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A Match Made in . . . Kansas

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Several years in, the partnership between Topcon Agriculture and Kansas State University has proven both highly successful and mutually beneficial.

It’s no secret that strategic partnerships between universities and companies, a practice that has been going on for many decades, can yield impressive results. Collaboration between Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Standard Oil of New Jersey, which began before 1940, largely resulted in the development of the discipline of chemical engineering in the U.S. — no small feat. Such partnerships are so successful, in fact, that they frequently prove to embody Aristotle’s famous assertion that: “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” Complimenting the commercial acumen that business brings to table with the R&D strengths wielded by the university can be a formidable one-two punch. Three years into such a partnership, Kansas State University and Topcon Agriculture, along with its K-State-based Research Campus, are an excellent example of just such a synergy, the results it can bring and the many beneficiaries of the efforts undertaken thus far.

Hatching an Idea

Announced in 2018, but in the works for several years before that, the Topcon and Kansas State University partnership’s goals were fairly straightforward: to boost the company’s research capacity through engagement with university students and faculty, and to solidify already-existing connections Topcon had with producers. The latter was to be accomplished through K-State’s Research & Extension which, through its innovations, has helped fuel the state's nearly $4 billion in annual agricultural exports. One of the driving forces in bringing the two partners together, Ray Asebedo, PhD., currently the global agronomy lead for Topcon Agriculture, had a unique position for doing so.

“I’d been at K-State for over a decade, including my time as a professor of precision agriculture in the university’s agronomy department from 2015 through 2018,” he said. “From the time when I was a grad student, I had been working with Topcon products in areas dealing with optical sensor technology research, soil fertility, nutrient management, etc. So, I knew the company, knew their capabilities and saw that they were committed to taking precision ag to new levels. That intrigued me, even back then.”

In 2015, while attending InfoAg, Asebedo met Brian Sorbe, then-director of North American sales for Topcon. Chatting at the booth, Asebedo mentioned that K-State could really benefit from having an industry partner but did not have one. He cited the university’s wealth of agronomic and engineering knowhow which was being offset by both a lack of infrastructure and technology in the field and a means to commercialize their own research.

“I explained that we had a knowledge gap in that area,” said Asebedo. “Although we were promoting precision agriculture, we didn’t have enough people to help us. Topcon, on the other hand, had all the RTK machine control, optical sensors and so on, as well as the ability to build them efficiently and deploy them in production, which we, obviously, didn’t. I also liked that Topcon was so open to listening to different possibilities. So, from that perspective — our knowledge and their ability to put it into practice — it looked like a very good opportunity for both.”

“That is K-State’s tractor that we used for a training event this past week. They cleaned it up, outfitted to the nines with Topcon technology, even helped me organize the whole event. This is a genuinely great relationship.”

Ray Asebedo, PhD. - Lead for Topcon Agriculture

Both Sides Now

That trade show chat turned into a solid working relationship between the two, with a focus on ensuring that Topcon became a strategic partner of the university. According to Asebedo, it was also planting some ideas in his own mind.

“Over the next couple years, we got things worked out, resulting in the partnership agreement signed in October of 2018, which established the research campus here,” he said. “However, that entire process made me realize that I wanted to dedicate more time to building the partnership and developing products and less time trying to find grant money and other university-related issues. Topcon, seeing the value I could bring to the table, hired me as their global agronomy lead.”

Today, because he so intimately understands the university system and its processes, Asebedo is invaluable in managing the K-State relationship for Topcon. However, because he also understands industry and the Topcon way of doing things, he often functions as a translator — sometimes a mediator — between the two groups.

“I’m still located here at K-State and I deal with the first point of contact in setting up any university projects,” he said. “I also handle donations and am helping build up the university’s infrastructure with Topcon technology, so I’m still very much involved. Funny thing is, when I first started with Topcon, even though I was in a completely different role, to a number of people it felt like I actually never left.”

Talking it Over

Asebedo says that, since its inception, the agreement between Topcon and K-State has been everything they could have imagined and more. He places a lot of the reason for that success on outstanding communication between the two organizations.

“That, and the fact that both parties share a need to find ways to do things better,” he said. “We regularly convene to see what we can be doing differently and discuss ways to take this strategic partnership further. That’s critical because universities, especially research centers, are used to the federal grant process of doing things: you have a reporting period that’s every month, every six months or once a year. By comparison, industry, particularly Topcon, likes frequent communication, being up to date with what’s going on. That provides the assurance that things are proceeding forward.”

That regular interaction and open line of communication has value, he added, even when the news being imparted is less-than-positive. “We think it’s okay if someone involved in a project finds that something didn’t work out as planned — that’s still a valid result and we view it as such. It’s better than finding out about it a year later in some report packet. That open communication makes the difference.”

Tractor Pull

Anecdotally, Asebedo cites one of the professors in the agronomy department who communicates with Topcon several times a week — not because he’s worried that Topcon will back away if he doesn’t, but rather because he views the company and those working the K-State Research Campus as colleagues.

“It’s like we’re friends just batting around ideas,” he said. “I think, ultimately, that’s the goal we wanted to reach: a point where there is an unquestioned comfort level. And it has additional upsides for everyone. When the university is dealing with budgetary issues or needs a new piece of equipment for enabling the program or assisting the students, we want them to feel like they can come to us with those concerns. Conversely, when we need some farmland out here to do a training event, they are always very accommodating.”

As if to help make his point, Asebedo points to a tractor sitting on the grass behind the campus building. “That is K-State’s tractor that we used for a training event this past week. They cleaned it up, outfitted to the nines with Topcon technology, even helped me organize the whole event. This is a genuinely great relationship.”

“Whether it’s optical sensors on crop canopies or in-ground soil sensors, farmers and agronomists are looking very seriously for solutions. The companies they will turn to are ones that make it simple. It’s that ‘easy button’ that will enable it.”

Ray Asebedo, PhD. - Lead for Topcon Agriculture

KISS is Back

One of Asebedo’s key focuses since joining Topcon has been on continuing to grow the precision ag infrastructure at K-State, a natural fit, given his past position as professor of that very area. Recognizing that students are the farmers of tomorrow and, by extension, the tech users of tomorrow, he loves the work he does and is upbeat about what he is seeing.

“I think we are turning the corner into a very exciting time for precision ag,” he said. “For a while, it felt as if the field had hit a plateau, resulting in much lower rate of adoption of the technology than we should have gotten. Right now, however, there is a real resurgence both from the university side and the industry side to push into the next level of discovery. We see precision evolving into much more of a hybrid sustainable farming approach, accompanied by changes to our technology to further enhance ease of use. The goal is that, when a farmer installs a new tech system on his tractor or sprayer, he won’t need a huge manual to install it or operate it. We’d like it to be more of a plug-and-go approach.”

Driving the resurgence of these technologies is a perfect storm, of sorts, facing today’s farmer. Genuine worries about the environment, fluctuating market prices, a need to make more money on each pound of nitrogen applied, a need to increase yield, the list goes on. “They are asking for the edge they need to enhance profitability and we can provide that,” said Asebedo. “Whether it’s optical sensors on crop canopies or in-ground soil sensors, farmers and agronomists are looking very seriously for solutions. The companies they will turn to are ones that make it simple. It’s that ‘easy button’ that will enable it.”

A Particular Skill Set

Asebedo’s work, both in the past with with K-State and today with Topcon, allows him an excellent opportunity to get a feel for how changes in farming — specifically the use of precision ag technology — are embraced by these prospective farmers. The outlook, he said, is very positive.

“In my time as a professor here, we offered a course in Precision Ag Software, in which I taught students how to do data processing, intergrade yield data, generate recommendations, do variable rate application prescriptions, put them in machines and apply them. Those kids were so interested in the process that we held special classes every day and literally everyone would come. We were in the computer lab until 11 pm at night, every night – they were that interested in it. “

The icing on that cake, he added, was seeing the number of students who went back home and used the specific skills they’d worked so hard to develop. They perceived value in themselves and what they’re doing. That, he said, is perhaps the most interesting thing about the way this newer, younger generation approaches ag today

“They definitely know what they want,” he said. “They see a particular specialization of agriculture that will improve the operation back home that no one else in the family can do — that’s what drives them. Then the other brother or sister comes along with a different: ‘I know how to do commodities, how to best market our grain,’ or ‘I know diseases better than anybody and I’m going to run that part of our agronomy program.’ It’s not just learning the basics anymore; oftentimes it’s a very focused approach and I think that’s excellent.”

Today, the Topcon Agriculture Research Campus, which originally ran with a staff of four, along with a number of graduate students and other students, is poised for robust growth. Asebedo said they recently posted a position for a customer success manager who will have some full-time employees that will be hired under them.

“There will also be a full-blown internship program in which we envision having 8-10 interns operating out of here as well,” he said. “In addition to precision ag-focused experiences, I think we’re going to give them exposure to different facets of Topcon’s operation from the sales, marketing and engineering sides of things. So, when they gravitate towards one and perform well, they can take that career path; not limiting this to engineering alone benefits everyone.”

Family is the Future

Based on what he has seen from both sides of the picture — the academic and the industrial — Asebedo is decidedly upbeat about the future of farming. Where some see the farm of tomorrow as a faceless, automated entity, he sees a resurgence in the family farm.

“I honestly see more and more people taking an interest in farming,” he said. “I think we’re already starting to see farms getting larger, not through corporate buyouts, but because family-owned farms can now use technology to do so. And, as we’ve already seen, more kids are heading off to college, specializing, then coming back and using that knowledge to grow the business. It’s really quite encouraging and, as a company, it’s great to be partnered with K-State and contributing to that change.”