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Harvest Public Media is a reporting collaboration focused on issues of food, fuel and field. Based at KCUR in Kansas City, Missouri, Harvest covers agriculture-related topics through a network of reporters and partner stations throughout the Midwest.

Ag Tech Startups Show Explosive Growth In The Billions

Peggy Lowe
Harvest Public Media

The latest tech startup boom today is not coming from California--it’s closer to home. And it involves an industry that’s ancient.

Investment in food and agriculture technology startups reached into the billions in 2015, a huge jump from previous years. What’s going on? Peggy Lowe of Harvest Public Media reports that Big Ag has found Big Data.

The Western Farm Show is a long way from Silicon Valley. But here in a huge arena, set in what used to be the Kansas City Stockyards, the high-tech future of agriculture is for sale. The centerpiece at this booth is a yellow and white drone – its plastic wings span four feet across.

“It’s got a GPS, so it knows where it’s at, underneath here you’ll see an autopilot, it’s an onboard computer,” Casey Adams says.

Adams is one of the owners of “Fly Ag Tech,” a brand-new company based in Kansas City. But he’s not selling the drone. What the company is selling is what is driving the ag tech industry today: data.

“If you’ve got a stressed plant somewhere, it could be a bunch of different things: too much water, too little water, you need fertilizers, pesticides, whatever," Adams says. "If you don’t know where that problem is and you don’t know what’s causing it it’s because you don’t have the right information. So all of these things are just tools to diagnose the problem.”

Fly Ag Tech gathers that information by an infrared camera built into the drone, gets an agronomist to analyze it, then offers a prescription for the farmer for better yields. It’s making what’s called “precision agriculture” – yes, that’s really a thing – even more precise. And that’s a big part of the ag tech boom.

“We had a segment in our report called 'The Sky’s the Limit for Drones and Robotics,'” says Louisa Burwood-Taylor of AgFunder, an online investment platform for investors.

AgFunder released a report in February that showed investment in food and agriculture technology startups reached $4.6 billion – yes, that’s with a B – in 2015.

Farmers today already rely on advanced machines, like high-tech combines. This is a new revolution. More Silicon Valley-style, dependent on data and software.

Credit Courtesy photo
Courtesy photo
Ron LeMay is the managing director of Open Air Equity Partners and CEO of Farm Link, Kansas City companies.

“There’s an increasing realization that the world is limited and in many cases declining natural resources at our disposal," Burwood-Taylor says. "So I think investors and entrepreneurs are starting to really wake up to that fact that a huge amount of innovation is needed if we’re going to feed a growing population.”

One of those innovators is Ron LeMay, a managing director at Open Air Equity Partners, a private venture capital firm headed in Kansas City. Open Air has just one ag client in its portfolio – an analytics tech company now headed by LeMay called “Farm Link.”

“We’re on track from an ag tech perspective to develop the capabilities to give people insights into how to farm more precisely, farm more productively," LeMay says. "Develop better products, if you’re agribusiness. Do better grain pricing, risk management.”

Asked for his reaction to the many companies and investors jumping into ag tech.

“My reaction is basically hooray. The country needs a lot of funds going into ag tech,” LeMay says.

Credit Peggy Lowe / Harvest Public Media
Harvest Public Media
– Casey Adams, left, and Scott Jackman, partners in Fly Ag Tech, show off their drone at the Western Farm Show in Kansas City.

Others in the industry I spoke to called it a chaotic landscape. Small startups are popping up all over, big companies like Monsanto and Syngenta are getting in, and even tech companies are entering the fray. Last year Google’s venture-capital arm dumped $15 million into a network that crunches data on seeds and soil.

“An analogy is the 'Wild Wild West,'" Scott Jackman says. "Everybody’s reaching into it right now and trying to figure out how to help producers out.”

Back at the Western Farm Show, Jackman smiles as he describes the industry. He’s Casey Adams’ partner in Fly Ag Tech. They’re at this show to meet farmers who’d be interested in their business. But they’re also looking for investors – investors with big pockets who might just be lured into betting on the future of farming.

Peggy Lowe joined Harvest Public Media in 2011, returning to the Midwest after 22 years as a journalist in Denver and Southern California. Most recently she was at The Orange County Register, where she was a multimedia producer and writer. In Denver she worked for The Associated Press, The Denver Post and the late, great Rocky Mountain News. She was on the Denver Post team that won the Pulitzer Prize for breaking news coverage of Columbine. Peggy was a Knight-Wallace Fellow at the University of Michigan in 2008-09. She is from O'Neill, the Irish Capital of Nebraska, and now lives in Kansas City. Based at KCUR, Peggy is the analyst for The Harvest Network and often reports for Harvest Public Media.