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Intro:

[music plays] 

 

Niki: I’m Niki Christoff and welcome to Tech’ed Up. My guest today is AgTech investor Connie Bowen. She’s the co-founder of Farmhand Ventures and raises capital to help fix some of the toughest challenges facing food systems and farming. She has some straight talk for Silicon Valley investors who are pouring money into Agri-Farm Tech that just isn’t going to work. She also [chuckles] knows a lot about corn. 

 

Transcript:

 

Niki: Today in the studio, we have Connie Bowen, she's in D.C. for a venture capital summit and is an early-stage investor in AgTech, which I might be saying wrong. It might be Agri- FarmTech. We're going to talk about it, Connie. Welcome to the studio. 

Connie: Thank you for having me. Glad to be here. 

Niki: It's so- you're such a good sport to come in. I looked at the attendees at the summit and just so people know what it is, in case they don't:  Steve Case, co-founder of AOL, is based in Washington, D.C., he has a venture fund here and one of the funds in his world is called the ‘Rise of the Rest’ seed fund. And they basically look for tech investments that are not in Silicon Valley, New York City, or Boston. So, the rest, and I looked at the list of attendees and saw your name and what you're working on. And I thought it was so interesting. So, asked if you'd stop by while you're in DC and I'm grateful that you did. 

Connie: Yeah. I'm glad you reached out. 

Niki: So, let's talk about you for a minute. How did you end up working in AgTech, agriculture tech? You're not from farm country. 

Connie: Yeah, I am not from farm country, although I grew up in the Garden State. [Niki: laughs] So, like, you know, there's a lot of agriculture in New Jersey that people don't know about. [Niki: I don't think anyone thinks that!]  [Connie: chuckles] for sure though, Southern Jersey, we used to be number one in blueberries, we've got grape tomatoes. I could go on, but it won't. But, so, yeah, grew up in New Jersey, like New York burbs really, kind of like a Wall Street suburb type vibe. And I actually worked in restaurants. Like, I love food basically. And I've always really cared about sustainability. 

I debated doing, like, the restaurant thing instead of the college thing but ended up studying engineering because as people I worked for in the restaurant industry pointed out, you can be a chef with an engineering degree, but not the other way around. And one pays a lot better if you break your hand. So [chuckles] so, so kind of, I think marrying…I think that AgTech is the natural intersection of, yeah, food and engineering. So, that's kind of, I ended up building, like, food computers, so, like, vertical, so, fully controlled environmental things while I was in college and kind of, like, we're all into vertical farming now. It's, like, very hot and cool, but this was very early. 

The guy I built it with was one of the first engineers at AeroFarms, so, like, we were early in that, and that meant I had to work in startups. And so, I stumbled into this fellowship program called Venture for America, which is now a little bit competitive. Andrew Yang started it way back when [Niki: Oh man!] It was, [both chuckle] it was, it was, it was less competitive when I got in, but it's, it's so, that's how I ended up working in St.Louis. So, I was actually- which is where I live today. 

So, I was the second employee, really at The Yield Lab, which was arguably the first AgTech accelerator or Agri-FoodTech, we can call it whatever we want, but I like, like Agri-Food is broader, I suppose. And so, when I started out, we were like, huh, I wonder if we can raise a fund specifically around AgTech. And it turns out you can, you can raise several funds [chuckles] and you can deploy them probably pretty well. 

But so, when I was at The Yield Lab, I saw a lot of, kind of, like, impact washing in not, y’know, we wanted, we were focused on sustainability in Ag. And so was everyone else, was trying to raise a fund in AgTech at that time, but there were a lot of stretchy definitions of impact. And I wanted to try to actually quantify and give ourselves standards.

So…through my work with the yield lab and, and investing in, like, early stage AgTech companies, I also, I observed, kind of, like, a disconnect between ag and tech and I figured I could learn more about ag. One thing I didn't mention is my family does have a farm in Iowa. I did not spend time there really as a kid. I now go up and visit the guy who farms it all the time, but um-

Niki: [interrupts] But this gives you some credit. [Connie: Yeah] Like, this is the funny thing [Connie: Yeah, yeah, yeah! ]  I want to talk about farm culture. First of all, you just said a lot of words no one has probably heard or [Connie: Ok, ok] thought of before, including me. Like, I hear greenwashing, [Connie: For sure, for sure]  but I've never heard “impact washing.”

I want to dig into a couple of things you talked about, but part of why I'm interested in this is the cultural connection. I actually grew up in a rural area west of Indianapolis. Before we started recording, I was asking you if technically growing up with chickens in a barn and hogs that were slaughtered was a farm. And amazingly you asked me, like, per the USDA definition, was it?

[both chuckle]

Answer? No!  But I did spend time as a kid in feed stores. And what interests me is kind of what you're talking about, the disconnect between who's investing in some of the potential solutions around AgriFood, Agriculture Tech, which are often people from the world I entered into, which is Silicon Valley.

I lived in Silicon Valley for a long time, right by Sand Hill Road, where all the venture capitalists are. We know they've done clean energy investments and they're starting to turn more to this area you're in. And so, for me, it's kind of like an interesting cultural nexus between like how I grew up and then what I ended up doing for a living. And I just want to hear from you, so let's definitely dive into it, but, I think, I see it as also a disconnect, but you have a better way of phrasing what that disconnect is. 

Connie: No, there is a huge disconnect and I mean, that's, what's so cool about ag too!  Like, it intersects every element of kind of, like, I'm, like, a clearly a liberal artsy-fartsy kind of person, but, like, it intersects everything, right?

And there is this weird thing in agriculture that I think is problematic actually. That is, like, we glorify whatever the farthest generation farmer you are, the more street cred you automatically have. So, like, you're a fifth-generation farmer, you start a start-up, you're going to have no problem raising funds.  Because which, because why? And also, it's silly that the, on the other end of that, there's this problem that I like to call “tech bros fixing farms.”

Niki: Tech bros fixing farms. I love it. I love it! Well, tech bros are, can fix anything. [Connie: Obviously.]   I don’t know if you’ve heard.

 

[both chuckle]

Connie: Right! And they don't even have to visit, But like, you know, I've heard-  if a company thinks that their device is going to work in sugar beets and soybeans that tells me that they have either not been to, to both, they haven't been to both types of farms. Right? Because, like, those are just really, really different systems. And [chuckles]

Niki: [interrupts] So, one thing about Connie, for our listeners, I was research- I always research our guests and anything they've said before they come on. And I was reading a column you wrote, and I'm going to call it “corn shaming,”  [Connie: chuckles] which is where you basically talk about this phenomenon of, y’know, people who- and I know a lot of these people I'm really quite good friends with a lot of people who went to Stanford, became a venture capitalist, are trying in all earnestness to, like, help raise money for things that will help major, major problems in the world. And you sort of make this point, like, you, if you don't know the difference, it was like a “kernel burn.” It was like, if you don't know this about corn, you actually don't know what you're doing. And you could, and worse, you could make things worse or fail to fix things that are fixable.

Connie:  While I was working with The Yield Lab I was simultaneously managing a family office in New York that invested in direct investments and funds. They were there in some of the top, top, top 10 VC funds. So, it was great ‘cause I got an opportunity to observe like normal coastal New York, Boston. Investment fund returns and direct investments, terms, and multiples as compares to Midwest AgTech, emerging fund returns, multiples, projections, and even just like processes. And there's a misalignment.

And, like, there that you're going to, if your investors have expectations that a couple of your companies are going to be unicorns and that's completely unlikely in the context of, in a certain time, timeframe too. And that's pretty improbable with a lot of AgTech investments. I worry about that. I mean, one that's I think a problem for your LPs, but I care less about that than I am worried that what will happen with AgTech is what happened in the nineties with Clean Tech 1.0.

Niki: [interrupts] And Clean Tech 2.0, which I was in Silicon Valley for. [Connie: yeah!]  Just so people know, that's where you had tons of money pouring into CleanTech technologies that did not pan out within a seven- year exit horizon, which is what venture capitalists want. Or just didn't work. [Connie: Right] And a lot of these funds really didn't make a return.

Connie: Invest in AgTech, we need to, and I, we can talk about that, but, like, do it intelligently and realistically, and understand that it's gonna take awhile to scale and understand that the robot that can pick an apple is going to be very expensive to learn to pick a pear and it, yeah. We can talk about the different shapes and different types of apple orchards in different geographies and, like, it's expensi- You have to do a lot of, kind of, custom work for relatively niche markets that are expensive to service. And that's a real problem. It's a business opportunity, but it's probably not a billion dollar business opportunity.

Niki: Right. But that doesn't mean you can't make money and shouldn't do it.  [Connie: Right] So, let's shift from the financing and the investment opportunity, and you are doing a different kind of fund, and I, 100% love this: drawing comparisons because there is this sense of- what did you call it?  [Connie: Tech bros fixing farms] Tech bros fixing farms. However, there is a role, like not just disruption for disruption’s sake. But what's the opportunity in AgTech or Agri- FoodTech?

Connie: There is this clear pull from the kind of, like, I'm, I hate to do this because this gets, like, politicized, but the kind of, like, elite coastal type folks and I don't mean that disparagingly because arguably I feel like I identify in that category sometime, like-

Niki: [interrupts] Oh my gosh, me too, same! [both chuckle] Although, I also feel like a flyover state person in my bones.

 

Connie: Yeah. It just, like, we're all more similar than I think we think, which is what's so cool about agriculture, but, but there is this clear demand for healthier food.  We want local. So, we want regional food economies where- regenerative is kind of the new organic. [Niki: What does that mean?] Okay, great question. [chuckles]  There's all sorts of different definitions. There's not one that we've clearly defined. I don't know that I want us to clearly define one cause without going into the weeds, I don't love the definition. Definition of organic at the end of the day, consumers are going to buy based on marketing. 

And I actually believe that a lot of consumer trends and what, kind of, the things, the messages that big food. [interrupts self] And again, not trying to be, not meaning that disparagingly, but the message that like big food kind of pushes to consumers tends to what hot chefs were doing five years, five to ten years ago.  Which I think is really interesting. So, and I think about this personally, right? ‘Cause, like, circle back, I thought about being a chef. I was like, “Oh, I don't know if that's going to be impactful enough.” And I actually think it's highly impactful when you can be kind of the artist influencing how people are thinking about interacting with food. And so, pull that back to Ag. 

It's extremely difficult to create new food brands and I'll bring, like, the cool company. For example, a company called Planet Forward,  they are like a regenerative source-  ingredient sourcing engine. Regenerative ingredients are, regenerative farming is not practiced on a majority of aqueous. 

Niki: Wait, what is regenerative? 

Connie: Sorry, sorry. Sorry! 

 

[both laugh] 

Niki: Like, I think I get the gist of what organic is and I know-

Connie: [interrupts] Yeah. Regenerative is just, kind of like, next-level organic. There's, it's very focused on soil health. So, the assumption is [Niki: Got it!] that if soil is more nutritious then plants are more nutritious. It's a little bit more systems-oriented. A lot of definitions include like community and people and like holding, [Niki: So you’re not like stripping the soil of everything and] Instead of using, like, fully synthetic chemical fertilizers, which deplete microbe life, you are using, maybe organic fertilizers, you might be mulching. You're probably cover cropping. 

Niki: And so just to back up, cause you're so deep into Ag and like most people, I think probably if I've never heard of regenerative food, [Connie: yep, right, right] but I think the point you're making is these chefs, fancy chefs can bring an idea of farm to table, organic, maybe regenerative into the, like, zeitgeist, [Connie:  Yeah, the mainstream vernacular]  the mainstream vernacular. And then you have for lack of a better word elites who want to be healthier and have the means to buy things that they think are healthier and they're getting this messaging and this marketing. And then your point is, that that culture shift can affect how we farm. 

Connie: Well, it has to, right? What's weird about farming is it's less demand-driven than you would think.  Like, farmers get, are, like, commodity farmers get about, like, 16 cents on the food dollar and for fruit and vegetable, like, stuff that we eat, it's actually a much higher percentage but it's still, you know, say sub 25%. So, most of that money is going to the processing. You know, the more processed it is, the more money goes to the processors, but still, most is going to retail, and so, and that's an issue because farmers don't have incentives to change practices, to meet theoretical demand. Like, there's a disconnect between supply and demand and food. 

So, what I'm more interested in is trying to figure out how do you change nutrition availability for everyone, actually. And I do think that you're going to have a poll from the people with money because that's, who's going to bear the premium during the transition, [Niki: yup] theoretically, but I also think that the way that invests- [interrupts self] 

So, investors looking at the AgriFood tech space are generally the Whole Foods shopper, farmer's market shopper type who have a lot of disposable income. And they generally haven't spent time working on farms with farmers driving, just driving through the middle of America. And so, I think that that means that there's a tendency to be attracted to things that they would want to buy but the reality is they are a very small percentage of the population that wants to buy those things. And also there's a supply chain challenge. Where you can say, I want, we'll even say organic because it's more mainstream and I'm getting too nerdy with the regenerative, but like, you can say you want organic crackers, organic dairy, but right now it's really hard for farmers to reliably produce that like premium-atized product [Niki: mm-hmm] because there's not an economic, like, the commodity system doesn't allow for that. 

And a lot of people will talk in, like, the, in this space, talk about de-commoditization, which is kind of insane. If you really think about what commodity, like, if we had de-commoditization, we'd have to be like swapping tomatoes for shoes. [Niki: Right]  [Niki: laughs] Like, that's not what we want. So, I like to use re-commoditization, but you can't facilitate, you have to somehow produce the thing that is special on the farm in order to get that special product on the grocery shelf.

Niki: So, to just kind of recap, and I'm going to say this much, in a more succinct way and tell me if I'm getting it right. [Connie: Sure.] Basically, people with money can bear some of the costs of shifting to potentially healthier or better food production. However, it may not be realistic when you actually look at how food is produced and farmed, and the investments that people are making are based on sort of their lived experience in cities and on the coast and it's maybe not reality-based. And so, what, what do you think is, like, popular in AgTech, and what do you think should be cool and popular? 

Connie: So, like the two best examples of that are vertical farming and alt-meat, I'll say, alt-protein, whatever word we want to use for it. And both, from a venture capital standpoint, both of those areas are ridiculously overpriced. Maybe these are coming down, like, literally in the past couple of weeks, but still ridiculously overpriced and the fundamental economics of both categories, I would argue, are completely missing. 

Niki: When you say meat, are you talking about, like, Impossible Meat? 

Connie: Yeah! So, I'm, I'm broadly categorizing it. So, there's, plant-based meat, like Impossible Meat and then there's cell-cultured meat. And there's, like, there are so many alternative protein companies out there and, like, I’ll,  turning it into protein is like a broader spectra. It's so hot. We're all obsessed with protein now, right?  [Niki: Right?] Yeah!  It's like, and so, of course, everyone's going to market for it. Like, you know, when, like, all these different commodity groups are marketing for people to consume more of their thing it doesn't matter what it is. Like, I'll use blueberries, ‘cause I farmed blueberries, as an example, like, there’s a lot of content out there about why blueberries are going to save your life. And like, I love blueberries. They're a good, healthy thing, but protein is going to do that too. And when you've alt-protein doing it we just eat more.

Niki: [interrupts] Okay! I'm wanting, this is, like, such an aside, but I have to say it. You're from Jersey- Kellyanne Conway's from Jersey. [Connie: mm-hmm] Her Secret Service name was ‘blueberry’. She also worked at a blueberry farm. Sorry!  I'm just telling you facts. I'm just here for a little fun fact.  [both chuckle]

Connie: But that's a good fun fact. 

Niki: It's a good fun fact. I mean, I don't mean to demoralize you, [Connie: laughs]  but that's a fun fact. Okay! So, vertical farming, focusing on alternative protein sources. You think that's hot, hyped, and not really where the focus should be.  What should people be investing in, thinking about what, given that you are obviously really studying the science behind it and the practical realities, what should be a cool, interesting investment? That's actually going to make a difference for our food system.

 

Connie: I love manure tech for some reason I have garnered a reputation for being [chuckles] [Niki: That's unbelievable.] It's yeah, it's a fun, [Niki: laughs] fun area. You get a lot of pun opportunities. It's a lot of, like, calendar invites that are [pause] fun. A lot of poop emojis. [Niki: laughs] But I mean, it's a super opportunity. We look…Look at what's happening in the macro economy right now, in terms of fertilizer availability. Guess where we have fertilizer? Animal poop. Like, dairies are the mines of the future.

Niki: [interrupts]  I love this! This is so interesting. Okay. So manure tech, finding a way to take what is a natural resource. And use it. 

Connie: Yeah! And the thing that's cool about it is, like, it's not rocket science, actually. Like, we do have the technology, it's, like, business model innovation that needs to happen. And incentive changes, and there's some companies that I'm very excited about in that space I could go on, but I won't.

But, I also think that, like, I talked about alt-protein. Animal feed, I think is the most interesting application for all protein actually, because we're not going to stop eating animals as people. I just don't believe that that's true. So, I really like animal feed, I think-

Niki: [interrupts] So changing what the animals are eating, [Connie: right] You think that's where people should be paying attention as opposed to trying to change what we eat. 

Connie: Pigs will eat anything. 

Niki: Wow.

Connie:  You know this!

Niki: I do know this. Actually. I will say this. I know this. I know this. Yes, but they will bite anything.  [Connie: chuckles] They will eat anything.  [Connie: Yes] Do not wear flip-flops and drop watermelon juice on your toes if you're near a pig. 

Connie: Oh, that, that sounds like a personal experience situation. [Niki: laughs]  But yeah, so like animals eat stuff that we can’t eat. And so, therefore, it made the way the food chain kind of works as it does make sense to eat animals. I'm not, I had-also, we can totally improve animal production. 

Niki: So, I will say this as someone who…I work, obviously, in tech, I'm around a lot of venture capital investors. I see a lot of investments in ghost kitchens and in these alternative meat and alternative protein products.  [Connie: Yeah]  I know people literally working at the front edge of that space. I've never heard of, until this week, manure tech. I've never heard of many of these things. And basically what we're calling for is like, let's actually have a data-based approach [Connie: Yup] rather than a sort of, like, gut feeling that this farm seems cuter therefore better. [Connie: Right, right1] It's like the ultimate Portlandia episode of, like, “Did this chicken have, like, a good life before I eat it?”

Connie: [chuckling] And like, that’s, we talk about traceability in Ag all the time. And it’s, like, you don’t want traceability, you don't have time to go to the store and, like, figure out your chicken's name, even if you're a really rich person with a ton of free time. 

Niki: So, your basic call to action is if you're going to be investing in stuff you best spend some time like driving through the middle of the country, or you're just going to, like, spend money on things that aren't gonna work. That the return expectations need to be more reality-based for people who are investing, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't invest. That AgTech, Agri-FoodTech, is critically important to our stability, especially with everything happening with the climate. We, we need resilience in the food system. This is all the work that you're passionate about. I'm going to end on your main passion project, which is labor.

Connie: No one talks about labor. And when I was working in Oregon, overseeing- so, we managed six farms in Willamette Valley-hazelnut, hemp, blueberries- and I was overseeing and working alongside crews of, primarily Mexican, seasonal workers.  We're just not designing for the crew. Like, there's just a disconnect because you're only ever asking the farmer, and he's not mad about this problem because it's, he doesn't let me know it's really a problem. 

And so, there is this, so I think that labor is a bottleneck. First of all, in terms of adopting things like irrigation technology, in terms of adopting all sorts of hardware, harvesting, pruning, planting equipment, all of that stuff. And I think that it's also, like, the most morally important thing to solve for. And then from an economic standpoint, it's the largest line item [Niki: got it] on any farm operation budget. And in particular on specialty crops, so, like, stuff we eat: fruit and vegetables and nuts. 

And this goes all the way back to, okay, if we want more regional production of fruit and vegetables and nuts and stuff we eat, we need labor near us. And, like, I have done some work, with, there's this great group, this farmer network in Memphis, Tennessee called AgLaunch. that is really focused on getting farmers involved in innovation, right? And they have done some work with the World Wildlife Fund on kind of looking at- California has kind of a water problem.

Niki: [interrupts] Yeah, no, I know!  And almonds. For a while, we weren't supposed to eat almonds? I don't know. 

Connie: [interrupts] Hazelnuts I can eat all the time. I could go on but we don't have time, but hazelnuts usually okay. 

Niki: [interrupts] I'm just going to take your word for that. [Connie: chuckles] I have literally never bought a hazelnut in my life but-  

Connie: [interrupts] l love hazelnuts. They're cheaper than almonds. They're good,  lower water intensity, easier to farm 

Niki: [interrupts] Love it! So, two takeaways, manure tech and hazelnuts. 

Connie: [laughing] If California runs out of water, you can't produce fruit and vegetables there. That's where almost all U.S. root vegetable production is. Where does it go? The Delta, the Mississippi Delta region, the mid-south Southern Missouri, Tennessee edges, kind of, of Kentucky along the river, down to Louisiana. Like. that region is very fertile farmland. It's super cheap farmland. There are a lot of farmers, but do you know what's missing labor? 

Niki: Labor! 

Connie: There is no labor there. And the other component is, if you look at automation and technology solutions, those solutions right now are only being built in the states with the highest minimum wages and most overtime, most restrictive, overtime laws for seasonal workers because I think that we will see a shift in automation and I don't think we'll see a shift towards full automation. So, like, [clears throat] I think you’ll see a lot of venture capitalists investing in robots that are gonna fully automate farming, and that's not going to work, is my hot take. It’ll work on certain contexts, super controlled environment, indoor stuff, maybe strawberries. It generally won't work. 

Niki: And so, this is a great, this is a great hot take. And maybe we end with this hot take, which is if we think about the water issues in California, if we think about the fact that we depend so heavily on very specific places, for a significant amount of major types of food that we eat, [Connie: mm-hmm] what you're encouraging is diversifying where that goes. And to do that, we have to have a combination of labor that makes sense. [Connie: Yep.] That is humane. [Connie:  Yep.] That works. And that uses technology and robotics and these innovations in a way that's actually practically useful to the people who are, for sure, going to have to still be engaged because farming is going to take actual humans.

Connie:   Exactly. 

Niki: That's your takeaway? 

Connie: That is my takeaway. Better said than I did! 

Niki: What's a final thought you want to end on for people?

Connie:  I mean, I think people should, I don't actually think people, most people should think about food tech.

Niki: You know what?  Honestly, I think that is such a great takeaway. When I start to think about the food chain in general and supply chain, I get really stressed out.

Connie:  Yeah, you shouldn't have to! I think on the investor thing, if you have, if you want to invest in AgTech, the question you should be asking is. Who, ask the founders who is using your product? And talk to them. Talk to who is using that product, because they'd better understand that.

Niki: And that's where capital can be applied in places that actually can solve problems rather than putting money into things that sounds sexy, but aren't going to work.

Connie: Yeah. So, like that was a, that's a short-winded way of saying talk to the farmer. 

Niki: Talk to the farmer! [Connie: Yeah.]  Thank you so much for coming on today. I really appreciate you taking the time. 

Connie: : Yeah. Thanks for having me. It was fun.

Outro: 

[music playing]

 

Niki: Just a reminder that Tech’ed Up is on an every-other-week schedule, so be sure to follow us so you don’t miss an episode.