Google Ventures is the leading investor in a $15 million round of funding for the Farmers Business Network, a company that is using big data to show farms large and small how to make the most of their business.
Farmers Business Network is the brainchild of Charles Baron, a former program lead of energy innovation and geothermal projects at Google. For $500 a year farmers can contribute to and access FBN’s giant store of farming data that tells them which products and methods deliver the highest yields for a specific crop in a given location.
One year, between projects, Baron spent a couple of months pulling ears of corn on his brother’s farm, driving the grain cart and working the combine. “What it taught me is that farmers are the quintessential entrepreneur,” he says.
In addition to learning agronomy, farmers have to order and maintain equipment and a variety of products, as well as marketing their own farm and selling their food.
To bring these food-based business owners into the 21st century, Baron teamed up with Amol Deshpande to create back-end software for farmers. The database aggregates information about individual farms, like type of seeds used, amount of fertilizer sprayed, pressure applied during planting, as well as environmental factors, soil nutrients, and farmer yields, to show farmers how they can make their operations more efficient. It allows farmers not only to get a global view of their farming operations, but also to see what techniques and products other farmers are using and with what success.
Traditionally, farmers have relied on conversations with other local farmers, controlled research from land grant universities, and data from farm suppliers to make decisions on what products to use. But that’s changing.
“The farm has become digitized, so you have an increasing amount of data in the field,” says Baron. Many of today’s farming tools are already collecting data; however, these tools often don’t talk to each other. For instance, a farmer might have data analytics from a John Deere tool that measures soil nutrients and a tool from Monsanto that analyzes seed productivity. Not only do these networks not share information, they’re inherently biased.
Farmers Business Network wants to give farmers a single independent interface where they can log their data and anonymously share it with other farmers around the country. The result is contextualized data about their own farm that they can then compare to competing farms’. Access to a farm’s data in a single location could also help prevent excessive use of chemicals and fertilizer, which could in turn lower related contaminated waterways near farms.
Since launching to a private group in November, FBN has accrued 7 million acres’ worth of data with lots of room to grow; in the U.S. there were roughly 400 million acres used for crops in 2007, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
“There’s a huge global opportunity,” says Andy Wheeler, general partner at Google Ventures. “When we took a look at the size of the market we saw that half of the farms in the U.S. could directly use this.”
Baron says that he’s already seen interest from farmers in Eastern Europe and Asia in his network, but for the moment his venture is entirely focused on building out in the U.S. So far, FBN is publishing results on 16 crops and 500 seed types in 17 states.
In total the company has raised approximately $28 million in funding from Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers and DBL investors in addition to Google Ventures.