Mar. 5, 2019
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.
Since the mid-1990s, farmers have had to buy patented seeds from the likes of Monsanto (now owned by Bayer AG) and DowDuPont Inc. to stay competitive with their neighbors. Today, those two companies account for 72 percent of corn and soybean seed sales in the U.S., according to FBN data, and even most independent seed companies have to license the same patented GMO traits for their competing products. “The trait originators get to set the rules,” Baron says. His solution is non-GMO seed that his company believes can compete with the brand names, thanks to advances in breeding, chemical solutions, and farming techniques.
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.
“We’re glad to see new entrants investing in agriculture technology and creating more tools than ever for farmers,” Bayer said in an email. DowDuPont didn’t respond to a request for comment.
U.S. farmers’ spending on seeds last year totaled $22b
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.
Of course, Bayer’s and DowDuPont’s seed offerings can command high prices because they work. Many of the farmers gathered in Memphis say they’ll seriously consider switching to an unknown seed offering only if it performs well in the region this year. Some aren’t waiting. Trent Dabbs, whose family farms 3,000 acres in Arkansas, is planting the majority of this spring’s corn acreage with F2F Genetics Network seed. That will cut his seed bill by more than half and allow him to sell his grain at a premium because it isn’t genetically modified. “When you get the seed price right upfront and you see what you can save,” Dabbs says, “that’s a big deal to me.”
BOTTOM LINE - FBN has raised almost $200 million to help decode the pricing mysteries of the seed business. It now seeks to sell cheaper, mostly non-GMO seeds to farmers.