FROM THE VAULT: Mark Ferguson on science, sheep, and the tech-enabled future of genetics

We originally published this episode back in February 2020, but we’re pulling it out of the vault (with a few edits) as an early holiday gift ;) Enjoy!

Mark “Ferg” Ferguson has taught me pretty much everything I know about the sheep industry. Or at least, he’s the first reason I became passionate about the massive potential of merinos, and the role of technology and genetics in unlocking this potential.

Ferg, who holds a PhD in genetics and has worked in the industry his whole life, has developed a science-based approach to the consulting he now does through neXtgen Agri. But though he’s now working with cutting edge tech like artificial intelligence and sheep facial recognition, don’t mistake him for a tech head: he’s committed to helping farmers across Australia and New Zealand align with consumer trends and improve the profitability of their operations.

In this episode, Ferg and I cover everything from his views on the future of the sheep industry, to how he has started his own company to scale his consulting business and help more farmers use genetics to improve profitability.

And if you don’t know much about sheep, tune in anyways as Ferg shares some tips for both farmers looking to challenge traditional ways of thinking, and agtech companies looking to better understand and connect with their customers.

For more on what Ferg is up to, or to join neXtgen Agri’s online courses, check out:

  • https://www.nextgenagri.com/

  • https://twitter.com/neXtgenAgri

  • https://twitter.com/Fergenetics

  • https://www.nextgenagri.com/articles/farmer-people-that-farm-article-1

  • Artificial Intelligence work: https://www.nextgenagri.com/articles/seen-one-seen-them-all

  • NZ Merino: https://www.nzmerino.co.nz/

Sarah Nolet  [00:03] 
Hello, and welcome to AG tech. So what brought to you by the Ag Pendik group. I'm Sarah Nollet. As we head off for the holidays and the summer here in Australia, we thought we'd bring back one of our favorite and most popular episodes from the Ag tech. So what vault will be back at the start of 2022 with new episodes, but in the meantime, this is my conversation with Mark Ferguson or Ferg, as he's better known, from back in February 2020. FERC has gone from scientist to consultant to AG tech entrepreneur, and as you'll hear, isn't afraid to push for change in the agriculture industry.

Mark Ferguson  [00:34]  
And there's definitely people out there who think this is not going to be the way but I think the same same can be said for a blockbuster as all those examples of disruptions that people sat there and watch the freight train come at them until when I was talking to him and didn't change and I don't wanna be part of an industry that sits there and waits for the freight train on the on that freight train and going into the future.

Sarah Nolet  [00:54]  
As the co founder and director of next gen agri. Ferg helps sheep farmers be profitable and get the best out of their genetics. At the time of this recording. We of course had no idea that a global pandemic was about to hit us. But it makes his insights on providing practical ag courses online especially relevant. And his ideas on adoption, research, commercialization, ag tech and consumer preferences are as relevant as ever. So let's meet Ferg.

Mark Ferguson  [01:19]  
So I grew up on a farm in Northwest Victoria and family, sheep and wheat farm. From there, from about the age of 11. I think we started breeding breeding sheep with my brother who's still there farming breeding sheep off to AG get a uni four year degree there, which I was lucky enough to have a cadetship, which got me involved with the Department of department problem industries there in Victoria. That led me to Helton to work with some great people around nutrition in in shape, particularly in rhinos, I guess that work then led me to wanted to understand them that whole greater level and so combine my passion, Jake's with work I suppose. So after Perth to do a PhD with the light norm Adams who was really interested in, in how we breed sheep to sort of benefit within farming systems. So did that. And then research career after New Zealand after that to do some work with a New Zealand Company, where we let a whole range of research to tackle a range of things, but really to get breeding good breeding systems implemented in New Zealand. And from there started next gen agri to, I guess do the bits of all that stuff that I was really passionate about and thought we could make the greatest change.

Sarah Nolet  [02:28]  
What Ferg is really passionate about is sheep genetics. But not all of his views are widely held in the industry. I

Mark Ferguson [02:34] 
guess that job. Part of what we do is implementing good genetic programs, good breeding programs on farm, the way we approach that differently is probably not just to think about the profit side of that equation, Jake's are just as good at controlling costs and reducing time on farm as they are increasing the output of animals. I think we ought to our farming systems enter the animals to breed animals that can prosper in our farming environments. So really matching genes to that environment, so that they have higher welfare plus higher production. And then to the animal heavy in the farmers app is kind of the way we approach breeding. So never just how do we get more out of this animal? It's about how do we fit that animal best in the system to make the whole thing fit better, better for the farmer better for the, for the consumer, better for the animals as well as our approach?

Sarah Nolet  [03:20] 
So it's funny actually, because from an outside perspective, that seems obvious. Like it seems like good business. And it seems like how you do things. But as I've learned more about the sheep industry in particular, that's not how things have always been done. I mean, you've showed me pictures of, of what award winning sheep from not too long ago that look very different than the kind of sheep you'd kind of advocate for today. Tell me a little bit about why that view or that approach is maybe not controversial, but at least different than the way others think.

Mark Ferguson  3:50  
I guess we not from I don't have any traditional background in sheep breeding, we've approached it from just from first principles from the start. So just think about the kind of traits that that would keep an animal on farm and keep it healthy seeing animals really perform from being in better condition scores, that kind of really, thing that I learned early. And knowing that that was actually on genetic control, rather than just under feeding, obviously, can feed animals be fatter, but you can also have animals that genetically want to be that way. And it really stemmed from that and seeing how those animals thrive in their environment just yet just drives us every day. We've got clients out there that are that have literally tracking off truckloads more of lambs because of the because of that approach rather than just just thinking about it as a how do we get more out of that? And if we set it out animart Right, we get more passive animals that are more healthier.

Sarah Nolet  4:41  
The success of this approach is not something that FERC is just seeing in research projects.

Mark Ferguson  4:46  
We saw them southern brothers at benmore Be a good example of having a shape type which was pretty traditional when I met them seven or eight years ago. Part of what we work with them was is talking around condition scoring and managing their shape but they've implemented lots of different size, you can see, you know, shape as the shape have changed. There now 1000s Of more lambs are coming out of that production system they're finishing and earlier, there's a whole heap of things that are going on as a result of just using size that had a bit more fatness or a bit more constitution. And we're playing around moving towards what I would say is the modern animal.

Sarah Nolet  5:21  
So farmers are getting value out of these practices and this approach, why is it so controversial? Yeah,

Mark Ferguson  5:27  
I think, I guess across all their lives, we're always hooked up paradigms of how we think things should look because of what they used to look like. And, and that's still something we do every day, we come up, come up, come across people who are a little bit, I guess, less keen on the shape of the animals or the way they look than what they used to. But the reality is, if that animal is healthier, and is more profitable than then we're crazy not to go down that line.

Sarah Nolet  5:51  
So believes that the power of genetics has the potential to not only help farmers be more profitable, but also to help them align with consumer preferences. First time at New Zealand Marino helped to shape this view, as he got to see it happening firsthand.

Mark Ferguson  6:06  
My time there was definitely sort of instrumental in, in really, for the first time being exposed to overseas brands, like directly as in meeting those people and taking them on farm and understanding the types of questions that are asking and where that was coming from, had the opportunity through New Zealand to travel the states a couple of times and get exposed to those directly to those consumer markets. And it becomes absolutely crystal clear, once you're in that conversations, what the future is going to look like in terms of their expectations of, of us as farmers and and people that work on farms. So that yes, that time, and then Marina really showed me that, that how much they value, not just animal welfare, but also that relationship with farmers and, and that when they beliefs align with the farming beliefs, and that that's a really a really great, great story and a great, great opportunity, which the John Marino through this EQ program have really capitalized on, obviously, as markets love hearing farmers story, particularly when their their values align with their own.

Sarah Nolet  7:05  
Tell me what's an example of that either a conversation you had with one of those people from from a brand or some of the work that that you were doing when you were there, like help us because I think a lot of people talk about in farming like oh, well, now we have social media. So let's just tell the story of the farms, then you'll get a premium and connect with consumers and everyone will be happy. And obviously it doesn't really work like that.

Mark Ferguson  7:24  
Yeah, so I guess the music thing is a direct, really, really great example of how New Zealand Merino basically took the hit more than 10 years ago and said we through as AQ program, we won't sell meals well, and that has set them up for for long term contracts icebreaker were the ones that sort of lead that they've now got 10 year contracts with, with New Zealand girls and girls around the world based on their ethos of producing the fiber in the way they believe that should be produced. So I've got clients in New Zealand that have a 10 year contract with icebreaker knowing what that price or at least exactly how that price mechanism works for a decade in advance, which is just completely different tool for animal agriculture, really, that doesn't exist anywhere in the world that I'm aware of. And that has been 100% led by that trust that you build by by listening and working closely with with those customers.

Sarah Nolet  8:16  
That's interesting in you, you've had examples I think of like those brain managers going out and actually being on a station and seeing how different it is or or kind of challenging their own expectations or understanding of farming any any good stories about that kind of thing.

Mark Ferguson  8:30  
Yeah, we had the whole management crew from SmartWool on farm number years ago, and there's a bit of a an offshoot breeding program. Um, so I've been working on for a while, which is breeding short tailed sheep, and seeing their eyes light up, when you show them those animals and explain what how that could be, and just just how engaged they are. And that whole discussion around around how we can do things differently was Yeah, I mean, that really shaped the way I see the future.

Sarah Nolet  8:57  
And what's the sowhat here for farmers or even for ag tech companies looking to tap into some of these macro consumer trends.

Mark Ferguson  9:04  
I think what farmers completely underestimate all the time is how much they are the rockstars to those brands or the brands. When you get these people out from these big brands in the US or, or Japan or China or wherever the they absolutely love being on farm. I love meeting the families, the kids, the dogs, and being experiencing what we probably take for granted in our industry that like being out in the open and I know we all love and that's probably a big part of why we work in industry is the environment to work in. But we probably take it for granted how important that is to those international brands and how important it is for them to feel that connection of who they're where they're sourcing that fiber from that really helps tell the story right from right through that is that connection to both what you get to do when you're wearing wool but also what where that was coming from and that connection is huge. And having witnessed that several times firsthand with tagging brands farms, it's really powerful and really good to ground through some of the things that were thinking I was starting a small short our breeding program and just taking the brand to visit that and see what their reaction was, was really important to help. Another one, we were putting sensors on shape to try and I'm trying to understand welfare and getting the brand reaction to that was really important to make sure we weren't just up in Fairyland. thinking this was important to them, but actually seeing it firsthand that they didn't think it was important.

Sarah Nolet  10:27  
For anyone who's less familiar with the sheep industry, I asked for to explain exactly what he means about the short tail program.

Mark Ferguson  10:35  
So obviously, the cheaper obviously born with long tails or summer and Samarth. And so short tail length is heritable. So we can actually change that to a point where you no longer have to remove the tail, and can still not get up get any healthy health issues, and it can be go through life. Without that, that process, I suppose. And that's a that's a way off. It's not like this, we're gonna achieve that next year. But I think that's definitely part of our future.

Sarah Nolet  11:00  
And what are some other traits that you're looking at, or other kind of changes to the animal that align with, with environment or with consumers that you're excited about that are kind of coming online or in the near future, you think?

Mark Ferguson  11:12  
I think disease resistance is a big one. So no one likes to see unhealthy animals, least of all farmers. And we have traditionally got around that through management processes and chemicals. Obviously, we've got a world where chemicals are less and less, okay, in terms of our consumer expectations, our breeding animals that actually look after themselves. So for rot resistance is has been something we've been working on for a number of years. So foot rot to, as exactly as it sounds is a disease of the shape. See, what we've shown over the last seven years in New Zealand is that we can breed sheep that don't get that that illness for 20 years, we've known you can do that. For internal parasites at worms, you can breed sheep that are much less susceptible to worms. Same with flies, there's a number of, of our great clients, over the last sort of 1015 years have bred an animal that doesn't get that doesn't get flushed out anywhere near to the same rate as others. So you can. So I think all those breeding approaches where you reduce animal illness and reduce chemical use has to have some really good legs going forward.

Sarah Nolet  12:15  
When you talk about this stuff with clients like is it because we obviously work in the ag tech space and talk a lot about adoption. And some of these changes you're talking about making are like 10 year programs, and you won't see the results for a long time. What is the I mean, are people just true believers, and they go on that journey, or like I can imagine, you know, in the app world, people want a silver bullet that helps in, you know, a couple months or a year and they want to see results and talking about a 10 year change must be really tough to get people on board or what's what's the kind of psychology and adoption dynamics.

Mark Ferguson  12:45  
Yeah, it's really interesting. And it's differs between individuals. Obviously, science doesn't in tech, I guess once once people see it actually working and individual animal their soul. But until that happens, it's kind of a leap of faith. And so it really has been a seven year lag. Now in our follow up work, that this year last year was that first time people really started to take, take note of that and start putting it into breeding programs. People that know the technology works, it's kind of just an add on to that. So trust, that if it's going to come out as a breeding value, then they'll be implemented and will work. But they just don't, until they see it and see those animals that it's highlighted as being resistant. And then seeing what it means on their farm. That's when they really does need to be implemented on farm people to really see it and believe it. But there's enough background knowledge of, of hair braiding days of work through every other thing that people are willing to take that leap of faith and believe that that will deliver something useful. Hmm, that's

Sarah Nolet  13:47  
crazy. Are there still people who find all of this, like everything you've kind of said in the last 10? Or 15 minutes pretty controversial? Or would would would push back hard? And how would they like what would that argument look like? Or is everyone kind of on board with what you've said?

Mark Ferguson  14:01  
No, no, not everyone's on board. So there's an element of people that that think we should be able to find the way we always have, or we should be able to breed the animals the way we always have. And that's, that's their property. And so there's definitely, definitely a significant spectrum police across the industry and, and lots of those don't don't align with our thinking. But I guess I guess the reality is that the change is happening. And if you're not changing then then there's only one really only really one way the business is going.

Sarah Nolet  14:33  
How does it feel like what's it like for you? Like it can be tough to be out on kind of the cutting edge of some things and feel like there's people pulling you back or pulling against you or fighting against you? What is it? I don't know and any examples that come to mind or any moments where it's been? Yeah, like any good stories of kind of that tension

Sarah Nolet  14:54  
Have you ever been booed off stage?

Mark Ferguson  14:58  
directly to my face, I think Am I younger? I was not sure, I guess we're the front people more now I sort of I'm confident that the way we're approaching breeding and the way that the industry is going to go that we don't need to convince others, there's enough good people coming along for the ride and that we have a good future, I think. I think we, there's definitely people out there who think this is not going to be the way but I think the same same can be said for, for blockbusters, as well as examples of disruption that you know, better than I do that, that people sat there and watch the freight train come out until when I would talk with them and didn't and didn't try and and I don't wanna be part of an industry that sits there and waits for the freight train on the on that freight train and going and going into the future.

Sarah Nolet  15:43  
I like the one that you have on your website is farming in our heart science in our heads, and that kind of balance of passion. But data driven approaches, I guess, is kind of one way to sum that up.

Mark Ferguson  15:55  
Yeah, and that was a great, great moment. I was I was driving along in the middle of western Victoria when I came up with it, but but I think it is exactly how we are we were all very passionate about that farming, it is exactly what's in our veins, it's in our hearts. It's, it's what we sleep and breathe. But we also approach that with the level of science, the level of knowledge level data and really try and get, try and think about it in a in not just from an emotional way. But in in a business sense. And in a in a scientific sense.

Sarah Nolet  16:24  
So you have been on farm, you've been the research and science side, you've been in a commercial company, and now you're out on your own. Tell me about the like, what was the decision like to go out on your own? Was there a moment where you said I have to do this? Was it hard to tell me a little bit about that?

Mark Ferguson  16:42  
Yeah, I think I sort of had two guys. So before I went to New Zealand Company, I was almost going to go out mine, I sort of started building that way. And then the opportunity to go to New Zealand and do that job came up. So I sort of shelve that for a while. But there's always this sort of burning desire to, I'm not sure whether it was just because I didn't like being controlled or whether I wanted to go out and do my own thing. But I guess I was always going to do it. So it was a matter of just biting the bullet. It was, it was tough. It was about three young children. The big thing is financial security, obviously, going on your own means you've got to you need to find, find money to live and also then to grow. You've got to employ people so that real first six months, we were first step, we you know the wages have stopped, but you're not sure where the next incomes coming from is uncomfortable, to say the least. And I don't think that goes away that quickly. Because you're always looking to grow. You're always looking to employ new people and do new things. So it's it is it's a different? Yeah, there's certainly has been a really great learning journey and a great experience. And I think I used to think I worked hard until you actually work for yourself, and then you're really not your workout. So, but it is it's great work. And there's all sorts of people listening will be will be entrepreneurs or self starters, though, are people on the land that that know that it's great working with so much better working for yourself and knowing that those hours you're putting in growing a better future for you and you and your family as the plan.

Sarah Nolet  18:13  
Tell me about the next gen model. Like you guys have done a combination of consulting and research and playing with technology and online. What's the scoop? Give us your pitch where you're up to right now?

Mark Ferguson  18:25  
Yeah, so next gen is a combination of all things I like. So we made a company that did all those things. I guess at a core, we are a consulting business to farmers, pretty much solely around genetics, implementing good genetic programs across from West Australia through to both arms in New Zealand. So we've got clients all over the place. And so at our core is that consulting that that direct dealing with, with farmers, and we're really, really fortunate to work with some of the industry is best and it's, and it's great to get out of bed and work with those people. I've also obviously with my research, career and desire to do things. At an industry level, we do industry research on behalf of the organizations like Awai MLA, we still work for New Zealand Merino, we do do a range of different sort of project management slash research work. We also have just as of this week have just launched our an online training aspect of our business, we we definitely understand that you can't control the model where you are all over the country is there's not not easy on us or our families. But it's also not easy on farmers having to go to workshops on days that that suit us, not them. So we really see a great future in online training. So we're trying to package up some of what we do into online training where people can learn, learn from our experiences and the work that we're doing in the comfort of their own offices or farms and the time that suits them best. And then wrap around that some support through through Facebook groups and through closed zoom calls and those So things where people can ask questions directly I've asked and really grow our ability to, to interact with people sort of 24/7 and across a much wider geography than we can, by jumping in rental cars and planes that we do now.

Sarah Nolet  20:14  
Do you see more kind of support in agriculture moving online, I mean, it's such an interesting tension of now you can access information anywhere, and you can be part of a community of whether it's early adopters, or seedstock, folks, or whatever niche you're in, you can find them online. But there's also I guess, a traditional view of agriculture that's kind of sitting down at the pub or shaking hands and truly relationship based, which I guess implies you have to be in person, is there a tension there? Or is online, just a enhancement of what you can do in person?

Mark Ferguson  20:44  
Yeah, I think, I think successful by a combination, I think, often I hear clients say, like, they go to a full day works workshop or something, they're driven three hours for an hour, and he really went there to hear one speaker, and the seven others, they sort of heard and, and have a cup of tea or beer and then went home again. So to me, the online training makes it a whole lot more efficient, because you can just see that one speaker and, and even interact with them at a whole, much better level of if there's not the tyranny of distance involved and, and the timing issues. But also think that you can't just do online and you can't just they will need to learn from each other as well as learning from, from so called experts. So getting them in a room and interacting is critical. So walking that tightrope is going to be something we need to learn over the next next few years. And we're keen to have sort of member days where we get get the people in rages together to to get that social action, because without that, I think it would be difficult to keep the community and keep that growth going.

Sarah Nolet  21:48  
One of the things we talk about in ag tech a lot is is well in startups generally is personas and kind of knowing who your market is and who you're really selling to. And that not you know, everyone in life soccer, everyone who's a sheep farmer is actually the same market, you have early adopters and things like that. How would you describe your kind of persona your market? And how did you come come upon that? Because it's it's appealing to say, Oh, I'm on it's online, anyone can download my course and I help you know, 1000s and 1000s do? Or is it more, you know, we're really targeting these kinds of people are these kinds of growers.

Mark Ferguson  22:20  
I think my targeting farming couples that have taken on some debt to either grow their family business or to buy a new one. So our guests, our target persona is those young, young ish, and I call myself younger, mid 40s, who are really taking on some significant debts and significant stressors associated with that some significant sort of, I guess, family pressures to succeed, and just wrapping around a layer of support around those people that that helps them make some some pretty big decisions. We're not talking about small, just backyard operations. This can be several million dollar businesses 10s of million dollar businesses, they're making some decisions that that they're not that comfortable. So and they need some support. So I think our persona probably is yeah, that that farming couple farming family that that really want to get on and grow their grow their businesses, but also have a bit of pressure from from debt, like we've got Hilde

Sarah Nolet  23:16  
entrusting us a farming family. That's one of the big things that I know you and I've talked about a lot the kind of role of families and decision making and it's not just maybe the bloke you see on the farm that you know, it's actually a family and lots of intricacies to how those decisions are made. So I I don't know if you have anything to say about that. I guess you one of the articles you wrote recently that that you can see now on the website I can link to it is around how farmers are just people who farm and there's all this, I guess, hype around, you know, what are farmers? And are they really different than other people, but at the end of the day, they're just people.

Mark Ferguson  23:47  
Yeah, I guess I'm really, really strong. And having grown up, my mom, dad worked very close together to, to make ends meet and to to get our farm taking over and get us all educated and doing what we're doing now. All the people that I work with, it's there's some great farming couples are great farming families out there. And so to to limit that to just the, I guess the stereotypical male is would be a limitation and not something that I think is even relevant to agriculture. It's about it's about that whole whole family and how that works together to make a to make a business and make decisions and, and go forward. There's never there's never an individual who's doing it all. Now the person's just got their feet up on the couch.

Sarah Nolet  24:26  
Beyond just rethinking extension and what the future of livestock consulting will look like. Next, Gen agri and Ferg have been playing with tech in a more traditional ag tech sense as well. This all started for for with a trip to where I'm from Silicon Valley.

Mark Ferguson  24:42  
Yeah, just being in the industry and getting exposed to I could pretty much thinking back to going to Silicon Valley for the first time and just getting exposed to the tech world there through news and Marina and just hearing about what was happening in augmented reality what was happening in machine learning what was happening in, in gene at Seeing what was happening in so and some of the fantastic speakers were exposed to at Stanford University that really just lifted my sights completely about what the future looks like. And I guess the great opportunity for us in ag is that we, we know these problems better than anybody. And so I wanted to be part of that part of that Tech Tech future where we, we know the problem, clearly, we understand the tech enough to be able to apply that. So I've done a variety of things. We've done some things around sensor tags, but the thing that we're really interested in is the ability to apply image analysis to problems on farm, the one that we're really running out at the moment as his facial recognition in shape, because that and that'll underpin a Hollywood changes that we can make through automated, we can automate lots of measurement, lots of understanding of what's happening on farm if we can get facial recognition working. So that's our current focus.

Sarah Nolet  25:52  
So this is like a camera and taking a picture of a sheep and saying, Okay, this is the sheep or is it? Is it? Are you saying other things about the sheep? What what are you actually kind of measuring? You know, where are the cameras? Tell us a little bit about their do give us a paint us a picture of what that looks like?

Mark Ferguson  26:06  
Yeah, so we did some work with IWA, where we had a crate set up, and had four cameras around that crate and took a heap of images of each shape. And then through collaboration with University of Sydney, analyzed all that and worked out the in concept form that worked. We could tell shape separately from each other. So I think in that work, we had 1900 individuals, and it would tell with sort of 99% plus accuracy, which individual that was just by the photo of it.

Sarah Nolet  26:32  
Were you surprised by that?

Mark Ferguson  26:35  
I guess yes. And kind of No, because I know that I walked through the airports every day. And the only thing that lets me in the guide is his facial recognition cameras, under that controlled scenario, so So I guess there's no reason that sheep are different than humans. A few obvious aspects. But then, but that works. I didn't, wasn't taking us closer to because putting shaping a crate, if you're in a crate, you know they are and you can weigh them and do everything else you need to. So we wanted to move that to what, how can we do that out on out on farm or in a more commercial context. So now we're running retraining models, we're running, we've got a race setup that's got four cameras on it. So run shape through, which gives us a about 30 frames, so 30 individual images of that shape as they bolt through. Same as any normal drafting, race, drenching race, we round down that. And the idea is that that would be directly linked to a camera in the paddock. And so the once the ID once it runs past, the the animal is linked to to its ID to its RFID. And then we know who it is. And then so an image of that sheet wherever it is on the farm will know who that animal is. That's the the work we're doing right now to train that model. So at the moment, we've run around about six or 700 sheep through through that race plus we've taken images, those individual sheep out on in a paddock. And so we're training a machine learning model at the moment to do that. And if that works, then we sort of onto the next stages of actual behavioral tracking and working out when they're grazing when they're doing whatever from from images. So we've got a range of different work through students and collaborations going on on that across that spectrum at the moment.

Sarah Nolet  28:14  
That is super exciting. Do you so that I mean that in itself could become its own business or kind of take all of this work to the next level? Is that the vision and the aspiration?

Mark Ferguson  28:25  
Yeah, so Jane smith.ai is a company that is sort of waiting to be formed once we get on to get some of this work. So we see that as being a standalone component, which will become a spinoff from from next gen agri, which will be mainly what which will focus on on consulting in that and that online training, aspect plus, plus some research. But we see that whole tech space has been having growing a life of its own and getting its own team and really driving forward because there's just an enormous opportunity for to really take big steps in the sheep industry towards understanding what individuals are doing the same as what we see in in yield monitoring. And in order culture and cropping and what we see in dairy cows in the sheep industry, we really have been limited to mob based stuff. And if we get beyond that, then we open up a whole new level of opportunity that that really is just sitting there waiting to be explored.

Sarah Nolet  29:20  
I'm excited to have you back on the podcast in a year or two and here to update on on how that's going. Well.

Mark Ferguson  29:27  
They want not to

Sarah Nolet  29:29  
deal with when you talk to farmers, other clients are not about this work and facial recognition and all this tech what's the what's the response, like?

Mark Ferguson  29:41  
We don't talk so much about the tech but about what we can do with it which is which is matching us to the lambs matching performance to the animal and monitoring animals remotely. Those sort of things get people really excited. I think the big one is is just that. They want to know that their animals are healthy Feeling happy. And if they've got a system that helps them do that, with a level of integrity, that means that they can go on holiday or they can. Or they can go to town that day and do something else, knowing that their animals are safe and happy that that peace of mind, I think, is a massive aspect. There's also obviously the upside in terms of productivity. But first and foremost, the people across agriculture, love seeing healthy animals and any system that helps them they really early with with making changes to make sure their animals healthy and productive. I think that gets people excited that real ability to monitor animals at a whole new level.

Sarah Nolet  30:36  
And it ties back to your point about consumers as well. I mean, there's increasing pressure on being able to prove some of those kinds of things, welfare and your well being and keeping that clean green image there. So I imagine there's some potential there as well.

Mark Ferguson  30:50  
Yeah, I'm saying that, yeah, we started off with a sense of work with really that in mind, and we saw, we talked about that, to those, those brand partners, they loved the concept of monitoring animals 24/7. And so that there wasn't just a pipe dream that the animals were being looked after they really were monitored and looked after. And, and that was that resonates with farmers, and it does with consumers.

Sarah Nolet  31:14  
With an expert like Ferg, on the show, it'd be a mistake not to ask about the future of the sheep industry and where he sees things headed.

Mark Ferguson  31:21  
Yeah, I guess. Yeah, I'm very, you know, as you're aware, I guess consumer trends and what's changing, and I think, I think the current strong demand for wool we're seeing and financial fall, I think, that seems to be not just a flash in the pan, that seems to be a real thing. And then stemming from a real desire from some of these big brands to really have a product that can stand behind in terms of the whole whole backstory of that product. So I think, I think we're in for, into good days in, in the natural fiber industry. I think, as we understand more about microfibers going into oceans, and a whole host of things that that plastics are doing to the planet, and a natural fiber that biodegrades within six months of hitting the ground, sort of ticks a lot of boxes in terms of the footprint, the overall footprint of growing or production, I don't think we can sit back and and say, jobs, right, we produce protein, and the world needs more protein. And so we're going to be we're going to integrate times and we produce oil and the world needs more water. And great times, I think we need to be really smart. And think about what that looks like, if we are going to demand a premium price, we have to be premium producers. So we need to be really aware of what that consumer wants to get into all because they want to have a really good backstory, but they're not going to get a wool. This is this is skeletons in the closet that put that brand at risk. And so we need to be really thinking about what what's happening on farm, what's happening in our breeding, what's happening across everything we do in our marketing in our manufacturer, what's happening across that whole spectrum that that might be viewed negatively in 10 years and think about how, I guess in our lifetime, how much more scrutiny has come on what what we're doing more aware people have what's happening back on farm, but in the hole in that whole process from sort of, from time right through to, to garment, I think we need to be really aware of making sure we've we're squeaky clean, and we are producing in a really premium way. And I think environmental credentials and welfare are going to be we're going to leave that

Sarah Nolet  33:23  
for anyone listening who's excited about what Ferg and next gen agri have been up to check out the show notes for links to the blog, Twitter and the website launching a number of courses and online options. I also asked her to give us a shameless plug for where to find him.

Mark Ferguson  33:38  
So WW next gen agri.com is where you'll find our website. And there's always information on there. Opportunities to get access to us. articles will be going up frequently and then exit opportunities to get access to us through subscription and through online training.

Sarah Nolet  33:57  
Great. So like to keep hearing updates from you. I learned a lot and have been really fortunate to Yeah, have have someone like you teach me so much about the sheep industry. And so thanks for that. And I'm really excited to see where all of this goes.

Mark Ferguson  34:10  
Thanks. I look forward to continuing to work with you.

Sarah Nolet  34:14  
Thank you for joining us on another episode of ag tech. So what if you can stay up to date with the latest episodes and news at AG tech. So what.com And as always, if you have any feedback or other guests to recommend, we'd love to hear from you. Just hop on the website and leave us a comment or send us a message. Finally, if you'd like what you're hearing, and we hope you do, please share the podcast with a friend or leave us a review on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks again for listening. Catch you next time

Key takeaways

  • How to build relationships in a digital world.
  • What the future of extension and consulting in livestock holds.
  • The role of cutting edge technologies in the sheep industry (facial recognition for sheep!)
  • His vision for a future where consumer expectations are met and growers are profitable.