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Talent key to growing innovation in agtech: a conversation with Damon Johnson at Global Ag Risk Solutions

Palette Skills decided to catch up with employer partner Damon Johnson, director of strategic projects at Global Ag Risk Solutions, to find out more about his experience with the Automation and Digital Agriculture Specialist program. 

Revolutionizing agtech talent discovery

In agriculture, managing data and digital solutions can be a challenge, and finding skilled individuals who can bring data and technology together to drive growth in farming presents an even greater hurdle, underscoring the importance of talent as the key to growing innovation in agtech. National nonprofit Palette Skills has stepped up to the plate with its innovative Programme de spécialisation en automatisation et agriculture numérique, with a curriculum designed to give skilled workers the skills and tools to identify, manage, and implement solutions in digital agriculture.

The program owes its success to close collaboration with employers across the agribusiness sector, beginning with industry-led program design as well as with networking events and hands-on learning that brings business and talent together. Palette Skills decided to catch up with employer partner Damon Johnson, director of strategic projects at Solutions globales en matière de risques agricoles, to find out more about his experience with the Automation and Digital Agriculture Specialist program. 

Get to know Global Ag Risk Solutions

Farming is changing so quickly that it can be breathtaking. Not only are farmers adopting advanced farming technologies such as robotics and drones, they are also beginning to work with data at unprecedented levels. From the internet of things (IoT) to high tech farming tools driving sustainability in agriculture, modern farming practices are changing quickly. And it’s exactly here where Global Ag Risk Solutions has emerged as an innovative player in the field of agricultural risk insurance. 

Johnson told us that Global Ag Risk Solutions has been around since 2011, starting out as a more effective way for farmers to transfer risk off of their farms. Now in its 13th year of core operations, the organization has successfully transferred billions of dollars worth of risk from farm operations, allowing farmers to focus on agronomy, and on building successful and future-focused operations.

“We saw the opportunity to focus on farm financials as a component of risk management,” says Johnson, “instead of just on crop yields, so we insure a farmer’s three biggest expenses, which are seed, chemicals, and fertilizer. Plus we can cover a portion of a farm’s fixed costs, so they always know where their bottom line is in a worst-case scenario.”

Innovating data and risk in agriculture

Johnson has a forward view of the product he offers, and doesn’t mind admitting that traditionally, crop insurance hasn’t been too innovative for at least two reasons. The first reason is simply that the products currently on the market serve the purpose, without innovating ahead of the curve. 

“We see a real opportunity to use the data that farms are starting to generate as part of the process when it comes to considering the underwriting we offer,” says Johnson. “No matter what kind of insurance it is, the more information you can have, the better decision you can start making for your customer, which in our case is the farmer.”

The second reason that insurance products have been slow to innovate comes down to the rapid adoption of technology-driven farming solutions that are producing gigabytes of data. 

Says Johnson: “Even just six years ago, data was limited and difficult to get, and even when you did get it there was no way to really manage it, or build some kind of downstream interpretation that would add value to an insurance product.”

“Now the raw data we are getting from farms is giving us an understanding of every single parcel of land, in addition to historical information about rainfall and so on, so now the challenge is to build predictive models and apply them to our underwriting methodologies and languages.”

Partnering with Palette Skills to source great talent 

With so much opportunity and change, the challenge for Johnson and the team at Global Ag Risk Solutions was to find talent that could step up quickly to drive product development and innovation.

“We had a really humbling pinch-point when it came to attracting talent,” says Johnson, “but it created the most amazing opportunity by way of Palette Skills. My background is as an economist, so when I joined the company I had a lot to learn. I am a data geek by nature, and I love that space, but we were using a lot of external vendors to help us compile and manage our data.”

Sensing they needed to find people quickly, and knowing that traditional hiring processes were too slow, the company welcomed the chance to become an employer partner with Palette Skills and the Automation and Digital Agriculture program. Johnson told us that the list of candidates went from a long list to a short one in record time. 

“We got the solution months faster with Palette Skills,” says Johnson. 

“As we got oriented with Palette Skills and the group in the digital agriculture program, seeing the real discipline behind what they were learning, and what the outputs were going to be in the employment market was really exciting.”

The personal nature of the program paid dividends for Johnson, and for several candidates now working for Global Ag Risk. 

Says Johnson: “I had the opportunity to socialize with some of the candidates in the program and at industry events and I was really impressed with what I was learning. So last September I had a specific need for a software developer as well as a data scientist, and by some stroke of luck I found the people I was looking for in the program from Palette Skills, and they joined my team.”

“In my 20 year career,” Johnson told us, “hiring those two gentlemen was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. Palette Skills prepared these two gentlemen specifically for what the market required in that innovative space, and made that transition incredibly simple.”

“The fun part for me was they knew about agriculture and automation, about remote sensing and science. The fun part was I just got to teach them about farming because I am a farmer myself. For me it’s been an absolute blast, and I am just sending out a letter of offer to another candidate who has just come out of the program. My three most recent hires have come out of the Automation and Digital Agriculture program, and I couldn’t recommend it highly enough.”

Drive innovation with the Automation and Digital Agriculture Specialist program from Palette Skills

There has never been a better time to get involved in the space of digital agriculture, and there has never been a better way to connect talent to business quickly. The 8-week program from Palette Skills consists of 130 hours of training led by industry experts. Participants engage with hands-on, project-based learning in emerging technologies such as GIS, IoT, drones, artificial intelligence, robotics, and big data. Participants fall into three agtech streams: agribusiness; industrial technical and professional; or data analysis and programming.  

All three streams give participants the opportunity to benefit from mentorship and coaching, get networking opportunities with employers, and develop a full suite of professional skills including project management, business development, problem-solving, and more. 

Whether you want to join a new cohort of ambitious candidates in the next offering of the Automation and Digital Agriculture Specialist program, or want to join with Palette Skills as one of our many employer partners, connecting great talent to innovative companies in growth has never been easier. Find out more about the program here!

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