Farmers Business Network Now Selling its Own Seeds

Bloomberg’s Elizabeth G Dunn reported earlier this week that, “Farmers don’t have a reputation for skewing to the political left, but just get them talking about seeds. At an expo center on the outskirts of Memphis one gray February day, several dozen of them make for a receptive audience as Charles Baron expounds over plates of scrambled eggs and home fries on the inequities of Big Ag. ‘On either side of your family business are these massive oligopolies,’ the 35-year-old says, gesturing toward a PowerPoint slide bearing the logos of agrichemical companies and commodities traders. ‘You, as growers, should have the power in the industry. There’s no reason you should have the lowest incomes when you do all the work and take all the risk.’ Around the room, baseball caps wag in agreement.

Baron is co-founder of Farmers Business Network Inc. (FBN), a five-year-old startup that says it can do for corn and soybean seed what Warby Parker has done for eyewear. For most farmers of such grains, genetically modified seeds with patent-protected advantages (weed resistance, insect immunity) have become the largest variable expense—and one over which they have little control given consolidation in the market. U.S. farmers spent $22 billion on seeds last year, 35 percent more than they did in 2010, and that increase can’t be explained by additional acreage. The product is sold through local dealers or retailers—almost never online—and prices typically aren’t posted.”

The Bloomberg article explained that, “To keep prices down, Baron’s company is developing seed directly with plant breeders, cutting out a string of middlemen. Today, FBN’s non-GMO corn seed, sold under the brand name F2F Genetics Network, ships directly to farmers for $115 a bag, compared with an average price of $270 a bag for GMO seeds. But FBN isn’t opposed to GMO products. As Bayer’s and DowDuPont’s patents begin to expire over the next few years (a lucrative one just did), Baron says he’ll incorporate those GMO traits into FBN products, too.”

Ms. Dunn added that, “FBN, which has raised almost $200 million from investors including Temasek, Kleiner Perkins, and GV (formerly Google Ventures), started out as a sort of Glassdoor Inc. for farmers: Members upload their own farm data in return for access to aggregate information from the rest of the network, which numbers almost 8,000 farms across the country covering acreage the size of Pennsylvania. The wealth of data has added some rare transparency to the seed industry. Farmers can now see they’re paying vastly different prices for the same product, with some laying out twice as much as others depending on scale, location, haggling skills, and other factors. They can also check how well a variety performs across hundreds of real farms. Baron, previously a program manager at Google, and his co-founder, Kleiner Perkins partner Amol Desphande, got the idea after talking to a group of farmers who were working on a data-sharing project.

Farmers need every advantage they can get. Despite rising productivity, their incomes have slid 46 percent in the past five years as worldwide gluts in commodities such as corn and soy have driven prices down. FBN members say the site’s pricing data have given them new negotiating power. As many as half of U.S. seed retailers expected FBN to hurt their business last year, according to Bank of America Corp.”

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