Opinion: Taking On The Farmers Business Network

Well, another round of venture capital funding has come to Farmers Business Network (FBN), followed up with the obligatory feature article in Forbes magazine — this one titled, “How Farmers Business Network Plans To Disrupt Big Agra, One Farm At A Time.”

The Series C round of funding totaled $40 million, including GV — formerly Google Ventures — and additional support from two of its early investors, Acre Venture Partners, and Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. It signals serious belief that FBN is headed down the right track.

For better or worse, most of the companies I talk to in the traditional crop production channel don’t view FBN as a long-term threat. The industry survived its first wave of Internet-driven price transparency during the dot-com boom of the early 2000s — at some point, a recognition that service and local responsiveness to agronomic services, as well as immediate “walk with the grower” attention to seed and input problems reinforced the need for experienced, trusted boots on the ground.

Still, service providers simply cannot take the specter of FBN too lightly, or allow them to back-fill cracks in our service to growers.
A couple of examples from the Forbes story caught my eye. One grower cited in the story gave FBN a shot at the urging of one of the company’s local representatives. The main reason they indicated for trying it was that they had been collecting data and loading it onto a personal computer, where it would sit, unused. A crack in customer service to be sure, and a golden opportunity for an upstart company with a compelling story to gain a foothold.

A couple of growers indicated that this upcoming season, they were going to try using FBN for crop protection product procurement. One of the farmers was quoted as saying: “It was a better price than I normally buy, which was hard for me because we’ve been pretty loyal to our local retailers.”

The recognition of the value of the retailer to the community is good news, but his concluding statement to the quote was concerning: “With the tight margins we are in, anything you can do, it helps.” How far “loyalty” goes remains to be seen.

Another note from the story indicates that investment of this round of cash will go toward building a stronger ground offensive. “In addition to new territories, Farmer Business Network plans to use the new investment to hire more reps and data scientists and look internationally,” reports Forbes. “The company could eventually offer more prescriptive planting modeling to its farmers.”
My big takeaway from this is that FBN is entering a pivotal time. It’s betting that growers will be enticed by the product pricing, and stay if enough value can be generated by adding in product recommendations that are on target.

It’s a tall order — many of you that have spent decades in retail feel that FBN won’t survive because of the difficulty. But this is not the time to take anything for granted. To emerge as vital and sustainable businesses, we must demonstrate the superior service and value we are uniquely able to deliver.

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