-out procedures were followed. So, we minimized problems as we attempt with any applications.
I would say the issues after introduction of dicamba were an exception, because the demand is high and adoption has been rapid. Herbicide-resistant weeds have become a really serious problem. Dicamba is a very popular and effective solution. In years past, adoption of new products or technologies was on a much smaller percentage of acres. Therefore, the product was observed before broad use.
Regardless of your position on dicamba, we must continue bringing new or improved technologies to the market. That’s being made more possible as we now have a better understanding of plant biology, the whole genome of the plant, and ways to improve crop protection.
What brought you to your new role at Cavallo Ventures?
As president, my leadership team has been responsible for the strategy and positioning of the company for the future. We’ve been following the ag tech space pretty intently for the past 10 years. The first phase of ag tech was heavily occupied by farm management software, satellite imagery, sensors, and probes. We started to see significant investments in agriculture and technology six years ago.
Interestingly enough, despite those huge investments in precision ag – if you look at corn yields, quality and cost production – we really have not yet seen a big return on those investments. Our mission statement is to take the most advanced crop production technology to our customers with the goal of maximizing the return on investment, so we have to be selective on what we represent to our customers.
We need to really understand these technologies and how we can utilize those to help our customers grow better-quality crops, manage risk, and reduce costs.
What’s interesting is the second phase of ag tech that is evolving now – I like to refer to it as the second wave of ag tech – is more sophisticated. We’re seeing more advanced science, stemming from the progress which we’ve made in understanding the plant genome, especially abiotic factors: drought, cold, heat, water – how they affect plants and how through plant biology we can develop varietals of crops or build the microbiome to allow the plant to more effectively deal with those stress factors. It’s a pretty remarkable and exciting field that I am very interested in.
Much of the second wave of ag tech is plant biology and how we integrate new technology and information. Then of course we’re seeing automation through robotics, artificial intelligence, and gene editing – CRISPR, which is pretty fascinating in itself. I have been intrigued and fascinated with the concepts, and implications for our business.
We needed a more focused effort, hence Wilbur-Ellis formed Cavallo Ventures, our venture capital arm. Its aim was to go out and engage with companies bringing new technologies, understand them, and make investments in products or companies that we believe bring value to all three divisions at Wilbur-Ellis, and most importantly, to our customers.
Being so involved with the technologies from a strategy standpoint while trying to understand their implications this past 10 years, I thought it was a great way for me to participate in the final chapter of my career – the opportunity to focus on the technological advances in the industries Wilbur-Ellis serves that will allow us to bring more value to our customer.
Can you update us on any of the investments?
We invested in Beta Hatch, an insect (mealworm) feed source for animal feed. It’s an alternative protein source. We invested in Vinsight, a satellite imagery company offering vineyards analytical services. We invested in a biostimulant company called Sound Agriculture. Our first investment was AgCode, a consulting company providing labor, field and block level accounting services.
Our most recent investment was in Boost Biomes, a company that developed a novel way to test for microbes. We look for companies or products affiliated to what we do in crop inputs, or to what our other divisions do in terms of animal feed or personal care products.
The intent is to have a focused effort on understanding new technologies and products as they come to remain innovative. We’ve got a unique capability, because there are a lot of really smart people and good scientists that are developing new technologies. What they don’t have is that understanding of how it’s applied in the field – how it’s used by an agronomist or customer.
Are you able to talk more about the biostimulant investment?
Yes, Asimolar Bio has developed a biological solution focused on enhanced nitrogen utilization and drought tolerance. I would say that the whole area of biological solutions is pretty remarkable. Now that we better understand the whole plant microbiome, there are biological solutions being developed that could help us grow crops more in harmony with nature, improve quality and quantity and assist with the abiotic stress factors.
We think that a lot of new technologies that are coming can be used in combination with conventional technologies – both synthetic and biological solutions – providing a really bright future in crop production, meeting the needs of the changing consumer.
What do you think is the next big thing in technology that is going to help ag retailers?
The big change is molecular biology and genomics. Plant genomics has really sped up our ability to provide advanced research and data on plant biology. It’s that new insight in molecular biology – really understanding a plant’s structure, how it functions, and its evolution. It’s a very promising field, and then you couple that with DNA sequencing, which shows the precise order of the strand of DNA. You take it a step further and take CRISPR, which allows us to use gene editing to actually change the plant’s DNA sequence – it’s pretty remarkable what the potential is.
For a retailer like Wilbur-Ellis, when we invest in some of these companies, what we really need to do is make sure that as a retailer we understand these technologies and we can help our customers understand their use. There’s some really great science being developed, but then there’s going to be some that doesn’t prove out. We all understand that in the laboratory and the greenhouse, it’s one thing, but you get it out into the field and into the different environmental conditions we deal with every day, it is not proven until it’s broadly field-tested. That’s where a retailer will have to really get back on the learning curve.
I reflected back on that period of time when I entered the industry. It was pretty technical and then it got simplified, now it’s getting more complicated. The industry has greater potential than we’ve ever seen before. So, we’re all going to be on a pretty steep learning curve. I think it’s really exciting.
We think that the timing of activities in growing broadacre and high-value crops (is important). Precise timing can make a huge difference in production.
Tell us more about that last point, on timing and how that will be accomplished?
One key is understanding the proper time to irrigate, what is the correlation between the plant’s development and sunlight. There is some pretty remarkable research being done on different types of light and how light affects a plant’s growth. The plant’s own microbiome – its ecosystem above and below the ground and how those correlate – is key.
In a gram of soil there are 40,000 different types of microbes. Each of those microbes has a particular purpose – some of them beneficial, some of them maybe not. Understanding which ones are beneficial and how to create a very favorable environment for those has a significant impact on that plant’s ability to grow and defend itself. It’s a correlation between what’s in the soil, the nutrition, disease, insect, and herbicide programs, and understanding all those different factors. We’d refer to it as really ‘advanced agronomy,’ and that’s where we think the future for retail is.
Earlier, you mentioned the ROI hasn’t been there yet despite all the investment in ag technology. What is going to get us to that point?
I think that understanding impactful technologies and impactful sciences, how they correlate with each other, and then using that insight and making it actionable will help. There’s enough research to show we can significantly impact yields, but it’s very intensive agriculture. Of course, that is a challenge when you have low commodity prices, trade and tariff concerns, and other factors out of one’s controls.
Staying focused on agronomy and how to maximize production, and yet make future investment in the ground you are farming – that’s really the key to all this: to be good stewards of this land. We can improve the soils with which we’re working and make them more vibrant. That’s a pretty exciting part of the new science coming out, is how do we build those soils back so they’re productive and vibrant and living.
That will be your focus in your new role, is finding those investments in companies that can do that?
My new role is to chair the board and assist in investment selection. We will look at a lot of companies, a lot of technology, and we’ll lever the institutional knowledge that we have. Whether we will find all the winners, I’m not sure, but we’ll definitely attempt to. We are looking for investments that are based on good, sound science. That’s the thrust of it.
I think it’s a very exciting time in production agriculture. Much of this is titled ‘disruption.’ Many companies, start-ups, investors, and scientist are coming to disrupt how we have been doing things, and that’s not bad. We have to stay on the learning curve and challenge ourselves to look for better ways to do things that are more productive, in harmony with nature, and allow us to be better stewards of the land that is so precious to all of us, and yet feed 9 1/2 billion people in the not-too-distant future.
We believe there is really good technology – and it’s not all in crop production. It’s in artificial intelligence, robotics, and automation. It’s pretty exciting, and if you can correlate all of those and pull them together, we’ll help the U.S. grower continue to be a leader.