Start-up company designed to give farmers data, choices
How much money could farmers save on their inputs if they could share boatloads of information among themselves and take advantage of all that shared knowledge to inform their decisions?
A new startup, called the Farmers Business Network, was created on that idea—farmers getting transparent pricing and better information when it comes to making their decisions on seed selection, chemical purchases and other inputs.
Originally, a small group of farmers put together the idea for this network and two entrepreneurs brought it to life.
“The Farmers Business Network creates a future for farmers that is independent, data driven, transparent and fair with real competition for their business. It all boils down to more profits for independent family farms,” state’s the company’s web page. (www.fbn.com)
In the few years the FBN has been in existence, it has nearly 8,000 farmers participating as members. Those farmers work 30 million acres of cropland in the United States and Canada and are in almost every state—from Florida to Alaska, but are most heavily represented in the Corn Belt. The network has members in nearly every state, including Wisconsin. It also has 350 employees from Mississippi to Washington and into Canada with three of them covering territories in Wisconsin.
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Charles Baron, a former Google program manager co-founded the network in 2014 with Amol Deshpande, a venture capitalist who had started other seed and agriculture businesses and is CEO of the FBN. Their business really launched a year later after they refined a platform to handle the increasing amounts of information from farms. The use of that data allows farmer-members to make better decisions using the network’s unbiased information.
Only a few years ago, this kind of network wouldn’t have been possible—the technology just wasn’t there. Now, with more and more data from farms readily available, FBN’s computing power helps farmers make decisions.
Their aim is to build the largest farmer-to-farmer agronomic and business network in the country, based on anonymous data-sharing from farmers. Farmers putting their data into the network’s database are guaranteed anonymity.
In a telephone interview, co-founder Baron told Wisconsin State Farmer that the network operates as an independent source of information for farmers and it is powered by the data they provide. “The Farmers Business Network then creates services and technology to leverage the power of that network,” he said.
Farmers pay $700 a year to be part of the network and can participate at any level they feel comfortable with. They can buy seed, chemicals and fertilizer through the network without sharing data if that’s their comfort level. Some farmers in the network, he explained, may have high-tech equipment with yield monitors and the data that comes with that. But other farmers have smaller acreage making it difficult to justify spending the money on the newer technology.
“We have farms in the network up to 20,000 acres and we have 80- to 100-acre farms,” Baron said. “We allow farmers to participate at whatever level of sharing and technology they have and feel comfortable with.”
The FBN analytics work with dozens of crops and integrate with over 60 types of precision software.
Farmers who join the network can take advantage of financing and marketing programs as well as buying fertilizer and seed. The network has even launched a program to sell health insurance to farmers.
“We created a plan with a partner last year for health insurance since that is one of the most out-of-control expenses for a farmer; and a huge number of farmers go uninsured,” he said. “With our plan, farmers tell me they have realized savings of up to 45 percent on their health insurance.”
The idea that sprouted into the Farmers Business Network was formed when a handful of farmers got together to toss around ideas about how they could compare their farm maps and seed performance. It became a kind of New Age way for farmers to compare notes at the coffee shop, but enabled the inclusion of farmers who were in different regions. They liked how they could see the way certain seed varieties performed on different farms and what optimal plant populations should be.
“When farmers start sharing information, they can cut through the marketing that comes from the industry,” Baron said. Once they had the data at their fingertips, many network farmers realized they were paying two or three times as much for their inputs as they should have been, he adds.
The original cluster of farmers was in northern Illinois and it quickly spread to Nebraska, North Dakota and Iowa. When word of the idea spread, those clusters of farmers expanded to include their friends and neighbors. Baron said many farmers join FBN with their friends to create local agronomic data clusters.
Growing up in California, Baron was not a farm boy, but says he became fascinated with the challenges for family farmers as he learned what his Nebraska-based brother-in-law deals with on his farm. “You have these small farm businesses all over the country that are basically disconnected and they face these behemoths in the industry that have vastly more information. It’s one of the challenges farmers face,” he told us.
E-commerce for farmers
Since launching the network Baron said they have added e-commerce in the form of FBN Direct so farmers can order fertilizer, chemicals and now seed—even some types of machinery. “We’re a low-margin e-commerce business so we are able to go direct to farmers,” he told us.
They began with sales of farm chemicals in 2016, which allowed their members to achieve savings of anywhere from 20 to 40 or even 50 percent. “Farmers liked that,” he says, “but getting into seed turned out to be much harder.”
Since seed companies didn’t want to supply FBN, he said, they started their own seed company called F2F Genetics (for farmer-to-farmer). They work with plant breeders and ship the seed straight to farmers.
The information in their database shows that yield differences across the country for genetically modified seed—corn with built-in traits to resist pests—has only a modest yield difference compared to “conventional” corn—varieties with no genetically modified traits. Baron notes that “the economies of using those traits have gone backward.”
Some farmers using the FBN analytics have reconsidered the value of using those traits. In recent years the vast majority of farmers have chosen not to plant the “non-traited” or conventional varieties. This year, many FBN members are doing it to reduce their costs.
Baron said the FBN’s seed offerings include conventional non-GMO corn as well as corn with the traits and soybean varieties with herbicide-resistance that has gone off-patent. That has the added advantage that farmers can save soybean seed from year to year, if they choose to.
Once seeds became intellectual property, he adds, smaller seed companies couldn’t develop traits and had to pay licensing fees to the technology developers. Now that some of those traits have run out of patent protection, the seed can be grown by others, like F2F Genetics.
They liken their generic seed to going to the drug store and buying store-brand ibuprofen rather than Advil. There is always a large savings attached to that purchase of a generic.
Farm income driven
Baron noted that one major factor driving the interest in the network has been the declining farm income experienced by farmers over the last five or six years along with the enormous consolidation in the industry that supplies agricultural inputs – especially seed and farm chemicals. “While farmers’ income has dropped, their costs of doing business have not abated,” Baron said.
In Wisconsin, farms with dairy operations are financially strapped even more and are looking for ways to save money, he adds.
Using the data-sharing through the network, farmers have found they can achieve big savings on things like seed and farm chemicals. For one thing, the information shared by member-farmers has shone a light on the fact that identical seed genetics may be marketed under a number of different seed labels.
One of the network’s projects asks farmers to take photos of their seed tags showing the multi-digit number that denotes the genetic variety. It is information that seed companies are required to include on their labels.
So far, farmers have sent in images of 20,000 seed tags to be analyzed. Baron calls it the seed re-labeling study. “Farmers told us to study this,” he adds. Network farmers are contributing their seed bag tags, seed price invoices and yield data to the FBN Analytics project.
“We have found there can be $100-per-bag differences in the same region of the country for the exact same seed genetics, marketed under different names. Our farmers have realized savings of $25 to $40 per acre planted. That’s a huge amount of money, especially in this farm economy,” Baron added.
They realize farmers might get a level of service or convenience from one brand that they feel warrants a higher price—like a replant guarantee for example—but the network is built on giving farmers their full options so they can make the best agronomic and financial decisions when buying inputs like seed.
Farmers who send in images of their seed bag tags get immediate feedback telling them if there are any matches in the seed re-labeling database for the varieties they sent in. This database created by the Farmers Business Network has revealed that seed companies routinely label the same seeds under multiple brands with dramatically different prices, Baron says.
Through the farmer data, they have discovered that some seed corn varieties may be marketed under 15 different labels.
“Farmers have been in the dark on this. We found some of our members were planting genetically identical seed in their fields and thinking it was something different,” he said. That’s because it was labeled and marketed as something else.
The FBN’s “seed finder” data gives farmer-members access to the largest seed performance database in agriculture, “powered by millions of acres of real yields—all farmer-driven, totally independent and unbiased.”
The goal of FBN is to take all of the farm acreage information that’s been input into the database and turn it into “one big test plot,” by aggregating and analyzing millions of acres of farm data through its analytics tools—all while allowing farmers who input data to remain anonymous.
Information about a given farm is never visible to other FBN members and that data is never sold. By participating, farmers get comprehensive field-level analytics, reports and mapping on their own farm, and can also access this aggregated data on seed performance and input prices as well as crop and market trends.
Agronomists and trusted advisors can also use FBN analytics to manage their client’s farm data and produce customized analytics.
“By tapping into thousands of fields and millions of acres of data, farmers can realize the power of scale of information that has never before been available to farmers—all created by and for other farmers,” state’s the company website. “That’s what we call Democratizing Data. Farmers, not the industry, deserve the benefit of aggregated information.”