Small Farmers Used to Be at the Mercy of Big Agriculture. This Startup Is Helping Them Push Back.
Say you’re a farmer and you want to test a new brand of seed that one of your vendors has been hyping. You may plant a test plot in spring, but you won’t see results until fall, and then, of course, you’ll want to test it again for a few more seasons to ensure you’re seeing a pattern and not a fluke. After three years pass, you make a judgment call, but you’re still left wondering whether it really was the seeds that made a difference, because it could have been the new fertilizer you used. Or maybe the crop spacing. Or the land quality. Or any of the dozens of variables that can impact a harvest.
“As a farmer, it takes a long time to learn,” says Steve Pitstick. He should know. He’s been growing corn and soybeans on a 2,600-acre plot of land in Maple Park, Illinois, for years, often operating on a hunch, a slick sales pitch from Name Your Big Agriculture Conglomerate, and what limited data he gets from his own farm.
But a few months back, Pitstick was at a conference where he heard about a startup called Farmers Business Network, which aggregates data from farmers across the United States to help them learn from each other. “Within a minute of the presentation, I said, ‘I’m in.’ It was exactly what I’d been looking for,” Pitstick says. “My thinking was: If I can see a larger dataset, I can learn more quickly.”
Pitstick, apparently, isn’t the only one who thought so. Farmers Business Network now has data on nearly 7 million acres of farmland across 17 states. That may be just the beginning.
Today, Farmers Business Network is announcing a $15 million round of funding led by Google Ventures. According to Andy Wheeler, a partner at the search giant’s investment arm, data is becoming ever more important to agriculture. That’s one reason why the firm also invested in a company called Climate Corporation, which uses weather data to provide insurance to farmers and eventually was acquired by Monsanto.
“Agriculture has gone through waves of productivity increases in the past,” says Wheeler, who comes from a family of farmers in Iowa. “Now we’re entering the period of data being one of the primary drivers of that increase.”
Among its 37 employees, Farmers Business Network has plenty of farmers on staff, but its founders, Amol Deshpande and Charles Baron, are straight out of Silicon Valley. Before launching the Network, Deshpande was a partner at Kleiner Perkins, while Baron was working as a product manager at Google. Baron says he always has been fascinated by his brother-in-law, who grows corn and wheat in Nebraska, and the sheer number of variables that went into his job. And yet, as a proud Googler, Baron says he couldn’t get over the fact that all of this information was siloed, inaccessible to other farmers.
“Google’s mission of organizing the world’s information is very much how we think of ourselves in organizing agricultural information,” he says. “We believe the best way to empower farmers and help them make the best decisions is to make information more transparent.”
Baron took this idea to Deshpande and, after speaking with farmers across the country together, they launched Farmers Business Network in 2014. For $500 a year, farmers can submit their data, benchmark it against other farms nationwide, find the best seeds for their soil, and see a Consumer Reports–like review of hundreds of agricultural products, among other services.
Pitstick says these tools have not only given him more confidence in his decision-making, but they’ve helped him cut through the often misleading claims of vendors. For instance, one type of seed he had been planting was underproducing, a problem the vendor—no surprise—said he could overcome by buying more seeds. But when Pitstick checked that seed on Farmers Business Network, he found that none of the farms in the network had seen the results the vendor was promising, a problem Baron says is all too common.
“It’s like if ExxonMobil were to sell cars, they’d always sell you Suburbans. That’s the same dynamic farmers have had. They’ve had to use the information the seed company has,” Baron says. Now, FBN is giving these farmers a chance to talk to each other at scale and separate the wheat from the chaff. Or in this case, the wheat from the wheat.
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