Even the nation’s oldest and most storied industry — farming — isn’t immune to the information revolution. Here’s a look at the most promising technology startups that are seeking to improve the work and lives of America’s farmers.
When our nation was founded 241 years ago, farming was the economy’s primary driver. By 1870, nearly half of the employed population held jobs in agriculture. Today, it’s a $3 trillion industry – but only 2% of Americans hold a farm-oriented job. This is, in many ways, thanks to technology. Tractors and other automation advances in the 20th century let large farms shift management to only a handful of people. But this, paradoxically, has also slowed things down in the 21st. With only a few people working every farm, there’s not a lot of time – or incentive – to innovate.
“You only get 40 attempts at farming. From your 20’s to your 60’s, you get 40 seasons,” says Duncan Logan, the founder, and CEO of RocketSpace, a tech accelerator company. “In tech, you get 40 attempts in a week.”
But even farmland isn’t immune to the information revolution. Today, there are hundreds of agriculture tech startups around the world, and some experts say the situation reminds them of the early days of the internet: There’s a lot of activity in agriculture, but no clear winners yet – it’s hard to say who might become the Facebook or Amazon of the scene. Couple that with climate change pressures, the fact that two billion more people will live on this planet by 2050, and that just 40% of the world’s land is available to grow crops, and you have yourself a market ripe for innovation — and big money.
“The ag tech space right now is in a unique position. You can’t ignore the fundamentals,” says vice president of Business Development at AgTech Accelerator Corp., Corey Huck. “You have to produce a lot more crop on limited acres, and 70% of fresh water is already being used in agriculture. We have to do more with less at the end of the day and the only way you can do that is with technology.”
From irrigation hardware engineered to beat the drought to biotechnology startups cultivating future cash crops, Forbes has identified the 25 most innovative pieces of burgeoning technology in this space. Together, they have more than $400 million in financing. Those investments come from the likes of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Kholsa Ventures, GV (formerly Google Ventures), Monsanto Ventures and Andreessen Horowitz, as well as in-house venture capital arms like Campbell Soup’s Acre Ventures. Even President Barack Obama’s former White House chef is getting in the game.
To find the 25 ag-tech startups that carry the most potential, we surveyed the agricultural technology landscape by speaking with experts, venture capitalists, and accelerators; then, we examined financials and each company’s agricultural credentials. A special thanks go to Seana Day at the Mixing Bowl for her comprehensive research on the ag-tech environment.
In alphabetical order, here are some of the fruit of that labor:
AgCode: This vineyard management company helps winegrowers track harvests, field conditions, and grape maturity in order to maximize yields and manage labor. Oenophiles are on board: seven of the country’s top ten wineries use AgCode’s technology.
AGERpoint: This startup produces nut and citrus orchard management software that uses satellite data. The data is granular enough to provide tree-specific information, like the size of the canopy or the trunk diameter. The company expects to break-even in 2017 with $3 million in sales.
Arvegenix: Former Monsanto executives lead this startup, which is developing a new cash-crop called pennycress that can be added to field rotations between corn and soybeans. The winter cover crop protects the soil from erosion and soaks up nitrogen pollution – and makes money for farmers.
BluWrap: Using a patented oxygen management technique that extends the shelf life of fresh protein, BluWrap allows fresh protein suppliers to ship by ocean rather than by air, saving on costs.
Bovcontrol: This livestock manager is helping cattle farmers keep better track of their herds using cloud technology. Bovcontrol tracks inventory, vaccinations, nutrition needs and more. Ag cred: The company’s software is used by farmers on every continent (except Antarctica).
BrightFarms: The demand for hyper-local produce is booming, and BrightFarms is building and operating greenhouses in urban and suburban areas. The company partners with supermarkets like Giant, ACME, and Pick-n-Save and puts the farm at or near the store to maximize product freshness. Ag cred: The company has raised $57.9M in equity to date.
Clear Labs: This science startup is making a database of the world’s food supply by studying food on a molecular level. The goal is to use the information to help food retailers pick the best suppliers and avoid the next crippling foodborne illness outbreak.
CropX: An Israeli startup, CropX sells cloud-based software which aims to boost crop yields by focusing on saving water and energy. With in-field sensors, the system automatically delivers the correct amount of water to each plant instead of watering a whole field at a time. Ag cred: Founded in 2013, the company has raised $10 million.
Farmer’s Edge: A hardware and software product that uses satellite imagery and precision technology to help growers identify, map and manage farmland variability. Ag cred: To date, the startup has raised $94.3 million in funding.
Farmer’s Business Network: This big data company connects over 3,400 small farms with open data about yields, supply prices and other information that lets them compete with large operations. Ag Cred: Raised over $83 million in funding from the likes of GV and Double Bottom Line Partners.