“Whether it be with soil health overall or with carbon, there’s no consistency around how we actually measure it,” says Mitchell Hora, founder and CEO of Washington, Iowa-based Continuum Ag.
He’s speaking to AFN about the need to improve soil health on the farm and how better tools around soil data can help.
His startup aims to do just that through its web-based platform called TopSoil, which gathers agronomic data and compiles it in a single interface. With TopSoil, farmers track and manage soil data, then use those insights to improve soil health by implementing regenerative agricultural practices such as no-till farming and cover cropping.
Hora, a seventh-generation farmer, says many elements of what’s today called “regenerative ag” have been in place for decades on his family’s land in southeast Iowa. They switched to no-till farming in 1978, and in 2013 introduced cover crops. The family now farms about 700 acres this way, and these longstanding practices were a big influence on Hora when he started Continuum Ag.
He launched the startup in 2015 as a consulting company for farmers utilizing the Haney soil test, which offers insights into the nutrients and biology of soil. Some way into the process, Hora realized this direct-to-farmer operation needed a better way to manage all of the data produced by new agricultural technologies. As far as he was concerned, there wasn’t one – so the company built its own.
“A big issue in ag is that farmer data is spread across lots of different platforms,” he says. “In order to be able to better communicate your data through the supply chain and make a sustainability claim, or just to be able to better manage your agronomic insights with your consultant, all your data needs to be in one place.”
Continuum Ag’s system connects with labs as well as tech companies making agronomic tools, integrating data from Haney tests, sensors, and drone imagery as well as farmers’ own data on things like yield, planing, and shape files. Farmers can view all their data through a web-based interface. A mobile app is forthcoming.
Recommendations for both improving soil health and implementing regenerative ag practices are based on factors like different geographies, cropping types, and soil types, which vary from one region to another and one farm to the next.
The end goal here is to help farmers make better decisions about their data – not just to improve soil health, but also crop productivity, yield, and overall management, Hora says. Using his family’s own farm as an example, he says TopSoil has helped them decrease their use of synthetic fertilizer by 45% and pesticide by 75%. The farm still maintains record yields.
“But then we’re adding additional benefits on top of that,” he says of the platform. That includes integrating with carbon markets and other sustainability initiatives, and in doing so, “opening up new potential revenue streams on the income side of the equation.”
Farmers continue to make up one segment of Continuum Ag’s customer base. There are currently about 1,100 of them on the platform. The company also services local agronomists that consult with the farmers and, more recently, larger enterprise customers such as Fortune 2000 companies and nonprofits trying to meet sustainability targets.
“These guys are all making these claims, these arbitrary goals, but now they’re having to actually show something for it,” Hora says.
“We have all the data in that one spot to create the transparency [and] help the farmers move the needle and actually make sustainability real.”
To continue expanding the reach of both its mission and its services, Continuum Ag recently raised a $200,000 pre-seed round from Chicago-based Clean Energy Trust, which specifically funds cleantech startups from the Midwest. Existing investors Ag Startup Engine and Ag Ventures Alliance also participated, as did an undisclosed angel investor.
“We were immediately impressed by Continuum Ag as [it is] a startup run by farmers to help other farmers increase profits, improve sustainability, and sequester carbon in the soil,” Erik Birkerts, CEO at Clean Energy Trust, tells AFN.
“Continuum Ag’s TopSoil platform captures high-quality soil health data and drives the adoption of regenerative agriculture practices. Not only does TopSoil help farmers grow better, it allows farmers to monetize their carbon sequestration activities by selling offsets into carbon markets. Climate and economic opportunities abound.”
Hora says the company has already gone through a couple of accelerator programs and currently serves 36 states in the US, as well as customers in 13 other countries.
“We’re just helping farmers to actually understand that the soil is alive, and that we can actually quantify that biological activity in the soil and utilize those insights to help us to better manage it,” he says.