There are various sources of funding for agtech startups, from traditional venture capital to crowdfunding to grants. The decisionmakers behind these funding opportunities are often academics, veteran entrepreneurs, and the savviest business and investment minds in the game.
At the grant-making organization, the New York Farm Viability Institute (NYFVI) apart, farmers are placed front and center in the investment decisionmaking process. And the group has had some major successes: one of NYFVI’s earlier funded projects was Adapt-N, a software tool for agronomists that combines data around soil types and weather with crop modeling and field management to provide farmers with detailed fertilizer prescriptions, to avoid overuse and wastage. The Cornell-based startup was later acquired by multinational chemical company Yara International in 2017. John Deere also integrated Adapt-N into its digital platforms.
NYFVI is led by a group of voluntary farmers who award grants to applied research and outreach education projects that help farmers become more profitable while improving the long-term economic viability of farming in the empire state. The funding comes from a New York State Legislative appropriation administered by the NYS Department of Agriculture and Markets
“For the 2019 grant cycle, a total of 110 farmers participated in the review. The board read all 46 proposals and the dairy review panel read 10 proposals specific to dairy. Some of those proposals were also evaluated by the field crops review panel,” Aileen Randolph, NYFVI outreach and dairy profit team coordinator, told AFN. “I think farmers are tough critics, but they are also very open-minded.”
Having farmers at the helm of the review process has led to some interesting observations for Randolph, such as an apple farmer showing more support for a dairy project than a dairyman, for example. Aggregating such a diverse group of farmers leads to enriching dialogue and helpful idea exchange with each farmer offering his or her unique perspective.
“I think it’s important to get the grassroots perspective,” NYFVI board member Rob Noble, a dairy and field crops farmer in New York, told AFN. “Being on the board is worthwhile because it has a direct effect on our operation, on what we can help with as far as making changes for the better.”
Although many people associate New York with a bustling metropolitan vibe, farms cover one-quarter of New York’s territory, including New York City. In 2012 alone, New York farmers sold more than $5.4 billion in agricultural commodities, a 22% increase compared to 2007. It ranks third in the nation in terms of milk sales and leads the country in yogurt production as well as cottage cheese and sour cream. Some of its other leading products include apples, grapes, onions, sweet corn, tomatoes, and maple syrup.
This year, NYFVI awarded roughly $1.5 million in grants to 15 projects. While applicants can seek funding for a wide variety of proposals, the board has seen an uptick in the number of technology-focused projects in recent years.
The 2019 grant recipients include a project focusing on how new technologies can reduce producer losses to a deficiency in Honeycrisp apples called ‘bitter pit’ and another using heat to fight seed-borne pathogens in garlic.
Another project is looking at how infrared reflectance spectroscopy can assist farmers with on-farm forage identification using hand-held devices. The project applicant, Jerry Cherney at Cornell University, wants to help farmers know how well these tools work. This project will evaluate four commercially-available devices for accuracy, precision and practicality of use on the farm. At its conclusion, NY dairy farmers will understand the potential value of using these tools on their farm.
Making decisions on where to dole out funding may seem like an overwhelming proposition, but farmers are often laser-focused on their bottom lines and how a new tool may help or hinder their business goals.
“All of us are business people, so we look at the costs associated with the proposal, salaries for the project managers, what they are trying to accomplish, and whether the idea actually makes sense on the farm,” Noble explains.
A few technologies that have made regular appearances in the last two grant cycles but did not receive funding include weather work, blockchain, and software.
“The reviewers felt that weather was a crowded space and neither proposal really caught their attention. It also has the challenge of becoming self-supporting in the future when the grant ends. For blockchain, there wasn’t confidence that the work would be adopted by the next part of the supply chain if it started with farms,” Randolph explains. “The reviewers are frugal and don’t like to support software, apps, or platform-based projects that don’t propose how the technology will become self-supporting in the future.”
Despite the skepticism over some technologies, NYFVI’s farmers are open-minded when it comes to how technology can improve their operations. The organization has led a Precision Ag Working Group over the last two years to help connect the agribusiness and academic communities on top of developing educational workshops at key events.
For the participating farmers, making the spare time to engage in this type of task isn’t always easy, especially during key points in the production cycle. Despite logistical challenges, putting farmers first remains a key tenant for NYFVI’s mission. After all, companies ought to understand their target audience not just from an academic perspective, but from a practical, boots-in-the-mud point of view, too.
“People need to spend a day in the shoes of a production enterprise and see the challenges that we are looking at day-to-day. They should understand the tools that we currently have to work with because we won’t be buying the latest and greatest. For the most part, we will work with what we have and use it to the extent of its usefulness. Once it’s used up, we have to move on, but personally, I won’t go out and buy the next greatest thing just to keep up with the Jones,” explains Noble. “So the new technology has to fit the operation as it currently exists. ”