Agriculture- Less of a “Fallow Field” for Silicon Valley Venture Capitalists

Nancy Pfund indicated on a recent column at The Wall Street Journal Online that, “Across the heartland, planting season is getting into full swing. Farmers are revving up their tractors and rural towns are coming to life. Sitting in my office in San Francisco, I am taken back to a moment last winter when my perspective on agriculture shifted.

“It was a freezing December day in Omaha, Neb., and I was relieved to duck into the warmth of the conference hall. Technology expos are my natural habitat as a venture capitalist. But I had never experienced an event like this one. The hall was filled with more than 1,000 farmers from across the Midwest. Scattered amid the bluejeans, plaid shirts and cowboy boots was the occasional hat reading ‘Make America Great Again.’ That’s when the Silicon Valley bubble burst inside my head.”

Ms. Pfund indicated that, “In 2014 [Amol Deshpande and Charles Baron] founded a company called Farmers Business Network, based in San Carlos, Calif., with a national operating center in Sioux Falls, S.D. For an annual $600 membership fee, farmers who join FBN get access to the combined data of its 3,500 members. FBN also sells agricultural inputs online to compete with local branches of large farm stores—like Amazon but for fertilizer.

Agriculture had been a relatively fallow field for Silicon Valley’s venture capitalists. Farming was out of sight and out of mind, and investors who seek a social impact, as my firm does, had looked more often to urban challenges. By 2014 it was time to change this investment monoculture. My company’s first investment in FBN was about $3 million, and we were in good company. Kleiner Perkins had helped to hatch the company. Later the venture arms of Google and the Campbell Soup Co. joined as well. It was a marriage of the West Coast and the heartland.

“But the importance of bridging the cultural gap didn’t hit me until FBN’s conference in Omaha. The sessions had titles like ‘The Start Up Farmer,’ and presenters offered concrete suggestions for picking which seeds to plant, saving money on essential inputs by buying online, and getting higher prices for ‘identity preserved’ crops.”

The column added that, “Venture capitalists often speak abstractly of technology’s power to transform whole industries, and that’s what FBN aims to do with agriculture. But that cold day in December helped remind me that new tools can also change lives for the better—one farmhouse at a time.”

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