Learned so much speaking with Connie Bowen, Director of Innovation and Investment at AgLaunch a network that connects farmers and startups as well as the cohost of the End of Agriculture podcast. We discussed the importance of diversity in both farmer networks and startup teams, the different types of investment opportunities in agriculture, why irish butter doesn’t get the sustainability credit it deserves, the opportunities for sustainability minded farmers to go direct to consumer, why labor issues in agriculture is such a major and under discussed aspect of agtech and more!
Here is the audio. The excerpts below are lightly edited:
MCWALTER: Can you tell us a little bit about Aglaunch?
BOWEN: Aglaunch, at its core, is a farmer network based in Memphis, Tennessee, with a focus on the Delta region. At its core Aglaunch connects technology startups with farmers. We are also quite intentional about developing an inclusive pipeline for the future of agriculture and agriculture technology by being very intentional about education and historically marginalized communities and ensuring that the future of agriculture is as bright as it can be.
MCWALTER: What is the typical profile of those farmers who opt into the network?
BOWEN: It is very intentionally diverse. We’ve got your traditional row farmers including soybeans and cotton. And then we’ve actually some really interesting non now active network members is one acre, he produces all year round and hoop houses, he’s gone direct to consumer and COVID. He’s this he’s got like six or 700% sales, he had to convert everything away from restaurants. And so we kind of divide our farmer networks up right now about a bit geographically. So we’ve got what we call our world delta network that’s largely based in Tennessee, but it does blur into surrounding states. We’ve got our urban network in Memphis, which is in its earlier stages, but that’s focused more on urban farmers, we’re seeing really especially crowd, you’re seeing hydroponics, some kind of funky stuff, it’s really focused on community inclusion, and food access, then you’ve got Iowa network tends to be more traditional water, a lot of soy, and corn in Iowa. And then our Oregon network we’re particularly excited about because there’s, it’s focused really in the William Valley, which is a super diverse crap region. So we get a lot of specially crap farmers in there. But we do I should mention, we do have specially crowd farmers. So we do have livestock producers in our Delta region.
MCWALTER: Are there margins in ag to support VC type investments?
BOWEN: There are definitely VC investable opportunities in ag. Though VC is appropriate for a lot of companies, but maybe not for others. Let’s say you have a specialty Apple harvester, right? What’s the best case exit for that company, it’s never going to be a unicorn. And so you so there are different ways you can approach those opportunities. I’m a big fan of impact investment in a lot of cases also.
MCWALTER: In terms of the startups that are most successful, do they typically have founders coming from agricultural backgrounds?
BOWEN: I’m a big believer in diverse teams across the board, I like to see someone from an agricultural background. And really, I think we don’t see enough people from a kind of a consumer background in agriculture, because I think that’s a big part of the missing kind of linkage. The thing that matters most across the board for startups is coachability, and willingness and desire to work with the people who you need to work with to grow your company. And that in a lot of cases in agriculture is farmers. Not in all cases, but in many cases that might mean getting colocated? I mean, obviously, we’re in COVID times so everybody’s remote, but maybe more people should be moving off the coasts and getting into the heartland more and try to walk the land a bit?
MCWALTER: How did you end up working in agriculture?
BOWEN: If you told me five years ago that I would be living in Missouri, I would laugh at you. I grew up in suburban New Jersey, with New York City being like THE city. I then did this entrepreneurial fellowship program called Venture for America which is how I ended up in St. Louis. And through that, I learned a lot about things like urban agriculture and our family also has a corn and soy farm in Iowa. And so I had that exposure, but definitely wasn’t living it. For people working on agriculture, it is helpful. Because the reality is, you do need to have some boots on the ground experience or at least a very high degree of empathy on your team. And I do think that can come in the form of kind of an advisory member or good listening can kind of be a good stand-in for that.
MCWALTER: With the 365 day nature of farming, how best can entrepreneurs work with busy farmers in order to deploy the technology or idea?
BOWEN: I guess the first thing I would say is farmers are a very, very broad category. A crop farmer is far different than a Midwest massive acreage row crop. So you need to segment your market and understand who you really need to be talking with and I think that it can be very difficult to do. It’s a relationship building game and I have seen a couple of startups that I really admire essentially build their own farmer networks. And they’ve done that by very deliberately talking to people who they’ve been able to get warm introductions to.
MCWALTER: Agriculture is full of large entrenched enterprises, can these companies be disrupted?
BOWEN: Great question. I think that it’s possible, otherwise, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing. Part of our thesis with Aglaunch is that it’s not possible for that kind of disruption to happen independently so you do need to have a support network. If you look at Monsanto/Bayer they have a grower testing network, and resources that enable them to focus on different innovation areas and capturing different market areas. So startups do need that as a company and it’s very difficult to assemble them all on your own
MCWALTER: What are the opportunities for farmers looking to decarbonize?
BOWEN: Take the example of Irish dairy which is really one of the most sustainable ways to create a product like butter, and who doesn’t love Irish butter! It also tends to be pastured which is a carbon sink opportunity. However, the way that the EPA accounts for ag emissions means that we are not calculating all the benefits. Then when you look at policy fixes that are being implemented, the only solution is to cull cattle and that’s not a good solution for agriculture or the Irish economy either, which has a pretty strong reliance on agriculture. And it’s not a good solution for global sustainability because when you put Irish butter next to most other production systems it is a lot more sustainably produced. And so that’s a problem with our carbon accounting methodology.
I do think there’s an opportunity for farmers to directly monetize, by bypassing conventional aggregators and purchasers and forming their own different types of models which can feed into a greater focus on sustainability. I hesitate to use the word coop because coops aren’t always serving farmers in the way that you would think that they would. But in this world where we’re seeing an increase in direct to consumer sales and a renewed focus on traceability alongside cheapening of traceability technology it will create opportunities for farmers who want to market directly, bearing in mind that marketing directly is a heck of a lot of work.
MCWALTER: So if there still needs to be if not a coop than some other form aggregation, maybe the “Low Carbon Farmers of America”, whatever it is, and they have some form of verification step allowing their milk to be easily used by direct to consumer brands?
BOWEN: My belief is that people don’t actually want to know more about their food and the food system. Most people, I mean, you and I might, but that makes us exceptional, not normal. Most people aren’t going to learn everythin#bbffd7g about their food system. Most people wouldn’t understand why I would want that hazelnut orchard to be organic, and another crop to be conventional but both for sustainability reasons? Like, that’s just no one is going to get that. And so I believe that it’s going to come down to branding and trusted brands and so at one level the big existing brands have an opportunity. But on another level, they’re going to have to acquire smaller brands, because they’ve got something of a tainted brand already.
And that’s where I think that there’s an interesting opportunity that’s tech-driven. And we’re actually working on a project with this as well that links special attributes like some sustainability factor into a smart contract system with an institutional purchaser who can actually start to nudge the supply chain in specific directions. In theory but it’s complicated. But it does enable diverse diversification practices without adding another label as those labels like organic and fairtrade etc get really overwhelming.
MCWALTER: If you think about a 10 to 15 year time horizon, what are the things you’re looking at that might have the largest impact on decarbonization?
BOWEN: Soil is the cheap way to draw down carbon and I am a huge fan of silvopastoral systems. And then I also think, and this doesn’t get talked about enough, in my opinion, one of the major challenges to actually adopting regenerative practices is that weeding is not that much fun. It’s very expensive and requires a lot of labor. And so then you start to talk about robotics and farm equipment that requires some type of investment. And you can’t talk about that without talking about labor crews. Labor policy is how people are treated, how people are paid. How do we even source the labor? Because there are massive labor shortages in this country. Then step back and say, Hmm, it’s kind of a problem that in an economy where there are high unemployment rates, we still cannot source people to do this work. What does that say about this work? And so I think one thing that doesn’t get talked about quite enough in the regenerative agriculture conversation is the role of contract labor. And this kind of historically biased system interacts with technology adoption in key ways that need to be addressed and isn’t talked about.
MCWALTER: How has COVID-19 affected your views on agriculture?
BOWEN: I’ll say about the labor situation, generally, I think that we don’t give enough attention to essential workers in the agri-food logistics system. And that’s just really terrible. But what it has done is it’s really brought agriculture more to the forefront, it’s on the front pages a lot more often, people are a little bit more nervous about where their food is coming from. And I think that that’s good and it creates some opportunities that we have we can build upon. I don’t know that awareness will be a lasting change but I do think that we have accelerated adoption of direct to consumer which creates some interesting opportunities in terms of connecting farmers to consumers throughout the supply chain.
MCWALTER: What is your podcast, the End of Agriculture about?
BOWEN: My friend Sarah Maka, who’s a freelance journalist and I accidentally started a podcast where we examine what is behind key elements of agri-food systems. We don’t actually want the end of agriculture to happen, but we think it’s worth exploring the issues so that we can think thoughtfully about the future.