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Practical Magic

Can an ex-Googler use big data to help farmers grow more food?

Startup Farmers Business Network, which currently analyzes 16 crops, has raised nearly $28 million from the likes of Kleiner Perkins, Google Ventures and DBL Investors.

Most independent farmers have amassed plenty of historical knowledge about their own land. Far fewer have access to external metrics that could help them make better management decisions, such as how new seeds may perform or other practices that could improve their harvests.

Enter agriculture tech startup Farmers Business Network (FBN), which at its heart is a social networking community for independent agricultural businesses.

Founded by a former Google program manager and a venture capitalist with a background in agriculture, FBN has disclosed a new $15 million funding round led by Google Ventures, along with Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and DBL Investors. The new money brings the Silicon Valley company close to $28 million in total backing.

The company exemplifies a crush of activity in the realm of technology-aided farming, with startups and large agricultural companies alike rushing to develop new sensors to monitor and make farms more efficient or better manage resources.

In 2014 there were a total of 264 ag-tech financing deals worth $2.36 billion, according to AgFunder.

Competition aside, there's also the logistical and cultural challenges of developing products that will prove reliable and appealing to farmers working in variable outdoor conditions.

Ag analytics

Technically speaking, FBN sells an agricultural analytics service for an annual fee of $500.

So far, the startup has amassed data for more than 7 million acres in 17 states. Its members manage anywhere from 100 to 40,000 acres.

The feedback becomes more useful as more farmers share data and anecdotal insights, so it’s little wonder that membership is growing by 30 percent each month based almost completely on word of mouth, according to the company.

“The choices that farmers make about their inputs and their land become more and more important … what seeds to plant, what fertility practices to use,” said Charles Baron, FBN’s co-founder and vice president of product. “They’ve been making those decisions using data that isn’t really representative of how they farm.”

Among other things, FBN’s software assesses yield potential for more than 500 seeds for 16 major crops including corn, soybeans, wheat, alfalfa and edible beans (garbanzo, pinto and black).

Baron, inspired by the farming experiences of his wife’s family, describes the farmers as the ultimate entrepreneur — equal parts agronomist, economist, grain marketer and animal health specialist. Baron’s co-founder is Amol Deshpande, previously a partner with Kleiner Perkins.

Baron believes the onboarding process for new members is fairly simple, which is one reason the network is growing so fast: FBN takes charge of uploading the data and then aggregating it so that everyone in the community can benefit.

“The emphasis is on interpreting the data and making it actionable,” Baron said.

Baron offers the example of one farmer whose seed dealer pushed him to buy a new type of seed, essentially amounting to an investment of $40,000 to $50,000 with no clear return. Some research on FBN, however, suggested that this farmer wouldn’t be happy with the performance.

Another FBN farmer who submitted more than 20 years’ worth of historical data about his land was able to evaluate how two big changes made during that time, including adjustments to row spacing, affected his harvest.

“It turned his intuition into benchmarks,” Baron said.

Growing an emerging market

The new funding will be used to expand the platform’s presence in other states, and to increase the sorts of data that can be interpreted.

“It’s really surprising how advanced and sophisticated a lot of farm equipment is,” Baron said. “A lot of onboard computers are collecting information about what’s taking place in the field. … If you can integrate those data sets, you can generate vast new insights about what’s taking place and why.”

Nancy Pfund, founder and managing partner of the San Francisco-based venture capital and impact investor DBL Investors, was inspired to invest after literally running into the cofounders on a San Francisco street. After listening to a few minutes of their pitch, she set a meeting.

DBL was an early investor in Tesla and SolarCity and supports emerging companies that could disrupt industries socially, economically and environmentally. Pfund believes FBN could inspire a new age of sustainable agricultural entrepreneurship.

“It’s all about helping farmers stay on their land, make a good livelihood and address a much larger challenge to feed the world,” Pfund said.

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