‘My Swiss parents shaped my entrepreneurial spirit’
Tim Bucher’s parents left Switzerland for California in search of a better life. A portrait of a man who learnt to take risks and has become a successful farmer and high-tech entrepreneur.
Dry Creek is a valley in the heart of Sonoma County, California. Rolling hills, vineyards, olive trees and bodies of water shape a landscape that resembles the Italian countryside. This sensation is amplified by the many farms with Italian names, like Trattore FarmsExternal link.
Tim Bucher, an entrepreneur of Swiss descent, has been passionate about tractors since he was very young. “On Sundays I can spend up to ten hours in the fields. Immersed in silence, I reflect on my ideas,” he says.
Bucher is a successful tech entrepreneur with the heart of a farmer or, more precisely, a winemaker. In the 1990s he founded Trattore Farms (“trattore” is Italian for tractor) with his wife Marie Louise, an engineer like himself, whom he met while studying computer architecture at Stanford University.
His parents arrived in California in the early 1950s. Like many other people, they were looking for a better life in America. They came from Inwil in canton Lucerne, central Switzerland. “I really started appreciating the story of my family and my Swiss heritage when I interviewed my father for an assignment in high school,” Bucher says.
His father told him that he had arrived in New York on a plane with a few dollars in his pocket, without knowing what he would do but with great hopes for a better future.
“That story was somehow shocking to me. I realised for the first time how hard it had been for my parents to say goodbye to their families and their country and to face a new reality where they were immigrants. My mother used to talk a lot about those difficulties during the last years of her life. Especially about how hard it was not speaking English,” he says.
His mother died in December. “It has been a great loss,” he says. “My parents have been an inspiration. They passed on to me the courage to take risks and to be resilient. They shaped my entrepreneurial spirit,” he says proudly.
As a farmer at Trattore Farms and as a tech entrepreneur, Bucher has cultivated his two greatest passions simultaneously. “I’m very lucky. I never had to sacrifice either of them,” he smiles.
His inclination towards innovative and disruptive entrepreneurial ideas – the quintessence of Silicon Valley culture – has pushed him to fund several start-ups in the tech industry over the past 28 years. Cloud services, AR/VR projects (augmented reality and virtual reality), gaming and electric vehicles are some companies that he has founded. He took one company public and has sold others to tech giants like Microsoft, Apple and Dell. He has also held executive roles next to figures like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs.
Bucher is now CEO and co-founder of AgtonomyExternal link, a company with a hybrid autonomy and tele-assist platform for agriculture vehicles. Here farming and technology, the two leitmotifs in his life, have finally merged.
“I grew up on a dairy farm, which is one of the hardest types of farming. When I was a kid, I had to help at the farm,” he says. “Working on a farm is like working at a start-up. You try to survive. Nothing is guaranteed. You take risks and try hard to make things work. It depends on you whether you make it or break it.”
When he was 16, he tested himself. “The parents of my Italian friends in Sonoma were winemakers. I used to help them harvest and slowly I learned the work from them. My mother understood that I was passionate about it, so she bought two acres of vineyards here in Dry Creek Valley and I started producing my wine.”
Later in college he studied agriculture. It was by chance that he ended up studying computer science. “I lost a bet to a friend, so for a semester I attended his computer classes,” he says. “I was so fascinated and surprised that I understood the subject without any effort.”
This was the first step towards a future as a protagonist of the first tech boom in Silicon Valley.
Tech boom and Silicon Valley
“They were wild years,” Bucher recalls. He was studying electrical and computer engineering at UC Davis. “I hadn’t finished university yet and I’d already accepted a job at IBM. But before starting there, I visited a start-up where a friend of mine was working. It was Sun Microsystems. I was struck by the incredible energy there and decided to not go to IBM, but to start there instead. It was one of my best decisions. It ignited my wish to be experimental and to innovate.”
By the late 1980s the energy in the nascent Silicon Valley was electric. There were endless possibilities.
“The sector was on fire and that continued throughout the 1990s until the tech bubble in 2001-2002. After that there was a little correction and then it started up again. In that environment you worked hard and played hard. Your whole life was centred on your work. Your friends were there, and you spent your free time there.”
Since then the culture in Silicon Valley has changed a bit. “In some aspects this has been for the better, I must admit. Work-life balance has become a value. Topics like inclusion and impact on the environment are now critical in the tech industry. Back then it wasn’t that way,” he says.
“Now I see less courage to take risks. Many people want to be entrepreneurs and want to launch start-ups, but the desire to make money, to become famous and to get accolades prevails. Some of them are without a vision and aren’t ready to make sacrifices. Real entrepreneurs have a purpose and want to make an impact on the world. They believe that the impossible is possible.”
Bucher describes the time he decided to leave a well-paid job for a start-up called NeXT Computer. “Steve Jobs launched it. They asked me to join this new company and offered me half the salary that I was making. It was a risk, but I accepted because of Steve Jobs’ vision and because I would be paid with equity, which meant that I would become part owner of the company. I would be responsible for a company that was also mine.”
Agriculture and sustainability
From the patio of his house up on a hill, the view opens to the surrounding landscape. The conversation moves to the impact of the pandemic and climate change on the land, and the wildfires that have devastated large areas in California.
Bucher talks about the difficulties of the hospitality sector and wineries. “What we do is very hard work, but my wife and I are very proud of what we have created over the past 24 years. We come from the tech industry, and it felt essential for us to build a community around our farm.”
Their farm consists of almost 40 acres, where they produce wine and oil using sustainable practices. “At a very young age our kids brought up the idea of sustainability. We got excited about that idea, and I decided to put in our first solar plant. Now we have a high-tech compost centre and a water-recycling plant.”
For Bucher, the farm is not only a place that anchors him to his origins, but it is also a source of inspiration for his entrepreneurial ideas. This is where his “impossible becomes possible”.
From those reflections, Agtonomy was born. This is a project where all of his passions have merged: agriculture, tractors and technology. The start-up’s goal is to use technology to support agriculture, he explains.
“Climate change, the difficulties of supply chains during the pandemic, and the manual labour shortage, especially for repetitive tasks, have hit local agriculture harder than Big Ag,” he says, referring to corporation-led agricultureExternal link.
“These are difficulties that I have experienced first-hand on my farm. I realised that the majority of automated-drive technology is applied to operate in Big Ag. On the contrary, Agtonomy wants to offer an accessible automation service for local farms that cannot afford millions of dollars of machines.”
It is a sector that Bucher calls Local Ag: small farmers whom he wants to help produce local and sustainable food.
“Agtonomy focuses on software to enhance the performance of those machines,” he explains. “In the tech world nobody is paying attention to the 80% of farmers in the world who have small to medium farms. Almost all efforts of the autonomous technology are applied in the urban area. But we can achieve more impactful solutions if autonomous technology is used in agriculture,” he says.
“Five years ago I didn’t even mention my farm when talking to high-tech investors. It wouldn’t have been an interesting topic. However, today they are interested in Ag Tech. It’s fantastic. It means that we are all more sensitive to topics like climate and the environment.”
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