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From trade wars to climate change, farmers’ prospects are increasingly dire. Can tech provide the solution?

In St. Paul, tech entrepreneurs shared their big plans to “disrupt” the food system. A day later in Minneapolis, farmers painted a darker picture.

Whether helping farmers access new markets or eliminating paperwork or replacing ancient equipment and techniques, startups see opportunities to use new technology to help farmers.
Courtesy of Techstars

One by one, founders of food- and ag-tech startups entered from stage left, wearing black hoodies or a casual blazers over t-shirts emblazoned with their companies’ logos. Their entrance music — personally selected — was drowned out by cheers and applause in the packed 3M Auditorium at the Minnesota History Museum on the first night of Food, Ag, Ideas Week.

It’s the kind of enthusiasm you expect around tech unveilings, but the guy on stage is usually talking about iPhones, not cow udder health.

A little over three months ago, nine startups rolled into downtown St. Paul for the first Techstars Farm to Fork accelerator, during which they acquired mentors, built out their visions at breakneck speed, and crafted the messages they would use to woo investors. They drew energy from their shared ambitions to “disrupt” the food system with data insights, mobile apps, and products that bring solutions to outsized issues like food waste and financing.

During their demo day on-stage pitches, they gave a glimpse of how they’re working to leverage the hundreds of millions of dollars investors are pouring into ag-tech to solve the practical problems perplexing farmers around the country.

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“There’s nothing better than thinking about what a farmer needs and the problems they’re facing,” said Lauren Pradhan, managing director of Grow North, the University of Minnesota initiative that spearheaded Food, Ag, Ideas Week. Food, Ag, Ideas was designed to connect people across the food system, from Fortune 500 companies to startups, from retailers to farmers to state workers. Grow North started two years ago to foster a more collaborative region in the areas of food and agriculture innovation.

Efficiency pressure

Across the river less than 24 hours after Techstars’ demo day, a different, much more somber and sparsely populated session showed why approaching innovation from a farmer’s point of view is a big deal.

Sitting in a neat line on a Guthrie Theater stage, a panel including two dairy farmers, a corn and soybean farmer, and two fresh vegetable farmers took turns sharing the biggest threats they’ll face in the next five years. It was the same day the IPCC’s latest climate report was splashed across the front pages of major news outlets, warning of major climate changes inside three decades. Farmers were frank and sometimes pessimistic. They face perpetually low prices and oversaturated markets, trade wars that exacerbate their situations, and weather patterns that keep everyone who works in a field wracked with anxiety.

Alise Sjostrom, who started Redhead Creamery on her parents’ dairy farm five years ago, and Meg Moynihan, an organic dairy farmer, worked hard to focus on opportunities and the role consumers can play in supporting local farms. But Moynihan knows dairy farmers are calling it quits by the dozens. And Sjostrom said robotic milkers — the tech her family dreams about as they face a labor shortage — are completely unreachable because of the cost.

Harold Wolle, board member of the Minnesota Corn Growers Association, said his combine keeps getting stuck in the mud. “Despite what people in the administration think, I believe climate change is real.”

Rodrigo Cala, an immigrant from Mexico City who worked in a factory until he could start his own farm in Turtle Lake, Wisconsin, said he makes more money teaching other farmers than selling his crop.

Jack Hedin of Featherstone Farm, who penned an op-ed for the Star Tribune about the danger the weather poses specifically to local food producers, wondered if the never-ending quest for efficiency will ensure farmers can’t afford to keep at it.

Afterward, with his arms folded across his chest, Hedin said he felt like the guy at a NASA convention where everyone is rallying around a mission to Neptune while he contemplates the problems needing attention right here on Earth. If farmers can’t get a fair price that allows them to maintain an operation that provides high quality food while properly stewarding the land, “does what I’m doing really matter?” he asked.

Connecting local markets

Sam Eder, founder of Big Wheelbarrow, one of the Techstars’ nine ag-tech companies, would say yes, it does, and his are the kind of concerns that compelled the company forward in the first place.

Big Wheelbarrow works with buyers who want to source more locally produced food for their grocery stores, restaurants, cafeterias, meal kits, etc., by consolidating inventory lists from small farmers in and around cities, making it available all in one place for buyers to review and place orders. He knows small farms across the country are trying to find stable markets in their region for local products – an area of increasing demand that fetches higher prices. By making it easier for buyers to stock locally grown food, he believes he’s addressing a piece of that.

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“When you’re in the trenches, you see that pain and it feels like it’s not getting any better,” Eder said. By rerouting supply chains and cutting out the brokers and distributors that each take their cut, he believes there will be more money for farmers. “That’s really what’s driving us.”

Whether helping farmers access new markets, like Big Wheelbarrow, or eliminating paperwork or replacing ancient equipment and techniques, startups see opportunities to use new technology to help farmers. Meanwhile, farmers need them to approach those opportunities with an eye on the repercussions if their new great idea goes belly-up in a couple of years, Jan Joannides, executive director of Renewing the Countryside, said after leading a lunchtime discussion on local food’s role in revitalizing rural economies.

“Tech does have so much potential… there is so much potential and there are a lot of things tech can bring to make farming better and easier,” she said. “But it can also add risks.”