Will Noble has made a career out of technology, mostly in software-as-a-service (SaaS) niche markets, but he says his new role gives him a feeling of connection with a rural lifestyle similar to that he experienced growing up.
Despite FarmIQ being around for 10 years, Noble says the company is at an exciting point in its evolution, a place where he believes he can add significant value.
He says SaaS is about access – creating software that is available everywhere, on any device.
“FarmIQ has laid terrific foundations in that regard – including acknowledging the connectivity challenges many of our farmers face, by ensuring our app will run offline (when there’s no cell coverage),” he said.
“But that’s not enough. For a SaaS product to gain traction it must solve a problem, make life easier, or increase the effectiveness of farm operations, which generally translates to increased margin for our farmers.”
There are 4200 farmers already using FarmIQ, a number Noble is keen to see grow.
To do that he wants to enable those in the business to better understand farmers, in their boots, inside the farm gate.
The challenge is to get more farmers involved.
He says a good number of larger farming operations, such as Pamu, and new entrants to farming with high debt ratios who keep a close eye on their profitability, are already leveraging FarmIQ to support their decision-making inside the farm gate, be that around the specifics of inputs, pasture management, weather, genetics, animal welfare, or the overarching insights to milk or red meat yields.
“Many intergenerational famers are, however, content, or even determined, to farm on instinct and will insist that if the farm notebook isn’t broken, why fix it?” he said.
Those farmers need to be convinced of FarmIQ’s value, which Noble says may come in the form of easing the compliance burden, enabling succession planning, and reducing the risk or maximising the opportunity presented by an increased global focus on environmental sustainability.
“New Zealand has the best farmers, (an) outstanding environment, genetics and welfare standards – but there’s only so far you can capitalise those assets on instinct alone,” he said.
“At some point, instinct has to be supplemented with empirical, evidence-based intelligence in order to continue incrementally raising the bar.”
He says that’s where FarmIQ comes in, bringing all a farm’s key information together in one place and allowing farmers to connect the dots between their various on-farm systems to make better decisions, while also keeping on top of the growing number of assurance and environmental reporting obligations.
Noble’s connection to rural life has its roots in growing up in a “commoning” family in the New Forest, in southern England.
Having the right to common in the New Forest is a feudal pastoral system reaching back almost a thousand years to 1068 when William the Conqueror designated the now National Park, abundant with red and fallow deer, as his new hunting ground.
“It’s not a system of farming or agriculture any Kiwi would recognise, but growing up on horseback with pony and cattle breeders, is something that never leaves you,” he said.
Very few people today make a living from being a commoner in the New Forest these days, so Noble’s mum encouraged him to get the best education he could.
He left Plymouth University in 1997 with an honours degree in architecture, but it was obvious to him then that the internet wasn’t going to be a passing fad so he got into IT.
He’s since amassed a wealth of experience in Europe and Australasia, leading a number of business divisions across industries such as IT, digital media, telecommunications, professional services and project management. His previous role was client services director at Fujitsu NZ.
Noble lives with his Kiwi husband Michael on about five-and-a-half hectares in the hills east of Martinborough.
“We keep nine Angus/red poll cross steers we finish for the works, and a ragtag mob of Perendale that end up in the freezer,” he said.
“I’ve also got a riding horse for hacking out, Bungle the beagle, and red shaver chooks (for) fresh eggs.
“To be honest, at times, it’s an absolute circus – a source of endless amusement for our neighbours – all of whom are intergenerational beef and sheep farmers, none of whom are using FarmIQ – yet.”
Noble has been in the job for fortnight, commuting to Wellington four days a week.
His priority between now and Christmas is to get to know the company’s people and its farmers.
He’s already made a couple of farm visits and plans to get to know corporate stakeholders Silver Fern Farms, Pamu, Farmlands, VetEnt and MSD Animal Health better.
He says there’s plenty of room for the business to develop.
“There is a global market for the intelligence FarmIQ provides, not only to its farmers but the upstream enterprise partners,” he said.
“NZ leads the world in pasture-based primary production and wherever else in the world there is a pastoral sector, there’s a market for FarmIQ.
“We already export the very best in dairy and red meat, there is absolutely no reason NZ Agritech business cannot make an equally significant impact on the world stage.”
What is needed are more talented digital professionals, as he says they are in short supply in NZ.
“We need the Government to make skilled migration as easy as possible, but also to invest in encouraging our young people into the digital sector,” he said.
“We already engage with universities and have some amazing graduates in the business, but (I) would love to be able to do more to create pathways for talented young people from all walks of life into Agritech.”