A deep respect washed over Charles Baron the summer he spent harvesting corn at his brother-in-law’s farm in central Nebraska.
“It’s an incredibly complex job and I was just amazed by it,” Baron told Business Insider. “Farmers are the quintessential entrepreneurs.”
The land had been in his brother-in-law’s family for multiple generations, and Baron saw the beauty of the situation, but also the growing struggles. As the prices his family could fetch for their product dropped, input prices — what it cost for seeds and fertiliser and equipment — kept rising.
Those several months in Nebraska and what he learned and witnessed proved to have a lasting impact.
Baron ended up joining Google as a program lead in its energy innovation department. He worked there for several years, before deciding to leave to get his MBA at Harvard. During a brief, part-time stint as an “extern” at Kleiner Perkins, he connected with Amol Deshpande, who had seen and understood some of the same agriculture problems that impassioned Baron. They started tossing around ideas about what they could build to deal with the issues, setting out to talk to as many farmers as possible until, in early 2014, Farmers Business Network was born.
The startup’s goal is to give farmers a tool to share, access, and analyse data about their land, crops, equipment, and yield to help make more informed decisions.
“Agriculture is fundamental to humanity,” Baron says. “Farmers have been advising each other about how to best grow crops and manage the land for centuries. FBN takes the conversations that farmers are having — at the coffee shop or diner or grain elevator or co-op — and it takes them online, with data. We allow farmers to share knowledge with each other in a new, anonymous, and aggregated way.”
FBN just raised $US15 million in funding in a Series B led by Google Ventures, with participation from Kleiner Perkins and DBL Investors. Google Ventures general partner Andy Wheeler is joining the startup’s board.
Part of what made the investment so attractive to Google Ventures, Wheeler told Business Insider, was how the startup combines big data with deep agriculture roots. Today, almost all of FBN’s employees, including the data scientists and engineers out of MIT or the exec from Adobe, have some sort of personal connection with farming. One spends his days digging into data but will farm through his nights.
“People in the industry have really been believing for a while that one of the next big opportunities for increasing [crop] yield and productivity is around the use of data,” Wheeler says. “Getting to be part of something like FBN that works with that data was really exciting.”
The team wants to give farmers a way to use independent data to increase the success of their operations. Because besides the informal conversations farmers are having, they are often getting information and advice from the companies who sell them their seed, equipment, and fertiliser, which Baron compares to buying a car from Exxon: “They’re always going to sell you a Suburban.”
FBN plans to use the fresh funding to expand — so far, it has analysed 7 million acres of data in the midwest, but wants to get more independent farms across the country on board. Because most operations now use many “precision farming” tools — planters, fertiliser applicators, sprayers, and tractors that are guided by GPS and can collect data — mining accurate, individual data isn’t hard. It also combines insights from independent sources, like weather and soil networks.
Pricing for farmers is simple: $US500 a year for complete access to the data and analysis tools.
“Farmers are getting squeezed more and more and more and are increasingly at the whim of a supply chain that they are not well-positioned against,” Baron says. “FBN was created to put them back in control, by allowing them to share information in new ways.”