Now is the time, so why aren’t you getting into ag-tech?

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Do you know why now is the best time to get into ag-tech? Compared to any other point in history, there’s a larger demand for qualified professionals, more support for start-ups, and most importantly, more money on the table. Let’s take a look at why this might be and how you can take advantage of it.

Time For Ag-Tech

Labor Demand

No matter who I talk to, one of the largest challenges in the vertical farming industry is finding people with the background to actually grow stuff. There aren’t any qualified trade schools for learning hydroponics, much less aeroponics, or integrating hydroponics vertically. Those skills are rarely a part of any classic botany/agriculture curriculum at universities yet it’s what a company would want a potential employee to have.

That’s not to say that there aren’t any resources; Boswyck Farms in NY offers great hydroponic workshops from what I’ve heard, and I actually finished a certificate program at the University of the District of Columbia that focuses on urban hydroponic production. Unfortunately, though each of these programs offers certificates, there is no standardized level of acceptance in the industry.

Starting your own farm or project is probably the best route to get experience in the industry and skip by any pesky prerequisites. Teach yourself the skills, embrace the maker ethos – just getting out there and doing something is better than surfing the web and planning something. Elbow grease is the age-old prescription for success, and it definitely applies to this situation.

These troubles aren’t limited to ag-tech. They are representative of a struggling agriculture system as a whole. This Wall Street Journal describes a shortage of qualified farm workers for conventional harvesting jobs and the problems its wreaking for the specialty crop (aka fruits and vegetables for those luckier than me who aren’t swamped daily by ag industry jargon and minutia) industry. From the article: “Overall in the U.S., the decline in workers is reducing fruit and vegetable production by 9.5%, or $3.1 billion, a year, according to a recently published analysis of government data by the Partnership for a New American Economy, a nonpartisan group that supports a looser immigration policy.”

Though the piece ties the problem largely to changes in immigration policy (and I can’t help flashing back to the tragedy in Grapes of Wrath on this), it’s not hard to imagine lack of general experience and skills playing a part for some of the higher-up positions. The correlation is outlined in the graph below.

immigration and farmworker wages

Start Ups

First of all, this is not a startup blog. Other than asking every vertical farming startup person I interview if they fit the Silicone Valley startup mold, I don’t really care about startup culture too much. Don’t get me wrong, I think startups are extremely effective. But the fact that there’s a culture surrounding it seems to make a fetish of efficient small business practices and that obscures what’s really crucial about them.

That opinion will probably change and evolve as I do some more thinking on the issue and come out of my shell a bit, but for the purposes of this post, I just want to point out that year after year, there are more and more resources available for startups. One quick example for the first-time farmer is Beginning Farmers but sites like Food Tank do a good job of aggregating similar resources as well.

Don’t even get me started on the number of startup blogs out there…

More Money On The Table

According to the most recent USDA Ag Census, the average age of a farmer is almost 60 years old. There has been a clear increase in the age of farmers as well as a decrease in their number and that’s something our government wants to change. Luckily, the past few farm bills have put a hefty amount of money on the table form our government to reverse this trend. That’s on top of organizations like Angel List, crowdfunding websites, and Silicone Valley investor groups that have democratized fundraising in this country in a way never before seen.

Here are just a few of the less focused funding resources include:

  • CIG Conservation Innovation Grants
    Conservation Innovation Grants (CIG) offers two programmatic exceptions intended to encourage the participation of beginning and limited resource farmers and ranchers, and Indian Tribes, in CIG. Each year, up to 10 percent of National CIG funds may be set aside for applicants who are beginning or limited resource farmers and ranchers, or Indian Tribes, or community-based organizations comprised of or representing these entities. The second exception allows applicants from any of the historically underserved populations to derive a higher percentage of project matching
  • CSP Conservation Stewardship Program
    “The Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) is a voluntary program that encourages agricultural and forestry producers to address resource concerns by (1) undertaking additional conservation activities and (2) improving and maintaining existing conservation systems. CSP provides financial and technical assistance to help land stewards conserve and enhance soil, water, air, and related natural resources on their land.
  • Farm Operating Loan Program
    “Operating Loans may be used to purchase items such as livestock, farm equipment, feed, seed, fuel, farm chemicals, insurance, and other operating expenses. Operating Loans can also be used to pay for minor improvements to buildings, costs associated with land and water development, family subsistence, and to refinance debts under certain conditions.
  • Farm Risk Planning
    The USDA Risk Management Agency “helps farmers and ranchers learn how to improve their risk management skills.” This program provides information on: Risk Management Planning; Better Marketing Planning; New Enterprise Planning and also has an online Farm Planning Library.
  • SSDPG Small Socially-Disadvantaged Producer Grant
    “Formerly known as the Small, Minority Producer Grant Program, the primary objective of the SSDPG program is to provide technical assistance to small, socially-disadvantaged agricultural producers through eligible cooperatives and associations of cooperatives. Grants are awarded on a competitive basis.” See your State Rural Development Office for Applications: http://www.rd.usda.gov/contact-us/state-offices
  • Start2Farm
    The Start2Farm is the name of the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program Curriculum and Training Clearinghouse for new and beginning farmers. This clearinghouse features information and resources for training and assistance programs available throughout the United States, including those produced through the NIFA Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program. The Start2Farm clearinghouse serves as a one-stop information source about programs and resources to start farming and to be successful in the first years as a farmer or rancher.
  • EQIP Environmental Quality Incentives Program Support for Organic Growers
    “Through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program Organic Initiative, the USDA Natrual Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) provides assistance to eligible producers for installation of conservation practices on organic or agricultural operations transitioning to organic production.

And here’s a page from beginningfarmers.org with some more insight into the process.


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