Farmers Business Network (FBN) looks back 10 years

In 2014, Charles Baron and Amol Deshpande were coming up with an idea that was virtually unheard of in agriculture.

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

The Farmers Business Network, known as FBN, was born out of this goal.

Today, FBN is a major online supplier of input crops and offers a number of other resources to farmers, including marketing support, access to insurance and credit programs, and tools to participate in sustainability programs.

It started as a farmer-to-farmer sharing network to provide growers with analytics on things like seed performance and product price transparency. At the time, this information was often unclear to the average farmer.

“There were so many parts of agriculture that seemed fundamentally unfair to farmers,” says Baron, who co-founded FBN with Deshpande. “FBN is fighting very, very hard to make these practices better for growers.”

“Battled” is an appropriate word; in the early days, FBNs clashed with many in the industry over the idea of ​​cutting out the middlemen, in this case retailers, and allowing manufacturers to buy products directly.

Widespread CropLife a 2016 article called it “a nasty blow” to retailers and mentioned “the devil known as ‘price transparency’.”

“[It] painted images of manufacturers storming into the offices of retailers with price lists and demanding lower prices for raw materials,” AgFunderNews wrote at the time of CropLife piece.

Baron says the company has 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 manufacturers by providing the most transparent, convenient and high ROI experience to our members.”

More recently, there was a rumor in the food processing industry that FBN had increased to a 95% markdown from his last round. FBN declined to comment.

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

Down Baron (CB) discusses the company’s origins, Big Ag’s initial reaction to the business, and what lies ahead 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, which felt like a very real imbalance in purchasing power, lack of price transparency and market access.

We started with the question, “How do we use technology, networks and community to make agriculture better and more profitable, more sustainable for producers and help them make sense of the world of information available to the farmer?”

The aim was to put the world of agriculture at the fingertips of farmers and empower them through information, technology and networking.

When we started analyzing pricing data as a young company, we saw huge price differences. Then the farmers started asking us to go and buy these products. This has evolved into a complete e-commerce and logistics and raw material supplier with our chemical business and crop nutrition products.

Ultimately, we focused on farm finance, marketing and sustainability so that we could 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’ pains about transparency and a desire for more competitive markets.

Farmers were particularly frustrated by non-transparent pricing, 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 manufacturers by providing the most transparent, convenient and high ROI experience to our members.

AFN: What was the initial reaction of the agricultural industry?

CB: FBN began by providing growers with analytics on seed performance, product price transparency, etc. A lot of companies were very, very open to it, and a lot weren’t.

As we matured and scaled, people became increasingly nervous about what this might mean for their business. Now I think people have figured out how farmers are using the technology, places where they’re going to be very consistent in using the product. But when it came out, there was huge fear and uncertainty about FBN for many people, which caused a lot of resistance to the business model. I think we’ve really seen that change over time.

We now have great partners like ADM and Farmer Mac and others who have embraced what technology can do and be for farmers. When it comes to animal health, we work with all the major animal health companies.

AFN: What is the biggest challenge facing Ag in the last decade? Has the industry figured it out?

CB: There is a challenge for farmers and there are challenges for farmers.

For farmers, this is a long-standing problem: they naturally experiment, but they need to get real business benefits quickly. Technologies should be able to demonstrate this benefit very quickly. Farmers need to be able to build confidence and say that this will be the future and become a core business practice in their operation.

Then there is the challenge of the agricultural industry, which is still a work in progress.

The lack of competition in the industry is indeed a major problem that negatively affects farmers. There is a degree of industry consolidation among major suppliers, consolidation between routes to market, channels and retailers. This essentially means that farmers’ choice and competition is hindered.

FBN has always strived to make agriculture more competitive, to open up more product offerings for farmers. We also welcome working with big brands and branded products — but doing it in a way that farmers now want, using technology, buying online, working in ways that maybe they didn’t five or 10 years ago.

But it’s still a work in progress. We still have the conventional retail world deciding how far to go online. There is a conventional supply chain (e.g. large bio-chemical companies) who are looking at how far they can go to reach the manufacturers directly.

AFN: Name a few key developments in the last decade

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

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

This increased digitization of business and how it complements personal business is truly the future of how farmers will receive goods and services.

AFN: Where is agtech in 10 years?

CB: I think the machine side will see more and more use of autonomy, computer vision and artificial intelligence. We have seen this through our partnership with Green Eye sprinklers, an extremely exciting technology.

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

When we started bringing agriculture online, there was a lot of resistance from the industry to understand that this is what was going to work.

What we have seen is a growing confidence and comfort in the ability of farms to do business online in more and more parts of their business.

This is as much from the development of technology as it is from the generation that now runs farms that are used to their lives going online.

For example, integrating sustainability grain digital marketing with inputs you can make now in a system like FBN’s. We do everything from primary product development to insourcing to sustainability program management and customer development. This is unlike anything that existed 10 years ago. Technology allows you to put these parts together.

We will continue to see more and more combinations and permutations of risk management technology with financial technology, with commodity purchasing technology, with logistics, with grain marketing. This is going to be an extremely exciting future for farmers.

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