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Taking agtech to the farm

Tennessee-based AgLaunch revolutionizes ag technology development with farmer network and in-the-field trials
Story by: Sarah Geyer 2/25/2019

When it comes to agriculture technology development, there seems to be a fundamental disconnect between Silicon Valley startups and the product end users, the farmers.

“The problem is that many of these agtech startup companies develop their products with minimal or no farmer input,” says Pete Nelson, executive director of AgLaunch Initiative, a Tennessee-based organization focused on creating new opportunities for farmers in agtech and value-added enterprises in partnership with the Tennessee Department of Agriculture. “The way we view it, farmers are often asked to buy a half-baked solution without having skin in the game with how it is developed.”

AgLaunch is working to change that model through a unique program for agtech startup companies with pre-commercial technology. The non-profit is the only accelerator in the United States to offer startups access to a network of farmers who are willing to offer their land and expertise for extensive on-the-farm field trials.

“There’s a lot of investment in technology right now, but most of that is not connected to the ones who use the products,” says Pete. “So everything we do starts with, ‘You have an interesting robot, an interesting new insecticide, whatever the product is, we need to get it onto the farm and have the farmer vet it.’”

The AgLaunch Farmer Network (AFN) is a group of farmers from across Tennessee who are testing new innovations and participating in new marketing approaches to highlight progressive work on their farms. They include Batey Farms, Rutherford; Brannon Farms, Henry; D&J River Farms, Franklin and Lincoln; Growing Acres, Hardin; Harrison Dairy, Loudon and Monroe; Mid-South Family Farms, Hardin, Haywood, Lauderdale, McNairy, Shelby, and Tipton; Norwood Farms, Henry; Rose Creek Farm, McNairy; Sneed Brothers Farms, Shelby and Tipton; Tosh Pork, Henry; and Yeargin Farms, Gibson and Weakley.

As a member of the network, farmers play an active role in selecting the startups to participate in AgLaunch.

“We’re looking at those small ideas that may make a big impact but might not make it through the existing channels,” says Pete. “We are not looking for pie in the sky ideas. We want practical solutions that are scalable and that will provide real solutions to farmers and a return to investors. Of particular interest are startups that address major problems in agriculture, such as herbicide-resistant weeds, spray drift, water management, supply chain integrity, and soil health.”

As a member of the AFN, farmers are not obligated to participate in field trials. However, if a farmer does identify a startup for collaboration, cost-share funding will cover the grower’s hard-cost expenses with the project. For their time and expertise, the farmer is offered equity compensation from the company.

GroGuru is one of 10 startups selected by AgLaunch last year. The California-based company has already experienced success in soil and irrigation management for specialty crops through their monitoring sensor system that allows for irrigation recommendations. With a well-established foothold in this high value/low acreage market, the owners of GroGuru are looking to expand into row crops.

AgLaunch partnered the startup with a member of its farmer network, Grant Norwood. The fifth-generation farmer and his father, Don, raise corn, soybeans, and wheat on 3,000 acres in Henry and Carroll counties.

“We buried their sensors and installed their transmission poles on a 270-acre, double-crop soybean field with a pivot,” says Grant. “We chose that farmland because it has similar soil and ground type inside and outside the pivot, with the one variety of beans on similar ground, the results should be very reliable.”

During their field trial on the Norwood Farm, GroGuru developed a wireless system that is contained completely underground.

“Without the need for the previous system’s poles, we can place sensors anywhere in the field and farm right over them,” says Grant. “With the sensors closer to the plant roots, we are able to get very accurate information.”

The Henry Farmers Cooperative board member also helped the company create a one-step, at-a-glance way to look at mid-season data. It allows the farmer to take a quick look at one screen and have the information to make a decision.

In addition to the cost-share reimbursement for field-trial expenses, Grant also has an equity position in the company and rights to technology for his region as compensation for his time and expertise.

This year, GroGuru will field test their new wireless system on a handful of network farms.

“We encourage these startup companies to view their farmer-collaborators the same way a tech company would view a mentor pool,” says Pete. “GroGuru took the recommendation to heart and formed an advisory board, providing those farmers with equity, like Grant, to have a seat at the table as a fundamental partner.”

In addition to supporting entrepreneurial innovations, AgLaunch has expanded its business development program to provide funding, connections, and education for farm-originated projects and farmer-led startups.

A few years ago, Brandon Whitt of Batey Farms saw a diversification opportunity in Tennessee’s expanding brewery and distillery industries — malted barley.

“I know other farmers have looked into growing barley but with the nearest malting facility in North Carolina, providing malted barley for area breweries just wasn’t financially feasible,” says Brandon, who along with his father-in-law, John L. Batey, raise hogs, hay, corn, soybeans, wheat, and pick-your-own strawberries on the family’s 1,800-acre farm in Rutherford County. “Our farm is located in the dead-center of the state. It would logistically make sense to at least pursue building a malting facility here and then distributing it to the 40-plus breweries and distilleries at our back door.”

But first, Brandon had to do the heavy lifting on crop development — with on-farm trials to identify the best varieties, testing various agronomic practices to find the best fit for a crop that requires intensive management, working with breweries to identify their specific malted barley needs and preferences, marketing the product and building relationships with potential customers, and learning the malting manufacturing process.

“We’ve been working with AgLaunch for about a year and a half, and they’ve been able to cover our costs to haul the barley to North Carolina for malting and then back to Middle Tennessee for distribution,” says Brandon. “That’s a huge expense when you’re self-funded even though you know it’s just temporary.”

Another benefit of AgLaunch, he adds, is funding the cost of his marketing promotion: “We offer a free 50-pound bag of malted barley to any brewery or distillery. It’s yielded us good results. We’re able to get the product in the hands of a potential buyer and make follow up sales from it. By establishing a market through AL funds, we’ve built an opportunity for other farmers in Tennessee to add value to their acres.”

In addition to the cost-share benefit, Brandon says he’ll depend on AgLaunch to help him build a network of farmers looking to add barley acreage to their operations. As for building a malting facility on or near the farm, the Rutherford Farmers Cooperative member says planning and implementation for the project are in the final stages.

“We hope that with the new program, more Tennessee farmers will get involved in the venture side of the agtech industry and value-added businesses,” says Pete. “Our goal is to help create opportunities led by Tennessee farmers that will directly benefit other state producers, especially in rural areas, with the potential to create jobs.”

To learn more about AgLaunch and how to participate, visit

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