In recent years, the integration of digitization with agriculture has been happening intensively around the world. Farmers Business Network (FBN) is a justified example of this success. As a science and technology company that has changed the conventional distribution methods for agrochemicals, FBN utilizes its unique platform model and data application science, which attracted 75,000 members in just 10 years. The farms of these members cover 23% of the agricultural acreage in North America, contributing to the remarkable growth of FBN.
What is the exact core of data science which is a driver to FBN’s rapid development? How does it bring value to farmers and distributors? On October 24, 2023, FBN held its first roadshow, attracting the participation of many Chinese agrochemical enterprises. On the occasion, AgroPages interviewed the senior management team and technical experts of FBN to understand the business logic and application scenarios of its digital platform, and how it empowers farmers and distributors the commercial success in an efficient and precise manner, as well as how it increases control over the agro-value chain. At the end of this paper, we also discussed the opportunities for cooperation between FBN and Chinese suppliers on a win-win basis.
The interviewees include:
Vice President Global Procurement and Supply at FBN
Head of Data Science & Analytics at FBN
AgroPages: Can you please brief us about FBN’s background, platform concept and development history?
Kit Barron: I grew up on a farm with a special love for agriculture. We are witnessing hard work there, but farmers are stuck in the middle, wedged between oligopolistic markets. Farmers find it difficult to buy their production needs at fair prices, being squeezed between consumer products and suppliers, traders, processors and retailers.
FBN began with a vision to give farmers more information, power and leverage, so they can make their production more profitable. FBN’s mission is to integrate agricultural technology to change farmers’ traditional way of farming, powering the prosperity of family farms and rural communities around the world, and transforming the farms around the globe through an integrated, agriculture technology-enabled platform.
So far, we have established a fully digital platform to support farmers, covering the supply of pesticides, fertilizers seeds, farm machinery, animal health, agricultural financing, insurance and agrochemical sales. On our platform, we have made every effort over the years to assess where we could make the biggest impact for farmers and enhance farm production and productivity. We want to build a platform and distribution channel that will enable farmers to access to digital support, allowing them to grow crops and operate their businesses efficiently.
In terms of our member’s growth, we currently have some 75,000 members on the network, which has been growing rapidly in just 10 years, having covered majority of cropland across North America. From the first quarter of 2021 to the third quarter of 2023, FBN membership increased 42%, growing from some 20,000 to 75,000. By the third quarter of this year, cropland owned by farmers who are our members reached 139 million acres, accounting for 29% of cultivated land of the US.
Capital investments have strongly highlighted FBN’s engineering capacities and technology platform. Our investors include Google Venture and Temasek. Our A round funding started in 2014, which to date has totaled over US$900 million, meaning that FBN’s future development fund is secure. Our cooperation with ADM promotes connections to grain buyers, as well as bridges members of FBN and ADM, with the latter’s members being able to access our products and services, as well as promote their agricultural products via our platform. Meanwhile, FBN can take in large numbers of new subscribers. This is a win-win cooperation, which can be highlighted as a good model of cooperation for other suppliers in the future.
AgroPages: Please provide us with some details of FBN’s digital platform, such as its sources of data and data application. Crucially, how does the platform enable farmers to increase their work efficiency and profitability?
Kit Barron: FBN began as a farmer-to-farmer network and data analysis company. Large-scale agricultural data analysis is one of our core competences. We analyze field data and information on crop cultivation, climate conditions, insect pests, market and commodity price data and input pricing and logistics information from across the industry.
Today, we’ve now analyzed 100 billion field data points from across North America, covering 31.50 million acres of land, 6,800 seed varieties and 150,000 purchase invoices for agricultural inputs. We create analysis for farmers to make better agronomic, marketing, and product decisions and recommend relevant products to them.
For example, this summer, via satellite and farmer commentary, we detected a serious occurrence of wheat cutworm in a specific region, which actually began earlier. We immediately communicated with our farmer members within 100 miles of the region. Eventually, which increased the adoption of the treatment product 50% over the previous year. This is one of many examples of how analytics can help farmers get ahead of problems and make product distribution more precise and efficient.
We can predict the demand trend for pesticides in the coming 1 or 2 months based on historical data. This can help us prepare stocks in advance and have real-time communication with suppliers on possible product changes. We release an annual price transparency report that discloses the actual purchase prices for farmers in different regions, enabling them to check the price changes of products so they can negotiate pricing on this basis.
These types of information and functions are all incorporated in the FBN app, where farmers can view price information, purchase production tools and apply for agricultural financing. The app can also help farmers evaluate land value, buy agricultural insurance and help them get connected to more grain buyers and sustainability premiums.
In short, data offers unique business insights and decision-making support, which is one of FBN’s core competences, as well as our artificial intelligence (AI) training materials for agriculture.
AgroPages: We know about Norm, FBN’s agro AI expert. How does it enhance FBN’s data competitiveness?
Kit Barron: Norm is an AI platform based on ChatGPT, the world’s first AI agronomist that is a good example of the unique value of FBN’s data science. Norm is trained on product labels, weather, soil monitoring, application rates, research and more. Therefore, Norm can understand product characteristics and use method and application scenarios. Farmers can ask Norm anything about agriculture via the app and their cell phone, and can give product recommendation and suggestions.
Norm helps growers make faster decisions on FBN’s with greater confidence. In the past, farmers would seek out experts or search the internet for information, but now they can just ask Norm and get professional quality answers. Even more important is the fact that advice from Norm is not prejudiced but is made for the best interest of farmers, because the most appropriate option is given in consideration of farmers’ actual needs. Norm helps all our farmers, team members, and partners make faster agronomic and management decisions.
AgroPages: FBN’s data application is impressive. For both manufacturers and farmers, price is a major concern. Can you talk about your price intelligence data and its application scenario?
Kit Barron: Price intelligence helps our farmer members buy smarter and with more confidence, and helps FBN optimize our inventory positioning and logistics service quality – leading to a better experience for farmers. We analyze various types of price information, such as member invoices reflecting first-hand product prices at competitive retail, other online prices, and prices from third party sources. We can analyze prices by product, active ingredients, and regions to help farmers find alternatives in the market. This information helps us optimize the following:
Provision of reference prices and price trends to our farmers members
Adjustment of pricing to stay competitive
Optimization of inventory according to market changes
Analyses of reasonable pricing
Price intelligence has become an important reference for farmers and for market strategy development. For example, when we see farmers buying at very high prices, which is an indication of price increases or product shortages, we can make predictive adjustments to our inventories in that region.
AgroPages: As well as product and pricing strategy, FBN has integrated innovation in the marketing channel. Can you describe FBN’s digital marketing methods?
Kit Barron: Digital marketing is a key area of FBN’s platform and enables us to reach thousands of farmers efficiently, creating ag’s most advanced digital marketing system. These measures include:
Enabling farmers to discover FBN on search engines & social media via platforms like Google, Facebook, and Bing
The FBN online ecommerce system for farmers & our affiliates partners
Educational content and videos on crop cultivation, agribusiness trends and products
Emails and SMS to provide grower education and personalized product suggestions
Use of AI to assist users’ texting to inquire about products
Meanwhile, we use conventional offline marketing means, such as events and tradeshows, newspapers, our chemical guides and mailers, to complement online marketing. In short, FBN has built an online-offline marketing system, well beyond the capacities of conventional suppliers. This system enables us to reach and win farmer customers at greater scale and at lowest costs.
AgroPages: For suppliers, in contrast to conventional agricultural material distributors, what is the benefit of cooperating with FBN? How does FBN empower suppliers?
Kit Barron: We are expanding our partnership with suppliers to create a better total system for farmers. FBN is creating a platform for our supplier partners to provide targeted marketing, real-time demand signals, better price intelligence, inventory tracking and targeted marketing.
Our direct-to-farm relationship with producers, and by being able to better analyze their operation’s crops, product usages, cultural practice, and machinery allows us to tailor specific solutions for farms. Accordingly, we directly work with different farms to serve products in a precise and differentiated manner and create opportunities for suppliers to better promote their products.
Our real-time demand signals from farmers can help make forecasts on demand trends more accurate. With price intelligence, we can help manufacturers be more competitive for farmer’s business.
Furthermore, we offer inventory management and tracking services. We can see real-time product inventory in every warehouse, which allows for refined management. This not only gives FBN flexibility in terms of delivery, but this also allows suppliers to see the real-time consumption of stocks and make replenishments, therefore, avoiding out-of-stock situations. This is a major advantage of the FBN platform.
In general, no other retailer has the same depth of capabilities as FBN, to reach farmers individually and at scale. Helping our suppliers form more scientific product and distribution strategies, can ultimately benefit our farmer members at achieving the best outcomes for their farms.
AgroPages: As well as data advantage, what other experiences can FBN offer supplier partners from the supply chain standpoint?
Tom Lyons: FBN has established a supply chain across the US and Canada. We can provide suppliers with a one-stop service, covering product registration and marketing, helping suppliers connect directly to customers in North America without complex intermediate links. This will greatly enhance suppliers’ operational efficiency and reduce the cost of marketing and sales.
Specifically, we can provide partner suppliers with the following support: Product registration; formula development consultancy, warehousing and logistics for direct delivery to customers; payment collection for suppliers; on-farm trial analyses; insight into customer demand and digital marketing.
At present, FBN’s has over 200 product registrations, which are 80 technical and 120 formulations across US and Canada. In addition, sales of products from proprietary brands are also possible. In terms of supply chain development, FBN has built four primary distribution facilities. These warehouses function as storage and distribution facilities, as well as a platform for basic processing. In addition, we have partner blending facilities, which can formulate outsourced technical materials into formulations for sale in the US market. Besides the four key warehouses, we have a number of satellite warehouses, which can ensure delivery within three days for most purchase orders. Each year, our deliveries are increasing. In the last year, FBN did 32,000 deliveries.
In addition to FBN’s own brands, we have opened our service platform to suppliers. Suppliers can place their own products on FBN’s platform for sale while enjoying the same services, such as data support, registration support, payment collection, marketing and financing. Therefore, compared to conventional distribution, we enable suppliers to eliminate a lot of intermediate links, helping them connect directly to end users. From new product launches to delivery to customers, we provide a shortcut to precision marketing.
AgroPages: This is last topic, which is also our major concern. China has many good agricultural material suppliers, so how does FBN view cooperation with Chinese suppliers and what are your complementary advantages?
Tom Lyons: China has a large amount of highly cost-effective agricultural materials and rich formulations, while FBN has the largest digital agriculture platform and direct-to-farm logistics network. Therefore, complementarity and opportunities for cooperation do exist between the two sides.
FBN can provide Chinese suppliers with label and registration support services, under which they can access the US market using labels of terminal formulations. FBN can also help Chinese suppliers undertake local formulation and packaging in North America, so they can trade directly with North America customers. We welcome Chinese companies marketing their proprietary brand products on the FBN platform, so they can use our platform support to access the US & Canadian markets.
With the further growth of the FBN platform, as well as the rise in the sales performance of customers, FBN must consider how to tackle the issue of insufficient capacity in the future. Therefore, we are open to exploring ways of cooperating with Chinese suppliers in this regard. For example, we are considering new cooperation models, including the establishment of joint ventures with Chinese suppliers in the US, to achieve localized production and direct delivery. This not only allows Chinese suppliers to save on tariff expenses, but this also enables FBN to expand our production capacity. We will also try to provide more services in the Chinese language to enable Chinese companies to better utilize our data tools. FBN is prepared to undertake customized cooperation with suppliers. We look forward to cooperating with more Chinese companies on a win-win basis.
The ultimate goal of FBN is to become a highly trusted digital platform welcomed by farmers and manufacturers. We believe that under the FBN business model, we are able to work together with farmers and suppliers to increase the operation efficiency of the agrochemical industry, to give all parties higher transparency and control of the agro-value chain.
lf you want to share your company story and your understanding to the market, please contact Mickey Shan at: email@example.com