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The FarmLab team, including co-founders Sam Duncan (middle-left) and Shahriar Jamshidi (middle-right). Image credit: FarmLab

Meet the founder: FarmLab’s Sam Duncan on why effective soil mapping is a lot like blood testing

July 21, 2023

“How do we give everyone better data when it comes to soil?” Sam Duncan, cofounder and CEO of Australian agtech FarmLab, asked in a recent conversation with AgFunderNews.

That question weighs on the minds of many these days as conversations around improving soil health to increase productivity and capture more carbon grow louder.

FarmLab has answered its own question about providing better data through its software platform that helps agronomists, consultants and farmers better map, sample and analyze soil for agronomy and carbon projects.

Traditional soil sampling is still largely a paper-based process, or at best done in spreadsheets. This requires agronomists to go into the field, take samples, send them to a lab and wait days for the results to come back, usually as another spreadsheet. Agronomists must also have their own systems in place to track granularly where each sample came from on the farm.

FarmLab’s software records where each sample is taken from and lets agronomists interact with sampling labs online. It also lets farmers manage their soil health (e.g., water capacity, carbon, nutrient levels) through a single interface that stores test results and other data.

Below, Duncan discusses his company’s platform as well as what he sees as the most important issues to tackle right now around soil health, farmer education and more.

The FarmLab team, including co-founders Sam Duncan (middle-left) and Shahriar Jamshidi (middle-right). Image credit: FarmLab

AFN: Why did you start FarmLab?

SD: We started back in 2016. I had worked in logistics at the [Royal Australian] Air Force for a long time and went to all sorts of crazy, far out places. What really stood out to me was the effect that climate change is having on some of these poor countries.

There’s a guy called Allan Savory who’s done a lot in regenerative agriculture. He did a great TED Talk back in 2012 that highlighted the ability for soil to sequester carbon.

And I thought, “Why isn’t everyone doing this?” Then I realized there wasn’t enough quantifiable scientific evidence behind it, and that was one of the big criticisms about Allan Savory. So I thought, well, how do we solve this? How do we give everyone better data when it comes to soil?

We looked at why people didn’t have that information, why data about soil wasn’t collected, why it wasn’t part of finances. There is this financial component to it. If you degrade and erode your soil, you do see an increase in costs and having to pay more for fertilizer.

All of this came down to the fact that consultants were collecting soil samples just with paper and pen. They would jot down the rough location they collected a sample on, send that to a lab. The testing lab would send them back a big spreadsheet and a PDF document and they would write up a report and give that to the farmer. The farmer had nothing in that report other than “apply this much fertilizer and get this yield” or “apply some lime and fix the pH.”

No no one was really monitoring change over time.

AFN: How does FarmLab solve this problem?

SD: We work with a lot of soil samplers around Australia and the US to train them to collect samples digitally, so that that when they’re passing those sample results back to consultants and farmers, the farmers are getting them in a format they can use to manage change over time.

We have the technology around that. And so we became this “Uber for soil sampling”: You [the farmer] request some samples, you get the soil test results geo-referenced back to your farm with a consultant, if you want a consultant to come in and do the interpretation.

The farmer can then make better decisions off historical data and and that’s been really powerful.

We’ve been very fortunate in that we built the system and the tools to improve soil carbon, soil health and sustainable management practices.

At the same time, we saw this big increase in soil carbon offset markets. Carbon offset markets require all of the infrastructure that we’ve built to function: You need to make sure you’ve collected samples, that you can prove [the location] where you’ve collected samples and have all the data around what lab did the testing.

There’s all this all this rigor because it’s a financial product at the end of the day, these carbon offsets. And so we saw a big uptake in Australia around our software — around 20% to 30% of Australia’s soil carbon projects now run on it. And as the US starts to see more voluntary carbon offset markets, we’re starting to gain more traction in the US where there’s a big need there for more data.

Now we’ve grown beyond just soil. We’re seeing more interest in biodiversity plant testing. We’re working with some big entities like the crop protection entities to support their plant testing protocols and programs around around Australia.

AFN: How does the technology work versus traditional soil sampling?

SD: Historically there’s just been a sample bag sent to the lab, which writes down where that soil sample came from.

We give people the ability to simply scan a barcode on that soil sample. It gets geo-referenced to the sample location. If nothing else, that’s the infrastructure component behind what we do. We have a lot of geospatial modeling. It all comes down to being able to collect and geo-reference and match that test result back to the location you took from the unit.

It’s like blood testing.

How do you know that your blood test results are for you and not the 70-year-old male patient before you? There’s a lot of infrastructure that goes behind blood sampling and getting it to the pathology lab and accurately mapped back to the patient.

It’s essentially the same process for soil testing but on a larger scale because we’re doing hundreds of samples on a single ranch or farm. Each sample has to be geo-referenced accurately back to the location it was taken from. The sampling methodology has to be precise so you end up with the same data for each each location.

AFN: How will this help with carbon markets?

SD: We want to make sure that all of that data is transparently shared across the supply chain so that at the end of the day, the farmer is the beneficiary.

We mainly work with soil samplers and the consultants and the labs that are conducting this, but we know that to have to generate a carbon offset that can be scrutinized and sold on the open market. You need to have all of that transparency around where it was collected and spreadsheets don’t cut it.

You need this transparent layer of infrastructure to be able to take all that information and give farmers access to it give the give these markets access to it.

Having said that, we don’t make money off carbon offsets. We make money through soil testing. And our business model is really service based and software based.

AFN: What’s been one or two of your biggest challenges so far?

SD: Education has been one of our biggest bottlenecks.

Our paying clients are the carbon developers and the agronomists and the input companies that are working with the farmers. We still do a lot of education and we try and really ensure that farmers understand that if they don’t have the  data behind the recommendations, it’s really hard to to draw good insights over time.

Blood testing is a really great analogy. Your doctor might give you results and say, “I think you’ve got cholesterol levels that are a bit high and you should manage that.” But you should be able to take those results to another doctor for a second opinion.

Farmers don’t currently have that. They might get results, but they have no no ability to take that data and get a secondary opinion from somebody else because they don’t have access to the to the raw source results.

A lot of our work in the US and Australia has just been educating people about that, saying “If you collect your data, if you have a consultant collecting your data, make sure they collected in a digital format that you can access and come back to over time.

We don’t know what the effect is going to be on soil carbon and carbon sequestration. So we need to measure though the change, we need to measure today and tomorrow. Educating farmers about that and the carbon context is really important.

And at the end of the day, we’re a data management platform for farmers that gives them more insight into sort of their their activity and what they’re doing.

AFN: What’s next?

SD: We’ve had a few projects in the US and we’ve just had some clients using us for a large carbon project in Montana. We just finished up the second sampling for that that project now and we’re broadening that to recruit a body on the ground in Colorado. We’re just steadily steadily growing to support US farmers and ranchers to do do what farmers over here are doing in Australia.

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