The future of farming: How urban agriculture could make big money

October 4, 2019 Michael Stahl
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Downtown Brooklyn may seem like an unlikely staging ground for the future of farming — but at Gotham Market Hall in late September, 75 attendees at a “Shark Tank”-style pitch contest bore witness to just that.

The Future of Farming Pitch Contest featured five finalists from the urban agriculture industry, each presenting a three-minute pitch, complete with slideshow and video, to five discerning judges armed with follow-up questions.

At stake: $5,000 in seed money, $20,000 worth of server storage credits for Google’s Cloud for Startups and a free sit down with a consulting firm.

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The victor: FoodFul, a company that builds sensors and software for dairy farmers that monitor their cows’ health and feed intake.

“Whenever you win a competition, it’s a great experience,” said Joseph Tarnate, the company’s CEO and co-founder, who presented a pitch that in part chronicled his own childhood growing up on a dairy farm.

The other contestants included everything from an agricultural data aggregation platform, Native AgTech, designed to limit waste and optimize revenue, to a personalized urban garden-in-a-kit designer, GrowSquares, which helps users construct their home gardens with app-based instructions. There was a representative from WeRegulate, which manufactures field sensors that help farmers meet composting regulation requirements, while another company called Food Cycle processes food waste into feed for chickens.

“It’s about intention and recognition, so there’s going to be a lot of investors in the crowd,” said Ricky Stephens, director of digital strategy at Agritecture Consulting, a member of the NYC Agriculture Collective, which helped organize the event. “This is a really great way for especially a niche industry like [agricultural technology] to be spotlighted when it comes to innovation and entrepreneurship.”

After each company representative took their turn at the mic, the judges questioned the contestants’ respective business models, scale, potential for expansion and more, before retiring to a sidewalk dining table to deliberate over a prospective victor.

“We were definitely looking at the overall transformational potential of the idea, and the size of the market,” said Abby Lyall, a program director at the venture capital fund Big Idea Ventures. “Something that’s a really great idea but [serves] a smaller market is less appealing to us as investors and as growth-focused startup founders.” Lyall added that she and the other judges also considered the companies’ respective “overall ability to make money, traction, growth potential” and other aspects.

For her, it was Tarnate’s personal touch that pushed FoodFul over the top.

“Having that founder’s story and knowing that he had that personal connection to the problem, that was really impactful,” she said.

“We were blown away by the creativity and caliber of the contestants tonight, but none more so than FoodFul,” said Regina Myer, president of the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership, which helped to coordinate the event and has awarded more than $100,000 to entrepreneurs across 12 similar contests so far. “These startups are great examples of the potential for innovation in the [agricultural technology] industry. We can’t wait to see these founders grow and expand their businesses.”

The urban agriculture industry, according to one market analysis report, “is gaining prominence owing to lower transportation cost and supply of fresh nutritious products at competitive prices.”

A January 2018 study said that, if deployed on a wide scale, in cities around the world, urban agriculture could yield 180 million metric tons of food each year, including up to 10 percent of the world’s legumes, roots and vegetable crops.

“The study also looks at ‘ecosystem services’ associated with urban agriculture,” wrote CityLab, “including reduction of the urban heat-island effect, avoided stormwater runoff, nitrogen fixation, pest control, and energy savings,” which, all told, could make the global urban agriculture industry worth $160 billion annually.

The Future of Farming Pitch Contest was part of a 15-event strong festival of urban agriculture innovation and development called NYC AgTech Week. The festival celebrated its fourth anniversary this year, and featured “farm tours, panels, workshops and presentations,” according to the NYC Ag Collective website, as well as networking events and workshops.

Michael Stahl is a freelance writer and editor. A former high school English teacher, he has written for Rolling Stone, Vice, the Village Voice, Narratively, Splitsider, Outside Magazine and other publications.

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