Insight: why business can learn from agriculture

To Press Releases listVevey,Oct 6, 2014

Hans Joehr
INSIGHT: Hans Joehr, Nestlé Head of Agriculture

By Hans Joehr

A farm in the middle of the Swiss countryside might not be the most obvious place to hold a management training course, but it’s where we take groups of our executives to encourage them to think differently about how to drive innovation.

Why? Because business can learn from agriculture.

This particular farm is by no means the biggest, or the most technologically advanced I’ve seen, but it is streets ahead of its peers when it comes to creativity and vision.

A family-run enterprise, it makes the most efficient use of every piece of land it has, while all the time preserving ecosystems and boosting productivity.

The farm combines dairy and pig farming, with management of a certified forest. Land not used for food production is left free for hedges and wildflower meadows to flourish.

All the farm’s operations are controlled from an iPad, including the machines that generate energy from wood from the forest, which is sold to local communities.

It’s a great example of how you can grow a business, without depleting natural resources.

More with less

This idea of doing more with less is not new to agriculture.

Many farmers are aware that they are being asked to increase production to meet the demands of population growth, but in a more sustainable way.

Take the dairy sector.

Traditional milking is a kind of ‘one size fits all’ model. A number of cows are milked together at regular times of the day, when the farmer decides they are ready.

Today’s most sophisticated dairy farms overturn this practice.

Personalised approach

Cows in these farms have magnetic chips around their necks, which link up to robotic milking machines. The animals are able to wander around the barn freely.

When a cow decides she is carrying too much milk, she simply walks over to the milking robot to be relieved.

farmers at work
CHANGING PRACTICES: Farmers must increase production, but in a more sustainable way.

This means that the cows are being milked at different times throughout the day. It requires less equipment and labour, and makes optimum use of the available space.

It’s not just more productive for the farmer; it’s much healthier and more comfortable for the animals.

Cows kept in such an environment can behave more naturally. In response, they produce more milk, and tend to develop fewer health problems.

The same system helps farmers to feed individual cows differently, depending on their nutritional needs and level of milk production.

All cows receive the same amount of food in the barn, but the machines can dispense additional feed when the animal is being milked.

Let’s say a cow, 'Matilda', produces a lot of milk and because of this, is deficient in a specific nutrient.

The machine identifies Matilda by her chip, and will give her more feed than the others.

Bringing benefits

Although these techniques are efficient in the long term, they require an initial investment far beyond the reach of low-income farmers.

We must also look for simple, low-cost methods that can help farmers do their jobs more efficiently.

One area with potential is apps for smartphones that are now being made available to farmers across many emerging countries.

These apps, from agricultural services like iCow , are helping farmers gather information they previously had no access to, such as market prices, detailed weather forecasts or technical advice.

The idea is straightforward and effective. Farmers already have a phone, so you only need to help them to take full advantage of its features.

It shows that technology doesn’t only make a difference in terms of inputs and outputs. If people are trained how to use a tool properly it can also be an enabler.

People development

Today the real challenge is providing those millions of farmers worldwide who lack basic literacy and numeracy skills with information in a format they can understand.

If we can help farmers to become more knowledgeable, not only can they improve productivity, lower their production costs, and in doing so, increase their income. They can also do it more sustainably.

It’s one of the subjects we’ll be talking about this week at our CSV forum in Switzerland.

We hope the discussions will encourage people to see that innovation doesn’t always need to be on a grand scale. You can start small and make a big difference.

It’s a similar message to that we give to our managers on the Swiss farm.

We try to make them focus less on what limits them in terms of time and resources, and more on making the most efficient use of what is already available.

It’s an important lesson, whether you conduct your business in a boardroom or in a barn.

Hans Joehr is Nestlé Head of Agriculture.

Insight is where you can read diverse perspectives of people in our company.