Startup Aiming to be Amazon for Ag Meets Resistance

Farmers Business Network, or FBN, is a Silicon Valley startup that is trying to build an Amazon-like online marketplace for agricultural supplies. It has positioned itself as an alternative that allows farmers to compare costs, negotiate prices, and ultimately gain control of expenses.

Ag giants like Bayer AG, Corteva, Inc., and Syngenta AG, however, have refused to sell their brand-name seeds and crop sprays to the startup. Major farm retailers and wholesalers have urged farmers and suppliers to avoid the platform, in some cases circulating letters and emails warning that FBN’s goal is to gather and secretly sell data on crops and farms.

Charles Baron, who co-founded FBN, denies those claims.

Web-based companies have upended retail, grocery and other American industries over the past two decades, offering consumers an array of choices in products at competitive prices and quick delivery.

The $40 billion U.S. farm supply business is a holdout. FBN wants to change that, undercutting bricks-and-mortar retailers on price and delivering supplies directly to farmers. Its battles, involving some of the industry’s biggest players, show how hard it can be.

Executives from big seed and chemical supply companies say they need to control who they allow to sell their products to make sure farmers don’t wind up with the wrong seed for their soil, or ineffective spray. Major farm retailers say they provide in-the-field service and local knowledge that FBN cannot match.

“Is that online tool going to bring you the skid of product you need on a Sunday?” wrote Neil Douglas, head of Canada agriculture for farm chemical distributor Univar Solutions Inc., in a 2018 email. FBN, he wrote to agricultural manufacturers and colleagues, is a “data company that wants to collect and aggregate data to eventually sell for a profit.”

After FBN purchased a Canadian agricultural supplier in 2018, some large farm-supply companies stopped providing their products to the business, leaving FBN unable to sell them. That maneuver sparked an investigation by Canadian regulators, which continues.

Amol Deshpande, FBN’s chief executive and co-founder, said: “These are the tactics the industry will use to keep players like us out, because they can.”

FBN was founded six years ago. It has raised nearly $600 million from investors, which makes it a standout among farm startups. The company employs about 500 people, with additional operations across the Midwest. Its nearly 13,000 members farm an area roughly the size of Wisconsin. As of late 2018, the company was generating hundreds of millions of dollars in sales, Deshpande said.

Membership costs $700 a year, and if farmers provide data on supply costs or seed performance, they get access to FBN’s crowd-sourced price and product database. Farmers can use it to bargain with suppliers for better deals.

FBN executives said in some cases they are able to procure name-brand farm products from brokers or wholesalers, but at higher prices than traditional retailers. They said the startup has otherwise been shut out by manufacturers intent on protecting the existing network of farm retailers and its established profit margins.

The company hasn’t yet turned a profit but continues to adapt with changes such as introducing its own lines of seeds and employing crop advisors. Despite the industry opposition, the founders believe that as the startup signs up more farmers, more seed and chemical companies will be willing to work with FBN.

Source: Wall Street Journal