Editor’s note: BioWatch is a regular feature on Fridays.
CARY … On a sweltering hot July day, Robert Ratliff tells Local Tech Wire, “It’s hot , the pumps are running today on farms irrigating fields. Diesel fuel for the pumps is $2 a gallon, so they want to be sure they use just the right amount of water, no more, no less.”
Decisions such as those require precise mathematical calculations. “A farmer has to be both a businessman and a scientist to produce a high quality commodity efficiently,” Ratliff says.
A plant scientist with a master’s degree in agriculture, Ratliff grew up on a family farm in Tennessee. He managed the marketing of farm seeds and farm chemicals with five companies for 22 years. Ratliff left American Cyanamid, a Fortune 100 company with billions in sales, of Wayne, New Jersey in 1989 to join an agribiotech start-up.
He started ProfitableFarming.com in 1999 to provide online tools and services to farmers to help them calculate such factors accurately. The Web site includes free calculators and other tools and services farmers use to figure out what to plant, how much seed, fertilizer, chemicals or water they need, and more.
Writing programming and developing technology for the site was not unfamiliar territory for Ratliff. His biography notes that he learned to write code back in the days of punch cards while he was a student at the University of Tennessee. Ratliff also points out that he has used SAS Data Analytics to analyze farm chemical use.
He developed the entrepreneurial bug after moving to the Triangle in 1996 with BASF Agricultural Products. Ratliff became an active member of the Council for Entrepreneurial Development and was an earlier embracer of the web and Internet as a business tool. A USDA study at that time reported that more than half the farms generating $250,000 or more in revenues were using the Internet to get farming information, his bio notes.
Calculating profits and costs
“Figuring expenses helps farmers determine how to go about selling their crops,” Ratliff says. “The calculators and Wizards on the site help the farmer evaluate all the options available to him. They help him make analytical rather than subjective decisions. The calculators operate by business rules and do all the mathematical work” The site also helps farmers avoid forgetting necessary calculations in their planning, he adds.
Companies that sell products from seed to fertilizers to tractors to farmers sponsor Web pages, which allows him to offer the services free to farmers themselves rather than selling subscriptions.
That allows farmers to use the tools and calculators anonymously if they wish. “This is sensitive financial information,” Ratliff says. The site uses various forms of encryption and security to protect the information, as well, he says.
One hundred thousand farmers with 10 million acres planted use the site. Sponsors are interested in how many acres users farm, he says, because “Every acre represents a certain amount of income to them. Every acre of corn means $35 to a seller of corn seed.”
His clients, the web site says, have farming operations that plant, grow and harvest the crops of corn, soybeans, cotton, rice, peanuts, sorghum and wheat. These seven field crops are planted on 240 million acres each season and have revenues, expenses and profits totaling $80 billion each calendar year.
Annual contract fees for page sponsorships are negotiated and range from $10 a day to $100 a day.
Ratliff also sells the same tools available on his site to seed and chemical companies “tailored to their business practices and brand,” he says. While the calculators on Profitablefarming.com are “egalitarian” with regard to brand, the customized tools only feature the products and services the company wants to feature. “We intentionally leave a competitor’s brands off the option lists,” he says.
Requiring customer feedback
Ratliff says his customer base is expanding and “I’ve yet to lose a client.” But, he notes, “Every year a client expects a little bit more. They bought a sports car and now they want a faster sports car.”
For that reason, Ratliff has companies that purchase customized versions of his tools commit to regular monthly reviews of what is working well and what needs work. It isn’t always easy holding them to their appointments he notes. “They’ll say, ‘Everything is going all right, can we put this off?’ But I hold them to their monthly appointments.”
Clients include corporations, banks, economists, and agronomists (plant scientists).
It helps that he is “bi-lingual,” and can talk both marketing and information technology, Ratliff says. “You know when you go to these companies, the IT people are in the basement and the marketing people are on the top floor. They never talk. If you can’t translate between them, it’s like trying to clap with one hand.”
Ratliff says his self-funded company isn’t looking for any venture investments. “This more like playing a chess game than like football. You need one person in a quiet room, not a lot of heavyweights butting heads.”