By Natalie Noble
In January of 2023, two urban-dwelling students enrolled in agriculture technology programming at Olds College will receive the first Robert Saik AgTech Awards. The annual $2,500 scholarships are awarded in thanks to $100,000 donated by Robert (Rob) Saik to attract young talent who may never have stepped foot on a farm into the industry. “Agriculture has treated me very well and I’m extremely passionate about it,” says Saik, recognized in 2021 as one of Canada’s Top 50 Most Influential Agricultural Leaders by The Canada Farm Show. “I have loads of energy, tons of great connections and so I began a strategy to give back.”
Olds College’s priority to advance agriculture and technology together align well with Saik’s lifelong drive to generate progress in the industry he loves. “I believe this industry is desperate for farm technology integrators,” says Saik. “Olds College has really stepped up to the plate in building its Smart Farm and creating the Techgronomy diploma. I feel strongly that we need more talent in the industry so I’m supporting that through this scholarship.”
The recent endowment complements Saik’s 2016 $100,000 donation to the University of Alberta, establishing the Rob Saik Bar None Award in Agriculture. The award sponsors young rural students who enter studies at the university’s agriculture faculty each year.
Saik’s mission to attract brainpower into agriculture from both urban and rural talent pools is not surprising considering his resume. Most of his life the tireless entrepreneur has had a foot planted in the field while his mind focuses on the progressive potential held in the technology realm. Asked about his early years, Saik describes a wonderful youth spent on the family farm while dreaming of becoming an astronaut.
“Farming is in my blood,” he says. “Both my maternal and paternal grandparents came from Ukraine and farmed here.”
The mixed farm was a sizable operation for its time with upwards of 1,000 acres and more than 400 head of cattle. “I grew up having hogs, chickens, ducks and cattle all the time,” recalls Saik of the hands-on experience. “Dad was more of a cattle guy while I lean towards the crop side of the equation. We did everything on the farm and it was a great place to grow up.”
Considering his high energy and motivation, perhaps it’s not so shocking that Saik began farming at 14 years old. “I took out my first loan to put in my first quarter section, working within the Government of Alberta’s Future Farmer program,” says Saik. “My neighbours agreed to be my mentors and I had to provide them my plans, budgets and everything to grow that first quarter section.”
With some experience under his belt, Saik purchased nearby farmland in 1981 at 21 near Innisfree. “I hit the peak of the exorbitant land prices bang on at the time I signed that deal.” After a decade of growing crops and raising cattle while enduring punitive interest rates, it was time for Saik to put his energy where better results would be realized.
This is where that futuristic astronaut vision re-enters Saik’s big picture. “Along with that desire to stretch my wings, while I was in university, I’d become aware of a much bigger world out there,” says Saik. “The combination of the practicality of farming in addition to my desire to leverage technology really set the stage for my career path.”
Upon graduating university with his BSc in agriculture, Saik spent time working in the fertilizer retail business in Manitoba and Alberta while simultaneously running his farm throughout his 20s. Working across Canada with Stoller Enterprises in micronutrients, Saik then helped build the first Agri-Tech Farm Supply in Two Hills, Alta., selling it to his partners at age 30. Working with Tiger-Sul Products, Saik stretched his international wings, working throughout Canada, the U.S. and Europe for six years.
In 1997, Saik left Tiger to start Agri-Trend Agrology Ltd. with “nothing but a credit card and a Chevette,” he says. As the organization grew into The Agri-Trend Group of Companies, including agronomy and precision ag along with a group of talented and passionate agriculturalists, it also included a grain marketing company and a farm business management firm. In 2001, the company won Alberta E-Business of the Year for its data platform, Agri-Data Solution. “It’s arguably one of the first fully on-line farm management platforms in the world, and it’s built out of Alberta.” says Saik. “We started teaming up with a bunch of John Deere dealerships which took Agri-Trend all the way from La Crête Alberta down to the Mississippi Delta.
We also started Agri-Trend Aggregation, one of the first carbon credit trading companies. It’s now traded over $50 million in carbon offsets with farmers.”
Such swift growth takes cash, so Saik and his partners took to the market to raise capital. “We locked eyes with Trimble,” says Saik. “They made us a very nice offer, which we took. Our 20-year journey of Agri-Trend and Agri-Data moved into Trimble’s world. They’re still using the data platform and the carbon company is still going strong.”
Never keeping all his eggs in one basket, Saik also published the AG Advance: Journal for Growing Innovations during this time, earning Trade Magazine of the Year in 2014. His team also founded the Farm Forum event, hosting 1,000 farmers annually for 20 years. And, when asked by Norbert Beaujot of SeedMaster to take on the CEO role for DOT robotics, the autonomous farming platform, Saik accepted and the technology was eventually acquired by Raven Industries.
The world of agriculture can tend to feel small, but its innovation in practices and technology over recent decades can make heads spin. That attracts unexpected admirers. On May 2, 2017, Saik met with Bill Gates. “He was very impressed with what we’d built with Agri-Trend and Agri-Data, but he said it wouldn’t scale,” says Saik. “I began thinking about technology that could scale the human brain in agriculture and I formed AGVisorPRO.”
The platform connects seekers of ag advice with trusted experts who provide virtual answers in an instant. “When I looked into the lens of what it is going to take for agriculture to increase its sustainability and profitability, I became acutely aware that the pinch point really lies in a farmer having the confidence to make decisions and changes within his or her operation with the belief they will be beneficial,” he says. “That confidence comes from talking to experts who’ve been there and done that.”
Saik describes the platform as an agricultural version of eharmony in its seeker-expert matching capability; Uber in its virtual scheduling of meetings and easy payment to independent experts within the business; FaceTime in its instant audio-video connection with high-res photo sharing and chat features; all tied into a digital marketing strategy like Twitter.
Interestingly, AGvisorPRO launched just prior to the pandemic’s massive shift in the way people do business and leverage technology. The company has no office and its team of 30 work completely virtually with employees residing across Canada, in Brazil, Peru, the U.S. and Italy. “It’s been a couple years of hard going work,” says Saik.
The platform has four key focus areas: plants, livestock, equipment and business management. Each space has subcategories of expertise with questions submitted anonymously for experts to respond and seekers can connect with those they like. Each session is immutable, geo-coded and time stamped. “It’s another piece of the blockchain puzzle in which we’re working to provide greater transparency and trust to the consumer,” says Saik.
It’s expected to accelerate technology adoption and a shift to more sustainable practices while reducing friction, anxiety and frustration for farmers. “Dialing 1-800 doesn’t work in farming, or other business, today,” says Saik. “With all the complexities in agriculture—crops, livestock, equipment, HR, marketing, biotic and abiotic issues—all happening simultaneously while you’re growing a crop, decision-making has to be fast and fluid. By instantly connecting the right people, we can increase profitability and reduce risk at the farm level.”
That momentum is only set to grow. In January, AGvisorPRO beat out 150 other companies to be welcomed into the first Canadian Thrive Accelerator amongst 10 winners.
While leading transformation across the ag industry, Saik still consults with a several Prairie farms through the PowerFARM peer group, whose assets total $1 billion across 300,000 total acres.
The group allows Saik to dive deep into the numbers at the farm level and see first-hand the evolution of progressive farms integrating precision ag technologies as they get their production nailed down and then shift into marketing and HR strategies. “This gives me tremendous insight as to what’s going on inside farms,” says Saik. “It tells me where we’re headed as well as the pinch point farms are facing as they evolve.”
When a person reaches a certain level of success, there’s a freedom in the ability to direct energy into meaningful work projects. “I’m in a really unique position. I don’t have to protect a job, I don’t work for the government, and I don’t work for a big company. I stand on my own two feet. I say what I want to say, do what I want, go where I want, and work with who I want to work with,” says Saik. “I have the ability to speak my mind and move quickly to shape the world. I hope this means I can take my passion for ag that started on the farm in Innisfree and grow that passion to help shape policy in agriculture. I’m so lucky, I wake up every day on fire and so excited.”
In recent years, Saik’s taken on projects that showcase the wisdom and sustainable practices Canadian farmers can share as well as those that give back to the industry to foster continued improvement and growth. That includes penning two books, The Agriculture Manifesto: 10 Key Drivers that will Shape Agriculture in the Next Decade and Food 5.0: How we Feed the Future, published in 2019 along with his TEDx talk, Will Agriculture Be ALLOWED To Feed 9 Billion People? Saik and son Nick have also founded KNOW IDEAS Media, an online collection of agriculture science videos.
“I believe the way to feed the world more sustainably is not just to grow more in Canada and the US, but also by exporting our knowledge to emerging agriculture areas such as Africa and Mongolia” says Saik. “We have to do way more, punch way above our weight to feed the planet, but I really feel strongly that we need to be working with [others] to lift people to a higher level of prosperity through sustainable farming practices that really work. That’s through adopting modern technology.”
Walking the walk, Saik is a partner alongside other Canadian and Australian shareholders in Omer Farms, near Gulu, Uganda. The 5,300 acres are used to grow sorghum, dryland rice, mung beans and chia, at times employing up to 100 people. There’s much to learn with the region’s long growing season supporting two crops per year. The adequate rainfall patterns mean abiotic stresses are less than here on the Prairies, but the biotic stresses of insects and disease make crop management prove more challenging. For Saik, altruistic hopes loom large in his motivation to be involved, including providing employment, lifting the standard of living in the area and improving schools and grocery stores. “The region of Tanzania, Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda, if they really harnessed their production power, they could feed most of Africa just using that region alone,” he says.
What will it really take to make such deep impact? Leveraging Canadian ag entrepreneurs, that’s what. “We have to get more young people into the sector and put our money where our mouths are,” he says. “I’m encouraging our agricultural entrepreneurs to step up, start more scholarships, support more ag startups, create careers on farms and in businesses and push the clean and green brand of Canada harder. How do we win the agriculture game? We step up. It’s up to those of us who’ve been blessed with success to give back into the industry. I certainly want to influence our industry and I’m in the game for the long-term. I’m not done yet.”