By Trevor Bacque
Trevor Scherman can’t sit still. He’s had that problem ever since he was a youngster, tinkering with items around the family farm in northwest Saskatchewan. He could often be found building or fixing things in the shop such as hopper-bottom bins with his father Pat throughout the year and fiddling with anything he could get his hands on.
The idea of trying his hand at something new is never scary for him, only exciting. When he decided to earn his agriculture diploma from the University of Saskatchewan, he couldn’t wait to meet new people and soak up curriculum like a sponge. When he landed one of his first jobs with Bayer in 2001, he took advantage of all the perks the company offered.
The company offered him countless courses including sales, marketing and agronomy, all of which he gleefully enrolled in. Having ADHD, it often feels impossible for Scherman to settle. Having participated in personality analysis exercises, the seminars gave him a stronger understanding of how to work with people—valuable lessons he still utilizes on the farm today.
However, after a decade of working for a large organization, he sought a change. This time it was where he may have more autonomy. In 2011, a relatively new start-up called Farmers Edge (FE) was making a splash in the market and Scherman couldn’t resist such a unique opportunity. Knowing there would be greater autonomy and more ways to have his agronomic influence weaved throughout the company, he took a chance and joined FE.
Those years, much like the ones spent at Bayer, were instrumental not only for him as a person and his own growth, but also as a farmer.
With a renewed focus on precision agriculture, Scherman felt at home, implementing many new agronomic, data-driven practices on the farm while also getting paid to talk about it during the day.
The family had always been on the cutting edge, perhaps, more than others. His father Pat was one of the first people in Saskatchewan to adopt zero-till methods in 1979.
What seemed counterintuitive at the time has certainly become the norm across Western Canada. In 2009, Scherman went headlong into variable rate (VR) technology. Not quite unheard of, but borderline fringe, the movement was in its infancy, but that didn’t bother Scherman, because, as he says, “a good idea is a good idea.”
He also has conducted countless amounts of strip trials, comparing any given product he thinks may give him an edge, hosting test after test to make his land as solid as it can be.
He was an early adopter of fungicides and coming out of the drought in 2004, he was one of the only farmers in his area using any kind of products. By the second year of trials, he was sold.
“We were blown away with six-to-seven bushels-per-acre on hard red spring wheat,” he says.
Other valuable tests related to variable-rate fertility treatments. By comparing variable rate versus simply adding 10 per cent more fertilizer, he learned important lessons, even though the results weren’t what he expected.
“We over-applied on purpose, so the wheat crop actually went flat,” he says. “It yielded statistically the same, a grade less, and the combines’ efficiency was terrible. It’s not all bushels per acre, or dollars per acre, you have to look at the efficiencies.”
Scherman stuck with VR and slowly brought everything in line with the 21st century as much as possible. The results were impressive to both him and his father.
“Data is a big scary word, but if you ask any farmer if they collect data, they rarely say yes,” he says. “But they all have a notebook … they’ve been collecting data, but it’s all in their mind. All that is data. Now we are just getting a lot more data and it’s a lot easier to extrapolate from it.”
Both he and Pat always pushed the limit, demanding the most out of not only themselves but also their farmland.
Similarly, he was also a pioneer of tile drainage, admitting he was likely one of the first people in Saskatchewan to push his chips in on the simple, but farm-enhancing technology.
“We drained a lot of land in our area,” he says. “It’s been huge, just the efficiencies of not just moving water, but the new-found efficiency of the machinery.”
The machine in question is a Soil Max Gold Digger that Scherman purchased brand new and he considers it one of his absolute best investments to date.
He looks back and laughs at the idea of tile drainage since he began farming with Pat in 2001, the same year that kicked off a three-year drought in Saskatchewan and many other parts of the Prairies.
Those experiences helped solidify his resolve and shape his character to what it is today: Optimistic, yet realistic.
“You have to have a lot of vision and determination that things will get better,” he says. “It’s a learning process. The years of my father being one of the early adopters of zero tillage, I benefited through those years. We felt we were rewarded through the drought.”
In 2016, he quit with Farmers Edge and decided he would farm full-time and not look back. His wife Michelle, an Ag Economics major, runs the office and advises on all financial decisions while he and Pat manage all the in-field work.
The farm expanded aggressively in the last five years, nearly doubling in size from 3,400 to 6,500 acres. Part of the change, like all opportunities for Scherman, is to seize a good moment when it comes along while using data to analyze the decision. His agricultural motto is straightforward and doesn’t look back: “We make the best decisions possible with the information we have at the time.”
“I’ve been on the bleeding edge a few times,” he says with a laugh. “As I get older and wiser, I am a little more cautious.”
Scherman embraces technology whole-heartedly and while he still carries out some “old school” practices, he is the first one to let the technology do the work for him, working smarter, not harder.
He points to the simple-yet-effective weather stations and scouting applications on his phone and not in person. What used to take him 50 to 60 hours to properly check all his acres is now a fraction of that, roughly four or five hours.
“Now, I can really focus my time on the target areas, then do the farmer drive after that,” he says.
Scherman is similar to most farmers now in that he collects scads of data from all his machines. The only difference is that he has trusted programs where he inputs his data, which is then presented to him in easy-to-understand formats, helping him make prudent management decisions.
One key finding for Scherman, though, is that precision agriculture is many things, but there’s absolutely one thing it’s not: precise.
“We can use ‘precision’ ag, but it’s hard to be precise with a 120-foot sprayer and a 75-foot air drill,” he says. “We’ve become so ‘precise’ that the equipment hasn’t kept pace with that technology.”
It’s what drove him to ultimately create, along with his father Pat, his low-tech invention, the ScherGain Solution System, that flies in the face of the fast-paced, high-tech world of 2020 agriculture.
Every combine that rolls off the production line comes standard with a few key features. The first is an eye-popping price tag, the second is a yield monitor and third is a loss monitor. The latter, though a very nice in-cab decoration, is not worth its weight in cabbage when it first arrives to the farmer, explains Scherman.
“Combine companies claim the new combines set themselves and can determine how much through-put they can have accordingly, but based on what?” he says. “You need real live field data to make all those algorithms work better.”
To that end, Scherman and his father knew they were getting the short end of the bushel every harvest but could not quantify it. In 2011, it marked the last year they were in the dark on bushel loss.
“The combine salesperson said I should be able to drive this fast in this crop and my losses should be minimal, but he’s trying to sell me a combine,” he says. “Yields, crop conditions, weather conditions, are all factors in how fast you can go in a certain crop and achieve optimal results.”
Their decidedly low-tech device, a battery-operated drop pan, is as simple as it is effective.
It works like this: Stop the combine, drop the chaff and the straw spreader laying a windrow. Take the drop pan, which has two three-inch diameter magnets, and mount it near the fan housing, front or back axle and activate the magnets with a wireless controller. Hop back in the combine and get the machine up to capacity where losses are deemed acceptable. From there, travel 100 to 150 feet and press the button to deactivate the magnets, dropping the pan in the field. Be sure to glance at the loss monitor when the pan drops for proper calibration afterwards.
Dig out the pan, clean contents down to simply the grain, dump it into ScherGains’s patented gauge and see the volume that it hits in the supplied chart and voila, bushel loss calculated. At that point, the first-ever calibration of the monitor can take place.
“It’s a speedometer with no numbers,” says Scherman of a non-calibrated loss monitor. “You can adjust the monitor to whatever makes you feel good, but it’s not quantified to a bushels per acre [number].”
Scherman is not the type of person who was ever looking to stick it to a manufacturer. In fact, when he first began, he simply told his friends and neighbours out of concern that they were leaving money in the field due to poor settings or too high of travel speeds despite monitor readouts.
Indeed, he may be right. Manufacturers are starting to shift language and using phrases such as “bushels per hour” not “acres per hour.”
Although his device is patented in Canada and has a global patent pending, he is just as happy if people are at least checking somehow maybe even with their own homemade device.
“Initially, it wasn’t, ‘can we make money off this?’ it was, ‘we need to help neighbours because everyone is having the same problem and most don’t know,” he says. “You cannot manage what you do not measure, and we made it easy and wanted to share that.”
There have certainly been more than the Schermans who thought their losses weren’t acceptable, as well. On day one of business, Scherman sent out a tweet explaining the product. By the end of the day, he sold 20 pans, the same number he had set out to sell over the next 365 days. With only four built when the tweet was sent, he was already oversold. Within one week, he was getting tweets from Australian farmers asking about the pan and when they could get their hands on one.
“It’s one of those products that there’s a need for it and we built a product that was simple, fast and easy to use,” he says. “It’s old school, low-tech. There’s no app. There isn’t even a scale.”
The response from farmers has been humbling to the Schermans. Nothing brightens his day quite like shaking hands with a fellow farmer at a tradeshow and hearing how they have saved anywhere from $30,000 to $100,000 simply by calibrating their once-maligned monitors.
The power of social media can be a force for good or evil and Scherman was happy it was the former. In year one, Twitter accounted for 40 per cent of his sales. Three years later, he is going “flat out” with both farming and business and has generated non-stop interest from farmers.
He is now jet-setting around the globe to speak at farmer conferences in different countries, explaining how the pan works and why it’s useful whether its winter wheat in the U.K., Soybeans in Illinois or canola in Romania.
“For such a low-tech, inexpensive system, it has made a lot of growers a lot of money,” he says with satisfaction.