I attended an agriculture conference this week at the Four Seasons in Palo Alto.
There were no pickup trucks in the BMW-packed parking lot, and few farmers with dirt under their fingernails could be found milling about the sleek hotel lobby. But the place was swarming with venture capitalists from some of Silicon Valley’s marquee firms looking to grow profits with investments in sustainable agriculture.
Welcome to Agriculture 2.0.
That was the name of the conference and represents a growing effort to scale up sustainable agriculture from a hodge-podge of hippies and back-to-the-land types into a viable big business by bringing together venture capitalists and startups doing everything from rooftop farming to high-tech soil mapping to identifying the best areas for growing crops.
The big idea is that venture capitalists can help disrupt industrial agriculture much as they have the computer, entertainment and energy industries by investing in sustainable ag and using information technology to connect producers and consumers.
“We want to create an opportunity for a market, not a movement,” said Roxanne Christensen of SPIN Farming, which promotes the creation of urban microfarms.
The Palo Alto conference was organized by NewSeed Advisors, a New York firm that acts as a matchmaker between investors and sustainable ag startups.
Janine Yorio, a young former Wall Street investment banker, founded NewSeed and persuaded such high-profile venture firms as Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, Foundation Capital and Mohr Davidow Partners to spend Wednesday hearing pitches from a roster of sustainable ag entrepreneurs, who ranged from twenty-something Los Angeles farmers to silver-haired engineers developing environmentally friendly fertilizers.
So how to crack a century-old food production system that has become both increasingly centralized and globalized?
It won’t be easy, says Melanie Cheng, founder of FarmsReach, a San Francisco startup developing an online market to connect farmers to local buyers like restaurants.
Regional markets are the most sustainable, according to Cheng, allowing fresh food to be distributed to inner city “food deserts” while reducing transportation costs and thus agriculture’s environmental impact. People who actually live where food is grown also tend to use far less pesticides and toxins, she noted.
But the current disconnect between local farmers and consumers means that those growing food often remain in the dark about what the market is demanding.
“We have no data,” says Cheng. “And that means there’s a great opportunity for information technology solutions.”
You could almost see the ears of the venture capitalists in the audience perk up at that remark. Think of the companies that have remade commerce — and made many billions of dollars — over the past 15 years: Amazon, eBay, Google. They all exploited networks and data mining to upend conventional competitors.
Many conference goers compared the potential and challenges of sustainable ag to investing in renewable energy and other green technologies that are trying to disrupt another entrenched industry.
“Agriculture is still largely an old boys network and deals get done on a handshake,” says Stu Rudick, whose Marin County private equity firm, Mindful Investors, takes stakes in sustainable, natural consumer products startups.
As is the case with many green tech investments, the question is whether venture capitalists have the patience for the years it may take sustainable ag startups to turn a profit, go public or get acquired. Bioengineering a new environmentally benign pest control organism, after all, takes a little longer than writing code for the latest iPhone app or social networking site.
Amol Deshpande, a partner at Kleiner Perkins, thinks Silicon Valley is more open to taking the long view these days.
“Most venture firms have green tech investments,” he says. “I think the nature of venture capital is changing.”
Deshpande himself could be Exhibit A in the bets venture firms are preparing to make on sustainable ag. He joined Kleiner Perkins, one of the Valley’s premier VC firms, in 2008 after working at industrial ag giants such as Cargill, as well as starting his own agricultural biotechnology company.
If there was a common thread running through the conference it was that Agriculture 2.0 is essentially about distributed food production, much like many promising renewable energy technologies are about distributed power generation — putting solar panels where electricity is consumed, for instance.
Of course, the killer app would be to power urban microfarms with renewable energy, noted Mike Yohay, founder of Cityscape Farms, a San Francisco startup developing rooftop greenhouses that use hydroponics and aquaponics technology to grow food without soil and fertilize it with fish waste.
For Silicon Valley, sustainable ag offers a way for the tech industry to literally get back to its roots. Before the Santa Clara Valley was rebranded Silicon Valley in the 1970s with the rise of the semiconductor industry, it was long known as the Valley of Heart’s Delight for the lush expanses of orchards that stretched between the Santa Cruz Mountains and the Diablo Range.
Who knows, in the coming years you might start to see a few dusty pickup trucks parked next to those Tesla Roadsters on Sand Hill Road.