Why software entrepreneurs are digging into ag tech

Farmers typically consult the calendar and the weather forecast to figure out when to plant their crops, but figuring out how to grow a tech startup focused on the farm can be a far more complex task.

The challenge can call to mind the old joke about the farmer who won the lottery. When asked how the winnings would be used, the farmer answered, “Well, I guess I’ll just keep farming until the money runs out.”

When it comes to ag tech ventures, the money isn’t running out: Last year, a Crunchbase survey found that venture capitalists were investing roughly $4 billion a year in farm-centric startups — and the flow is continuing despite the COVID-19 pandemic. So far this year, investors have put about $700 million into more than 90 ag tech ventures, according to Crunchbase’s tally.

Some of the stars of the show are Pacific Northwest entrepreneurs who found success in the software industry and are now bringing their startup savvy to the food and agriculture industry. We checked in with four founders to get a sense of how they’re cross-breeding technology with agriculture.


Self-driving tractors: Next frontier for Boeing’s ex-CEO

It’s been almost a year since Boeing fired CEO Dennis Muilenburg over his handling of the 737 MAX crisis, but now he’s found a new role in the manufacturing industry — as an investor and adviser at a company building self-driving electric tractors.

California-based Monarch Tractor says Muilenburg, who grew up on a farm in Iowa and served as a Boeing engineer and executive for more than 30 years, will bring his experience in the aerospace world to agricultural technology.

“Monarch is at the perfect intersection of my experience paths,” Muilenburg said in a news release.

The company unveiled its “driver optional” tractor just last week. The electric vehicle is designed to perform pre-programmed tasks in farm fields, but also will be capable of being driven either remotely or in the cab. The first tractors are due to be shipped in the fall of 2021, at a starting price of $50,000.


How farmers use tech to tend the fields of the future

In the old days, farmers kept track of their crops’ vital stats in logbooks and on whiteboards — but in the new days, that’s not going to cut it.

“Shun analog,” said Steve Mantle, the founder and CEO of Innov8 Ag Solutions, a farm management venture that’s headquartered in Walla Walla, Wash. “Digital first. If a grower is still putting things in logbooks, they have to shift to it.”

Mantle and other experts and entrepreneurs surveyed the state of agricultural tech today during Washington State University’s Digital Agriculture Summit — and it’s clear that the field is in a state of flux.

The panelists gave a shout-out to technologies ranging from sensor-equipped drones and 5G connectivity to robotic harvesters and artificial intelligence. But at the same time, some in the virtual audience complained about not being able to get even a 4G signal down on the farm.

Much more needs to be done to bring the agricultural data revolution to full fruition, said Kurt Steck, managing general partner of the 5G Open Innovation Lab, based in Bellevue, Wash.

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Gates Ag One to help farmers cope with climate

Farm in Africa
Gates Ag One will focus on accelerating agricultural innovation for smallholder farmers, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. (Gates Foundation Photo)

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is starting up a new nonprofit group that will focus on providing small-scale farmers in developing countries with the tools and innovations they’ll need to deal with the effects of climate change.

Get the news brief on GeekWire.


Cloud-based vertical farming at the supermarket

Infarm kiosk
Lelaina Beyer, one of Infarm’s urban farmers in the Seattle area, harvests greens at the kiosk-sized farm in the produce section of the Kirkland Urban QFC store. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

KIRKLAND, Wash. — The Seattle area offers a rich smorgasbord of geeky tech-as-a-service offerings — ranging from software as a service, to gaming as a service, to pizza as a service.

Now you can add “farming as a service” to the list.

That’s what Infarm is going for, with hydroponic plant-growth cabinets that shrink the acreage needed to grow fresh greens to fit in a grocery-store aisle. The startup, based in Berlin, Germany, has just opened up its first North American “farms” inside a pair of QFC supermarkets east of Seattle, at Bellevue Village and here at Kirkland’s Urban Plaza.

“It’s a merger of agriculture and technology,” Emmanuel Evita, Infarm’s global communications director, told me during today’s “first harvest” in Kirkland.

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Startup bets the farm on Microsoft ag tech platform

Innov8 Ag Solutions team
Innov8 Ag’s team installs solar-powered microclimate weather stations in an apple orchard early in the growing season. From left are Innov8 founder Steve Mantle; Tate Gabriel, a 4th-year ag student at Walla Walla Community College; and Innov8’s Todd Tucker. (Innov8 Ag Solutions Photo)

Microsoft’s cloud-based platform for data-driven farming, Azure FarmBeats, had its official coming-out party this week at the company’s annual Ignite conference for developers, but Steve Mantle has already been using FarmBeats’ tools to grow his business — and help farmers grow their crops.

Mantle, the founder of Innov8 Ag Solutions in Walla Walla, Wash., is leading the development of a data analysis service that provides agricultural insights to dozens of apple growers, as well as farmers who grow other crops ranging from wheat and barley to grapes. He’s even signed up a few wineries for Innov8 Ag’s services, which leverage Azure-based cloud components.

Azure FarmBeats brings together all those ag-related components, making it possible to combine data from soil moisture sensors, satellites, drones, weather stations and other sources. Developers can add artificial-intelligence applications to the FarmBeats foundation, like adding muscles and organs to a skeleton.

FarmBeats has been under development since 2015, and this week it became available for public preview through the Azure Marketplace. “Now we’re actually able to use that skeleton, as it were,” Mantle told GeekWire.

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Beta Hatch wins funding for mealworm farming

Mealworms can provide the protein for animal feed. (Beta Hatch Photo)

Thar’s money in them thar mealworms!

At least that’s what Cavallo Ventures is counting on. The venture capital arm of the Wilbur-Ellis agricultural product distribution firm says it’s providing seed-round backing to Beta Hatch, a Seattle-based startup that grows mealworms for animal feed.

Beta Hatch is developing a proprietary process that feeds the worms organic waste, and cultivates critters that contain 56 percent protein and 33 percent fat. The company, founded by entomologist Virginia Emery in 2015, says its process requires minimal water and produces protein at 5,000 times the per-acre yield of soy.

The process offers an alternative to fishmeal, which is currently a favored source of protein for animal feed — typically, for feeding poultry, pigs and farmed fish. In addition to the protein-rich feedstock, the manure from mealworms (technically known as frass) can be used as an organic fertilizer for specialty crops.

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USDA scales back limits on scientists’ contacts

Rangeland scientist
Emilio Carillo, a rangeland scientist with the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, tests the new LandPKS mobile app on his smartphone. A report about the app was the subject of a tweet sent out after the USDA information ban was lifted. (USDA Photo / Jeffrey Herrick)

U.S. Department of Agriculture officials have rescinded an order that barred its researchers from releasing “public-facing documents,” ranging from news releases and photos to social media posts.

Reports about the order, which first arose on BuzzFeed News, sparked widespread complaints on Jan. 24 about a Trump administration crackdown – particularly in light of similar limits that were placed on communications from the Environmental Protection Agency.

Late that day, the USDA issued a statement saying that the original email from ARS chief of staff Sharon Drumm “was released without Departmental direction, and prior to Departmental guidance being issued.”

“ARS will be providing updated direction to its staff,” the statement said. “ARS values and is committed to maintaining the free flow of information between our scientists and the American public.”

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How robots are taking over the milking parlor

Image: Ron Austin and cow
Dairy farmer Ron Austin peers past the robot-controlled milking cups attached to a cow’s teats. The cows mostly decide when and how often they’re milked. (GeekWire photo by Alan Boyle)

OAKVILLE, Wash. – The Austin family’s cows seem a lot more contented since the robots took over the milking. It’s the humans, not the cows, who have had to make the biggest adjustments.

“At first, you’re a deer in the headlights,” Ron Austin recalled at the family farm, 90 miles southwest of Seattle. “You get a call from the robot, and you don’t know what to do. The cows learned faster than we did.”

The Austins and about a dozen other families in Washington state are part of a rising robot revolution in the dairy industry.

More than 30,000 autonomous milking machines have been sold around the world, and the trend is just now picking up speed in the United States. By 2025, as much as a quarter of the cows in North America could be milked by robots.

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