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FBN co-founder & CMO Charles Baron

10 years of Farmers Business Network, from ‘tremendous fear and uncertainty’ to a ‘tremendously exciting future’

December 18, 2023

In 2014, Charles Baron and Amol Deshpande were concocting an idea that was practically unheard of in agriculture.

“The goal was to put the world of agriculture at the farmers’ fingertips and empower them through information, technology and a network,” Baron tells AgFunderNews.

Farmers Business Network, commonly known as FBN, was born of that goal.

Today, FBN is a major online provider of crop inputs and offers a number of other resources to farmers including marketing support, access to insurance programs and credit, and tools for participating in sustainability programs.

It started out as a farmer-to-farmer sharing network to provide growers with analytics about things like seed performance and price transparency on products. At the time, such information was often obscure for the average farmer.

“There were so many parts of agriculture that seemed fundamentally unfair for farmers,” says Baron, who cofounded FBN along with Deshpande. “FBN fought very, very hard to make those practices better for growers.”

“Fought” is an apt word; in the early days, FBN butted heads with many in the industry over the idea cutting out the middlemen, in this case ag retailers, and letting growers purchase products directly.

A widely circulated CropLife article from 2016 called it a “nasty body blow” for retailers and referenced “the devil known as ‘price transparency.'”

“[It] painted images of growers storming into retailer’s offices with price sheets and demanding lower input prices,” AgFunderNews wrote at the time of the CropLife piece.

Baron says the company dealt with such pushback “by focusing on the customer.”

“FBN has provided an alternative way of doing business that has won the support of tens of thousands of growers by providing the most transparent, convenient, and high ROI experience to our members.”

Most recently, rumor has circulated through the agrifoodtech industry that FBN has raised a down round, though FBN declines to comment.

To date, the company has raised over $900 million from the likes of Kleiner Perkins, Google Ventures, Temasek and others.

Below, Baron (CB) discusses the company’s origins, Big Ag’s initial reaction to the business, and what’s in store for the next decade.

Image credit: FBN

AgFunderNews (AFN): Why did you start FBN?

CB: Farmers were dealing with very fundamental frustrations in the agricultural market, what felt like very real imbalances in purchasing power, a lack of price transparency and market access.

We started from the question of, ‘How do we use technology, networks and community to make farming better and more profitable, more sustainable for growers, and help them make sense of the world of information that a farmer has?’

The goal was to put the world of agriculture at the farmers’ fingertips and empower them through information, technology and a network.

When we started analyzing pricing data as a young company, we saw enormous disparities in prices. Then farmers started asking us to go buy those products. That turned into being a full end-to-end e-commerce and logistics and input supplier with our chemical business and crop nutrition products.

We eventually got into farm finance and marketing and sustainability, to be able to design them in such a way that they could work together synergistically and benefit the farmer. We always let the customer be the guide.

FBN was born out of farmers’ pain points on transparency and the desire for more competitive markets.

Farmers were especially frustrated by opaque pricing, the lack of alternative suppliers and financial options. FBN has provided an alternative way of doing business that has won the support of tens of thousands of growers by providing the most transparent, convenient, and high ROI experience to our members.

AFN: What was the agriculture industry’s initial reaction?

CB: FBN started by providing growers with analytics about seed performance, price transparency for products, etc. Many companies were very, very open to that and many were not.

As we matured and scaled, people got increasingly nervous about what that could mean for their business. Now I think people have figured out how farmers use technology, the places where they’ll be very consistent with use of the product. But at the advent, there was tremendous fear and uncertainty about FBN for many people that caused a lot of resistance to the business model. I think we’ve really seen that that change over time.

Now we have major partners like ADM and Farmer Mac and others that have embraced what the technology can do and be for farmers. On the animal health side, we work with all the major animal health companies.

AFN: What’s been ag’s biggest challenge in the last decade? Has the industry solved it?

CB: There’s ag’s challenge and there are farmers’ challenges.

For farmers, it’s an age-old problem: they are naturally experimental, but they have to get real business benefits on a quick timeline. Technologies have to be able to show that benefit very quickly. Farmers need to be able to build confidence and say this is going to be the future and become a core business practice in their operation.

Then there’s the agriculture industry’s challenge, which is still a work in process.

The lack of competition in the industry is really a core issue that negatively impacts farmers. There’s the amount of consolidation in the industry among the major suppliers, the consolidation among the routes to market, the channels and the retailers. That means fundamentally, farmers’ choice and competition is inhibited.

FBN has always sought to make ag more competitive, to open up more product offerings to farmers. We welcome working with major brands and branded products as well — but to do that in a way that farmers now want to, using technology, buying online, working in ways maybe they didn’t five or 10 years ago.

But it’s still a work in progress. We still have the conventional retail world figuring out how far to go online. There’s the conventional supply chain (e.g., big biochemical companies) figuring out how far they can go in reaching growers directly.

AFN: Name a couple key developments over the last decade

CB: One of the most important is the open platforms around data sources. John Deere probably gets the most credit for that. The John Deere API enabled more companies and technologies to help growers use information than almost any other platform out there.

Then there’s the shift of just farmers’ increasing willingness to do business online and with technology — getting more comfortable with digital grain marketing, for example. And that may not be due to any one platform.

That increased digitization of the business, and how it complements in-person, businesses, is really the future of how farmers will get goods and services.

AFN: Where is agtech 10 years from now?

CB: I think that the machinery side will see see increasing uses of autonomy, computer vision and artificial intelligence. We’ve seen that through our partnership with Green Eye’s sprayers, a tremendously exciting technology.

Some aspects of farming will probably look very similar 10 years from now, but we hope fundamentally that the market is more vibrant with more products, and that it’s easier for farmers to purchase them. And a more dynamic supply chain.

When we started bringing agriculture online, there was a lot of resistance from the industry in figuring out exactly this would work.

What we’ve seen is increasing confidence and comfort in the ability for farms to do business online throughout more and more parts of their business.

That’s both from the development of the technology and from the generation now running farms that is used to their life running online.

For example, the integration of digital grain marketing with sustainability with inputs that you’re able to do now in a system like FBN’s. We do everything from primary product development to inputs all the way to sustainability program management and customer development. That’s unlike anything that existed 10 years ago. Technology allows you to put those pieces together.

We’ll continue to see more and more combinations and permutations of risk management technology with finance technology, with input buying technology, with logistics, with grain marketing. It’s going to be a tremendously exciting future for farmers.

Want more highlights from the last decade? Download the AgFunder 10-year e-zine here.

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