Charles Baron’s goal is nothing less than an agricultural revolution in the United States. He wants to reinvent the food system, and in 2016 the company he co-founded, Farmers Business Network Inc., took several big steps toward making it happen.
Farmer’s Business Network is an independent information and analytics source for more than 3,000 member farmers who collectively own more than 11 million acres of farmland across the United States — an expanse of land that is about the size of Maryland, Baron points out. No. 26 on last year’s list of Top 100 MBA Startups, this year FBN jumped to No. 13, the result not only of doubling in size and executing some highly successful fundraising, but also because FBN embarked on a major shift in the company’s direction, expanding from information sharing into farm supply and commerce.
“We’ve had a huge amount of growth,” Baron tells Poets&Quants. “Last year we announced another fundraising round, which was an additional $20 million Series B from Acre Venture Partners, which is the strategic venture part of Campbell’s Soup.” That infusion of cash came in what Baron terms a “Series B-2 round,” a nice sequel to the startup’s $15 million Series B in May 2015. The latest boost helped the company launch its ambitious new business FBN Direct, an online farm supply enterprise.
The new venture represents a huge leap for FBN, but Baron deflects attention to the farmers FBN Direct will “help save anywhere from 10% to as much as 50% on farm products like fertilizers, ag chemicals, seed — major expense lines for the farm. By building an online manufacturer-direct shipping program, we can save farmers huge amounts of money. It’s highly, highly disruptive.
“Basically what we’re doing is bringing farm commerce online, which it’s not, despite being a multi-tens-of-billions-of-dollars industry,” Baron says. “And we’re doing that in a way that’s transparent and fair and easily accessible for farms all across the country.”
LOTS OF SKILLS AND PURE ENTREPRENEURSHIP
Baron, who earned his MBA from Harvard in 2013, got into farming the old-fashioned way. He married into it.
After earning his bachelor’s degree from Dartmouth College, and before going to work as an energy innovation and geothermal program lead for Google in the San Francisco Bay Area, Baron got his first practical farming experience when he spent a corn harvest on his brother-in-law’s Nebraska farm. He learned how to operate the equipment, and he learned what it takes to farm: a wide-ranging skill set and constant ingenuity.
“I was fascinated by the challenge of farming and how unique it is as a profession,” Baron says. “Farmers are truly the original entrepreneurs. On a given day they are a mechanic, agronomist, commodities broker, veterinarian, and business manager, just to name a few.”
Baron saw that farmers are, moreover, uniquely interconnected as part of a global commodities industry. “No other trillion-dollar global industry is as dependent on independent, family businesses in rural America,” he says, “and completely driven by factors beyond the farmers’ control. Technology has added opportunity but also more complexity to the farm.”
OUT OF THE COFFEE SHOP
Opportunity, but more complexity. At Harvard, Baron was co-president of the HBS Energy & Environment Club, and he spent much of his time studying agriculture. Understanding that tech has both simplified and complicated the life of farmers, Baron — working with co-founder Amol Deshpande, who earned his MBA in Cornell Johnson’s Class of 2005, whom Baron met when they both worked for Google — set about “democratizing farm information.” The goal: establish an unbiased source of farm analytics and agronomics and help create competition for farmers’ business.
“The idea came from farmers themselves and farmers who we knew and were working with,” Baron says. “It’s based on farmers being able to learn from one another in an anonymous fashion, letting farmers actually share information with other farmers and say, ‘Hey, which seeds are working on your farm and how are they actually doing?’ And, ‘What are you paying for chemicals? Here’s what I’m paying for chemicals.’ So they can compare it and know if they’re doing a good job or using the right products.
“It’s a very basic, fundamental need that farmers have that they were basically doing in the coffee shop.”
Charging an annual fee of just $600, and adhering unwaveringly to a “Farmers First” ethos, FBN didn’t take long to catch on. In its first year the network tripled in size, then doubled in size again in 2016, with member farmers in 31 states — one reason it made the leap up the rankings of the P&Q Top 100 Startups this year.
BOOSTING ‘THE FUNDAMENTAL VALUE-CREATOR’
Digitization began on the nation’s farms in the 1990s. Two decades later, most farm equipment has such amenities as onboard monitors, GPS, guidance systems, and machine autosteer, technology that provides vehicles or implements with automated steering and positioning in the landscape. Connectivity is less an issue, too. “The farm can simply collect and transfer more data than it ever has,” Baron says.
And that’s where FBN comes in, crowdsourcing the insights of farmers coast to coast with data “on a scale that was never possible,” Baron says. “So if you were a farmer and you and your four friends got breakfast once a month and talked about things — which a lot of farmers do — now you can share anonymously with thousands and thousands and thousands. And that allows a scale of information that is so much vaster and fine-grained than anything you could discuss locally.
“If you’re a 500-acre farm or a 1,000-acre farm, you now get the buying power of millions of acres.”