Movers & Shakers: Shane Thomas of Upstream Ag Insights
If you know anything about Shane Thomas, you might be surprised to learn his original major in college was Psychology. But at second glance, it might have been foreshadowing his eventual path: creating compelling content at the intersection of human behavior and agribusiness.
With a professional journey that led him from being a senior agronomist to marketing director to global digital ag leader, Shane has the spectrum of boots-on-the-ground experience to C-suite engagement, and everything in between.
So it’s no surprise that when his interests began to pivot and writing became an outlet, he spun up his own content (Upstream Ag Insights) and began consulting (Upstream Ag Ventures) with some of the leading startups and venture groups in agriculture.
We caught up with Shane to learn more about his background, his take on top agtech trends, and what he’s up to in his spare time:
Magnetic: Tell us about your background? How did you end up in the agriculture industry?
I never grew up on a farm, but my dad worked in the ag retail and grain origination area of the industry. After my first year at University of Lethbridge, where I majored in Psychology, I needed a summer job and my dad lined me up with one at a local retail slinging chemical and running the bobcat loading fertilizer.
I ended up touring around with the agronomist and became enamored by the crop protection aspect of farming, specifically its complexity, which is what still engages me every single day about the industry.
From there I fell in love with the industry and changed my major to agriculture.
What made you think ‘I’m going to start a newsletter’ and what was the gap you saw in agribusiness that launched Upstream?
My intention actually stemmed from the standpoint of wanting to learn.
In my early days as an agronomist, I would read agronomy-related information a lot, but felt that it was difficult for me to coherently convey the information to farmers or colleagues. I began writing for an online ag publication and started my own blog, and it helped me distill my thoughts into a more (or at least semi) coherent fashion.
As my passion for the intersection of technology, agriculture and business progressed, I thought to myself, why not post more consistently and do so on the aforementioned topics?
I think back to my days in marketing or agronomy reading a press release or announcement and wondering how does this impact me? How does this impact my team and the company? I would ask around the industry about these tech announcements and it was apparent there was a lack of confidence in what the implications were.
While I don’t claim to always have the best answer, my aim is for the Upstream Ag Insights newsletter to be a relevant resource and jumping-off point for industry leaders to begin conversations, explore ideas, or consider a different perspective than their own.
You analyze a lot about the industry, its major players, and current trends. What’s one concept or idea you’re really bullish on as you think about the future of agriculture?
There are areas I am more passionate about based on my background and work experience, like the use of digital systems in ag retail and ag commerce or see and spray technology in the crop input world. I am very bullish on both of those areas.
However, the concept that excites me the most is the collision of technologies. Farming and agriculture don’t happen in a silo. One piece of technology impacts the practices and outcomes elsewhere on the farm and in the value chain. This will become increasingly apparent in agriculture.
If we look at most of our technology, whether in automation, the agronomic space, the grain space, or the customer experience space, a lot of the promises and opportunities are enabled by the coming together of sensors, data, and artificial intelligence.
What’s the future of Upstream Ag Insights look like?
I think there are a number of routes it can go, but in the short term, I want to build out a more robust business/market intelligence and analytics platform to support agribusinesses across the world.
I think what’s worth mentioning too is that I have every intention of keeping a part of Upstream Ag Insights as a curation, highlights, and analysis-based email. I also have a desire to build out some e-books and e-courses as well.
You wrote an excellent article titled 20 Career Tips for 2020 Graduates. From that list, what’s your favorite tip that you enjoy sharing with young people in the industry?
One area that underpins them all is the concept of Learning Broadly, which is a term I think translates more specifically to “Stay Curious”.
The more curious you are, the more humility you will have, the more knowledge you’ll acquire, the more interesting you’ll be to people, the more you’ll find what drives you, the more value you can add and I could go on and on. Being curious will never go out of style and I think harnessing the idea of staying curious and consistently applying that within the industry lends itself to not only more career success but a higher level of personal satisfaction in the workplace and out of it.
Who is your mentor in the industry & how did that come to be?
I have been very fortunate to have the right people be present in my career at the right times, instilling various learnings in me that I apply every day.
When I started out in the industry, Scott Knutt put up with my constant questions about agronomy plus providing me with opportunities to learn. As my interests in the business of ag retail progressed, I had individuals like Trent Jensen and Russ Reich give me confidence that I could expand beyond agronomy as well as provide me with exceptional leadership guidance.
And in my most recent endeavor of starting my own business, I have had Susan Groeneveld be a staple of exceptional support and advice.
In my opinion, the best mentors, leaders, and people always want to give back, particularly to the individuals that show a voracious appetite to do the work to get better and contribute positively.
What was the last book you read, and what’s a key takeaway or insight you took away from it?
I recently re-read Railroader: The Unfiltered Genius and Controversy of Four-Time CEO Hunter Harrison by Howard Green.
Hunter Harrison revolutionized railroading, a pillar of the North American economy, creating billions of dollars of value for shareholders which makes him exceptionally interesting to me. He’s an individual that never accepted the status quo.
The concepts that stick out from the book for me continue to be this: precision and adaption.
Two areas stand out:
- Railways used to measure car efficiency in days. Did the car get there on Monday or not? Monday at 7 am is much different than Monday at 7pm, but technically the car got there on time either way. Hunter Harrison moved the railways towards measuring the accuracy of car delivery to hours instead of days.
- One of my favorite quotes from the book: “If you don’t like change, you’re going to like irrelevance even less.”
I think this is a good reminder for us as professionals and people; we must constantly adapt. The only thing worse than the pain of change is what an unwillingness to change leads to: irrelevance.
If you weren’t working in agriculture today, what do you think you’d be doing?
Two areas I have long been interested in are consumer retail and human behavior.
Before I changed my major to agriculture I wanted to be a sports psychologist, so that would be one potential path. I also found traditional consumer retail to be fascinating probably due to my interest in finance, retailing, and human behavior.
What does Shane like to do for fun when he’s not analyzing agribusiness information?
I am a huge nerd so I definitely derive a lot of enjoyment out of digging into the agriculture industry. But in my spare time, I really enjoy reading on diverse topics, investing, and staying fit, whether it’s in my home gym, on the Peloton, hiking, or walking my dog, Jagger.
Counter to my fitness endeavors, I thoroughly enjoy concocting unique high-balls/cocktails with my girlfriend Allison, specifically novel recipes for Old Fashions!
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