Washington Bureau Chief
Farmers Business Network, the newest Google Ventures darling, is changing the way farmers source fertilizers and pesticides with their recently announced procurement service, which dramatically reduces costs to farmers and uses data (rather than the recommendation of a local salesman) to guide application decisions.
While much of Silicon Valley looks to completely new spaces for AgTech that’s often several iterations away from being truly transformative (think indoor ag and alternative foods), FBN is tapping into the existing system of Big Ag and shaking it to it’s core.
For the past 70 years or so, farmers across the nation have depended on their local chemical dealer, a Mom&Pop operation in their rural town, for recommendations on what fertilizers to use, what pesticides to spray, at what times and in what quantities. Though this very personal network is notoriously strong, after a year like 2015, where farm incomes declined by as much as 36%, a technology that offers significant savings (FBN quotes one customer that saved up to $40,000) could be the energy needed to weaken those links.
The obvious upside to FBN’s new procurement service is that it adds an element of extreme precision to chemical application, which should reduce the overall use of fertilizers and pesticides in agriculture- a great outcome for farmers and consumers. Growers save money, and the rest of us are treated to less fossil fuels in our soil, water, and food. That was an obvious issue with the old/existing system; when a salesperson doubles as your advisor, they’re more likely to “advise” the amount that will get them the highest commission.
There may, however, be a downside to this service for the sustainable food movement. Moments when farm incomes are especially low and input costs are high encourage growers to broaden their purview of possible inputs, and creates opportunities for alternative inputs (like algae or waste-based fertilizers of alternatives to pesticides) to get under the noses of farmers. By providing the same inputs that farmers know and trust at a wholesale discount, FBN may be further entrenching the system of traditional chemical applications.
One thing we can say for sure, FBN’s acquisition service is a windfall for farmers, particularly in this challenging year. However, particularly with the growing threats of climate change, real crop advisors, unattached to chemical wholesalers, need to be kept around for those extraordinary years where the data won’t be the best predictor of input needs.
I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that FBN is positioning itself to be the Amazon of Agriculture. What that means for the future of food? We’ll have to wait and see.
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