Nikki Tomoniko never intended to work in agriculture. In the spring of 2018, the young Neepawa, Man. woman was looking for a summer job when a family friend mentioned Farmers Edge had a new internship program and was trying to find students for its Alberta office.
Tomoniko was studying English and French at university and wasn’t sure the agri-input company would be interested in her skill set, but applied anyway.
She got the job.
It was an intense learning curve, says Tomoniko. Her family runs a third-generation grain farm, and before she left for Alberta her grandfather gave her a crash course in the basics — soil types, plant growth stages and how to talk to farmers.
“He said, ‘Farmers aren’t people to take lightly. If you don’t know something, you need to say you don’t know it.’”
The first week as an intern, Tomoniko went through training in FE’s FarmCommand platform, and then she was given a list of around 25 clients. A company rep took her out to the farms to meet the farmers on her list. After that, she scheduled weekly rounds of farm visits and went out on her own. But she never felt unsupported.
“I had great communication with agronomists and was frequently texting them to identify diseases, and my boss to check in,” she says. “I’m someone who asks a lot of questions, but I always felt heard. And I had a lot of farmers taking me into their fields and explaining the difference between tan spot and leaf rust.”
At the end of the summer, all of the interns were asked to give presentations to senior management on their experiences in the field and stories they’d gathered from farmers.
Wade Barnes, the CEO of Farmers Edge, sat in on that first round of intern presentations and was blown away. “It was the voice of our customer coming through the students,” he says.
“There were a few who were superstars. Nikki was not only connecting with customers, but giving us feedback on what FE needs to do to improve customer engagement. I thought, ‘This is amazing. We need to do this again.’”
Tomoniko came back for a second and then a third summer with Farmers Edge before she was hired on permanently as a client success manager, or CSM. In her current role, she’s the first point of contact for over 50 Manitoba farmers.
It has all been a massive revelation about today’s agriculture. “The biggest take-away for me is that there is a place for someone with my skill set and communications background,” she says.
“I’d never thought of farming as a career path I could follow. But there’s so much more to agriculture than being in the tractor and seeding.”
"Draft and develop"
The internship program at Farmers Edge has grown since starting in 2018 as an experimental solution to a problem.
“One of the things we realized was that we’d have a salesperson selling to the farmer and an operations team that would set up the tech for the farmer and then drive away,” says Barnes. “We realized the farmer would get to the end of the season and would have stopped using the technology. They’d say, ‘I forgot the password. I don’t know if I see value in this.’”
To cover the gap, FE formed a customer success team that followed clients through the growing season. There was an immediate uptick in adoption and use of tools.
“But we realized it wasn’t enough — we need to have as much connection as possible in the first year and then follow up. We thought, who better to connect with clients than farm kids at university?” says Barnes.
The company started recruiting at colleges and universities in Canada and the U.S. That summer, they hired 15 interns in the U.S. and 10 in Canada.
In 2019, the interns — many of whom FE had hired back for a second summer — had even greater impact, says Barnes. The students who’d worked for FE the previous year were already “baptized” and knew the ropes. Students who’d worked for agrichemical companies had a steeper learning curve, he says.
“If you’re a summer student for Bayer you can be a summer student for Syngenta the next summer. We’re completely different,” he says. “In the chemical and seed industry, summer hires are putting up signs and plots ... Selling a digital platform to a grower and explaining how to use it to get value is different. It’s customized, and you have to explain the story. The grower will say, ‘Hank the seed guy says I need Roundup Ready seed.’ We say, ‘How about let’s look at all the data.’”
Barnes says the interns bring so much value that when they finish the summer they are missed when they go back to school.
“The majority of the really strong ones we try to bring back again. Interns who have spent a second summer fit right in and start to move quickly up the ladder. It’s become critical to our organization. It’s our version of professional hockey’s ‘draft and develop,’” he says.
Jeff Poppel, vice-president of Global Client Services for FE, says the program has evolved and grown over the last three years. This year, the company hired 30 interns across the U.S. and Canada.
“Our core objectives are the same — we’re driving for customer engagement. And we really want to focus on finding our next level or round of employees,” he says.
The company looks for students with ag experience who are comfortable with public speaking. “We look for passion for agriculture and for ag tech,” he says. “Determination and work ethic is a big one. We’re willing to invest in you if you are willing to invest in us. We want to train you and set you up for success. Those people we bring on who show passion and determination — their growth can be accelerated within the organization.”
Internship at Farmers Edge is less a mentorship program than a recruitment pipeline. (The company has publicly hinted that a formal mentorship is on the way, but at the time of writing was not ready to talk about it.) But the investment that is required to make mentorship work is stamped all over the process.
Kris Kinnaird is a product marketing manager for FE. He has worked with every single one of the company’s interns — more than 100 since the program started, he says. About 15 per cent of these have ended up with full-time roles — but many of them haven’t yet finished school and may still land jobs with the company.
A farmer who uses FE’s products himself, Kinnaird studied agriculture business at the University of Manitoba. When he began working for FE about five years ago, he started with basic installs of company hardware and software, but quickly moved through the ranks.
“I’ve had a few different mentors or leaders over the last five years who have helped me grow to where I am now — being pulled into high-level meetings domestically and internationally and seeing how the business world has evolved. I can speak personally about experiences with leaders and mentors,” he says.
Farmers Edge started in 2005. The company now has over 500 employees across six countries and went public early this year.
Poppel says this pace of growth can make it challenging to find employees that are the right fit for the company.
“Once we started going into the schools, doing these presentations, we started getting more interest from students and realized we had two opportunities — to invest in people early and to take that investment in future recruiting and improve our overall customer experience,” he says.
No other ag tech companies have an internship program with as broad a scope as Farmers Edge, as far as Poppel is aware.
Jinjer Lorenz, vice-president of marketing for the company, says many students choose an internship with FE over a summer position with other agri-input companies because it allows them to “put their hands into a lot of different pots.”
Interns can be on social media creating content and storytelling, Lorenz says, or they can be out in the field validating and defining predictive models that have never been used before.
Poppel says interns are given some training in every level of the business, from sales and marketing, product development and agronomy to working with the precision tech itself. The company sees this kind of time investment as a direct investment in the business.
And how do the customers see it? Mostly, they appreciate it, says Poppel.
“Ag tech is still kind of new. Anytime you’re bringing someone through a change curve there are some bumps, so our growers have been receptive and encouraged us to add interns to their account because it helps them get more engaged with the platform,” he says.
“The interns won’t always have the answer, but they can call someone and ask. They’re another resource in front of the customer.”
Lorenz adds that the interns bring a level of “life and energy” to the company. “The next generation gets a bad rap for being the lazy generation but we’re proud to find people that work hard.
“Farmers never sleep, and the people they want to service them are people that believe in that work ethic.”