Article of the Day

What Americans can learn from other food cultures –


There is no sincerer love than the love of food.

~ George Bernard Shaw 

Driver of Agriculture Megatrends – Culture

The third and last driver of agriculture megatrends I’ll address is culture.  How do changes in how food is communicated and celebrated in society impact the future shape of agriculture?

Components of Food Culture

The five components of food culture include the following.

  • Tradition – Foods, ingredients and cooking methods passed down from one generation to the next.
  • Geography/Natural Resources – The land, water and weather’s impact on food availability and distribution.
  • Cooking – The art, technology and craft of food preparation.
  • Food service – Businesses, institutions, and companies responsible for any meal prepared outside the home.
  • Affluence – The impact of disposable income on food consumption patterns.

First an example from food service.

An important issue in the modern world is expenditures for food at-home versus away-from-home.  In the United States, for example, consumers now spend about 50 percent of food dollars away-from-home.  Per meal expenses are higher away-from-home, so it is less than 50 percent of meals that are consumed away-from-home.  However, this dynamic explains the importance to agriculture of ingredient decisions by large food service businesses such as McDonalds.  Back in the 1980s, my Dad was absolutely convinced that the occasionally-offered McRib sandwich at McDonalds positively impacted pig prices when the sandwich was available.

Food Expenditures at Home and Away From Home United States

The U.S. Grains Council Food 2040 study predicts that the United States will move to 58 percent of food expenditures being away-from-home by 2040.  For China it predicts the same number will move from about 25 percent today to 65 percent in 2040.  For Japan, 75 percent!

Our ultimate customer in agriculture is the individual, but as their food decisions become more integrated into away-from-home experiences, those food services businesses become even more important.

What about food retailing?  The most important trends right now are 1) electronic commerce and 2) the growth of fresh format retailers.

Food Retailing Projections 2016 to 2020

Source: Willard Bishop. 2016 The Future of Food Retailing.

Twenty years after early entrepreneurial efforts to take food purchasing online mostly failed (WebVan), the Internet has begun to impact food retailing.  From Amazon to local grocer HyVee, electronic ordering and delivery of food is growing quickly.

An affluence-related cultural impactor is the link between health and wellness and food and nutrition.  This expresses itself in food consumption expenditures in many ways.  Specific products, for example, burst onto the market.  Coconut water sold less than $50 million in the U.S. ten years ago and now exceeds $500 million.

Product categories are also impacted.  Natural and organic food product sales in the U.S. have had compound annual growth of 10 percent and now account for more than $60 billion annually.

A sizable group of consumers in the U.S., and in many other countries, now bring a set of value judgements to food purchases that are difficult for many in production agriculture to understand.  One result is a frantic search by food companies to be able to make sustainability claims for their food products.  The challenge is that they need to reach back into production agriculture to get data to be able to make claims.  Do many want to pay more to agricultural producers if they can make sustainability claims?  Not right now, but the issue, and others arising from food culture, will not go away.

Article of the Day

In Chinese culture, fish symbolize abundance and prosperity. A growing middle class now earns the equivalent of about $25,000 in U.S. dollars annually, giving buyers disposable income to spend on such high-end food as salmon.

Salmon prospects bright among China’s growing middle class – Alaska Dispatch News


With a population of more than 600 million people, an emerging middle class that is driving strong consumption, and a robust and resilient economy, Southeast Asia presents a compelling growth opportunity for Starbucks.

~ Howard Schultz 

Driver of Agriculture Megatrends – Economics

The second driver of agriculture megatrends I’ll address is economics.  How do changes in production, consumption and wealth creation impact the future shape of agriculture?

The first example of an economic driver of agriculture megatrends is per capita income.

In the previous post, I described how demographics impact food consumption and spending and some implication for the future.  An example of economics intersecting with demographics is per capita income.  Food demand may not have positive signals from demographics in China, for example, but it does have positive signals from economics if per capita income is growing.  In China, tens of thousands of consumers are entering the middle class every week.  As this happen, people are working for wages ands shifting food consumption from grow-your-own or carbohydrate-centric to purchased food and higher protein food choices.


Source: International Monetary Fund

Many economists describe the beginning of these middle class habits that impact food consumption patterns as somewhere between $5,000 and $10,000 annual income.  Globally, according to one estimate, 384,000 people per day join the middle class.  The number of global middle class participants at the end of 2016 numbered 3.2 billion.  This implies that the point of one-half of global population will likely be reached sometime around 2020. (Kharas 2017)

Food categories for upgrade by the new middle class especially impact proteins; meat, dairy, eggs, and alternative proteins such as fish.  These food products are more intensive to produce, so middle class growth in regions without developed agricultural supply chains will have significant impact.

What role will trade play in meeting the needs of the emerging global middle class?  Corn and soybeans are two significant inputs for protein production, for example, and carryover stocks figures imply that the United States currently has excess production capacity in both.  In 2016 the U.S. produced its first 15 billion bushel crop.  With continued yield increases and higher acreage it isn’t at all inconceivable to envision the first 20 billion bushel crop in the U.S.  But where will it be used?  Its use will need to be either through straight exports of corn, or through exports of products that were produced in the U.S. using corn as an input.

The second example of an economic driver of agriculture megatrends is energy.  The U.S. agriculture industry used nearly 800 trillion British thermal units (Btu) of energy in 2012, or about as much primary energy as the entire state of Utah (U.S. Energy Information Administration).  Energy is a major input for agriculture in many ways.

US Energy Production as a Share of Energy Consumption

What has changed in the last decade is the United States’ role in global energy production.  The shale revolution in particular has put the U.S. on track to be a net exporter of energy as opposed to a net importer.

Why does this matter to agriculture?  It matters because it means the price of energy relative to the rest of the world goes down.  The United States has many sources of comparative advantage in agricultural production, and you can now add energy to that list.

Of particular interest in next-generation agricultural production is the price of electricity.  Whether electric motors, indoor agriculture, or other electric powered agricultural technologies, electricity only becomes a more important input in tomorrow’s production agriculture and the U.S. advantage in this area is growing.




Kharas, Homi. The Unprecedented Expansion of the Global Middle Class. February 2017. Brookings Institution Working Paper 100.

Video of the Day

How demographics impact the cost of capital – Peter Zeihan


…because of demographic aging on a global scale, the United States is emerging as the only market over the long-term. 

In the United States, you have the market, the financial capital, the labor system, the consumption base, the energy—and you can project power out, rather than have to defend your own borders. That does not exist anywhere else on the planet, and is not going to exist anywhere else on the planet in the next fifty years.
~ Peter Zeihan (excerpts from Reasons the U.S. will Dominate the World Economy, Forbes) 

Driver of Food Megatrends – Demographics

I’ve given a number of talks in the last two years on megatrends that will determine the future shape of agriculture.  I build my analysis of megatrends on a foundation of three drivers.

  1. Demographics – Statistical data relating to the population and particular groups within it.
  2. Economics – Knowledge concerned with the production, consumption, and wealth creation.
  3. Culture – How human achievement is communicated and celebrated in society.

Framework for Megatrends

The fun part of these talks is the look-forward: How are megatrends expressing themselves in changes we see today, and how will they shape the agriculture of tomorrow.  Therefore, I typically don’t spend time elaborating on how I derive the megatrends I propose.

In the next three weeks, I’ll use this forum to elaborate briefly on demographics, economics, culture, and how each shapes impactful megatrends.  I’ll start with demographics.

I borrow heavily in my thinking about demographics from Peter Zeihan,  Zeihan is a geopolitical strategist who specializes in global energy, demographics and security. He analyzes the realities of geography and populations to deepen the understanding of how global politics impact markets and economic trends.  His two books, The Absent Superpower and The Accidental Superpower are provocative reads.  He, more or less, predicted Brexit and the election of Trump.

Zeihan’s analysis boils down to the idea that most of the developed world outside the United States, has reached it productive peak.  Mature workers, 45 to 65 years old, are at their productive peak and are in net savings mode.  For societies as a whole, this leads to ready supplies of capital and output growth.  But now that’s begun to shift as those workers turn to retirement and begin to hold on to and burn their savings and then take their production out of the marketplace.  Capital becomes more expensive and growth lags or sags.  There simply aren’t enough workers at younger demographics to make the world work the way it has for the last century.

Developed World Demography Without US 2030

Zeihan’s chart of demography of the developed world excluding the U.S. in 2030 tells the story.  There isn’t a bench in the younger demographics to replenish those retiring from the workforce.

China Demography 2040

The same holds true for China.  The one-child policy has in two generations moved China to one of the most rapidly aging populations in the world, important due to sheer numbers (1.4 billion people).

US Demography 2030

Meanwhile, U.S. demographics in 2030 are projected by Zeihan to be on a more sustainable track.  Higher birth rates than other developed countries along with immigration keeps the younger demographic groups recharged.

What about demographics and food?  Below is a table with a simplified view of how I analyze the impact of demographics on food choices, consumption and spending.


Demographics of Food

For the United States these demographic drivers hold a few clues as to current and future trends.

  • Trends related to health and wellness are linked closely to demographics.  A higher proportion of the population puts health concerns toward the top of their list when making food choices.  Growth in organic food sales is a manifestation of demographics, for example.
  • Many tag those born in the U.S. between 1980 and 2000 as millennials, and their food choices are notable for a couple reasons.  First because that demographic is big, having by some counts now surpassed the baby boomer demographic, counting somewhere between 75 and 80 million people.  So there are a lot of them.  Second, their food choices tend to mimic older demographics sooner than past generations.  Millennials make food choices earlier based on lifestyle and health, often in spite of budget constraints.  In a 2013 survey of U.S. consumers conducted by a student research group at Iowa State University, it found that Millennials made food choices based on health issues just as often as older demographics.

In a nutshell, food trends in the U.S. related to origin, production method, and health impact will not go away.  In fact, we are likely still in the early stages of those sorts of trends in consumer food demand.

For countries outside the United States, it’s a mixed bag.

  • Europe, Russia and most Eurasian countries are not growth markets from a demographic perspective.  The population is aging with birth rates much below death and net-migration in most countries so the amount of calories needed to support those populations is in decline.
  • In China the demographic picture is aging also, but that is offset by income growth.  However, the interplay of demographics and income growth makes future food consumption predictions really difficult to nail down.
  • Many countries across southeast and southern Asia as well as Sub-Saharan Africa have the most positive developing country demographics.  Food demand increases are a sure-thing and will be significant.  The significant question is where it will be produced.

In next week’s post I’ll address economics as a driver of food megatrends.

Article of the Day

AgTech Mid-Year Investing Report – 2016 – AgFunder


Seed stage investment continues to drive agtech investment, representing 52% of deals recorded. The total size of seed stage investments grew with 159 seed stage deals raising $104 million in H1-2016 compared to 260 deals raising $130 million for all of 2015.
~ AgFunder

Student Ag Entrepreneur Business Concepts by Subsector

Visitors to the Agricultural Entrepreneurship Initiative ask me what businesses student ag entrepreneurs are most interested in.  One way to answer the question is to look at business concepts students create for the entrepreneurship course I teach at Iowa State University, Entrepreneurship in Agriculture.

Two week’s ago, students in the course pitched their favorite of the 2 or 3 new business ideas they’ve developed in the course.  I went through the list of business concepts and categorized them by subsector.  I use subsector definitions from the AgFunder report on AgTech investment activity.

Alternative Protein – These companies look to replace traditional sources of protein such as meat and eggs. Companies fall into three categories: cellular agriculture; ingredient innovation; and the production and discovery of alternate protein sources, such as crickets or algae.

Animal Health & Nutrition – Companies that identify agricultural livestock or farming of aquatic organisms as a key market.

Bioenergy – Companies producing energy made from materials derived from biological sources.

Biomaterials & Biochemicals – This includes companies using biological material to produce/farm: peptides, bioplastics, non-ag inputs, microorganisms, pharmaceuticals, microbes and algae, functional ingredients/nutrients/phytoceuticals.

Cannabis Technology – Companies developing technologies for the emerging legal cannabis and hemp markets.

Decision Support Tech – This is our primarily software-focused category. It includes but is not limited to precision agriculture technologies. It includes satellite data companies, big data, and ERP technologies. Excludes companies categorized under drones & robotics, and smart equipment & hardware, and irrigation & watertech.

Drones & Robotics – Companies that are building drones or robotic technologies which have self-identified food or agriculture as a key market.

Farm-2-Consumer – Companies that directly deliver food to consumers from farms, differing from food e-commerce, which involves e-grocers, meal kit delivery services, and specialist meal delivery.

Food E-Commerce – E-grocers, meal kit delivery, and specialist meal services which are attempting to disrupt the agriculture value chain. Excludes restaurant delivery.

Food Tech – A broad category including food processing, food enhancing technology (e.g. flavor or nutritional value), packaging, food analysis.

Food Safety & Traceability –  Includes all companies attempting to track food production, food sterilization or introducing technologies that reduce the risk of food safety concerns.

Indoor Agriculture – Includes all farming operations that occur indoors or in greenhouses, and the technologies that accompany them. It does not include Cannabis-related tech, which is spun out into its own category.

Irrigation & Watertech – Includes all technologies involving the management of water for agriculture. Some precision irrigation companies could technically fall into smart equipment or decision support tech, but we felt that this categorization would be more informative.

Smart Equipment & Hardware – Predominantly includes sensor technology, Internet of Things (IoT), and other non-robotic machinery in the food and agriculture value chain.

Soil & Crop Technology – Includes: biological inputs and treatments, chemical inputs, genetics–based tech, new crops, seed technology.

Waste tech –  Includes products made out of food waste, wastewater treatment for agriculture, and agriculture or food waste mitigation technologies.


Student Business Proposals By Category
Entrepreneurship in Agriculture Course
Fall 2016 Semester, 94 Students

Category                                                                        Percentage
Alternative Protein                                                             0%
Animal Health & Nutrition                                              11%
Bioenergy                                                                              0%
Biomaterials & Biochemicals                                            3%
Cannabis Technology                                                         1%
Decision Support Tech                                                      9%
Drones & Robotics                                                             5%
Farm-2-Consumer                                                            15%
Food E-Commerce                                                             0%
Food Tech                                                                            0%
Food Safety & Traceability                                               0%
Indoor Agriculture                                                             5%
Irrigation & Watertech                                                     0%
Smart Equipment & Hardware                                       5%
Soil & Crop Technology                                                    0%
Waste Tech                                                                          0%

Non-Technology Agriculture                                         20%
Non-Agriculture                                                                15%
Social Impact                                                                       8%

I work the students through various exercises to see if we can identify new business ideas that come from something unique to their experiences or observations.  In particular, many of their ideas come from:

  1. A problem they’ve noticed or experienced that others haven’t noticed.
  2. An experiment, accident of circumstance, or heritage activity from their past.
  3. A personal passion and interest.

57 percent of student ideas were related to agricultural technology, 77 percent in total related to agriculture.  Most, but not all, students are agriculture majors at ISU and/or have backgrounds in agricultural production, so probably not surprising as to their interests.

The top category in the AgFunder report linked to above for 2016 investments was Food Commerce, a category ignored by students.

What categories of student business plan or investment will be the most attractive when we look back ten or twenty years from now?  I suspect certain themes will run through winning businesses.  To suggest a several:

  • Time/labor saving technology – It’s an old story in agriculture, but technologies that save labor win in the long-run.  Robotics offers a myriad of potential applications to take labor out of various processes in agriculture.
  • Unique food ingredients and products – Consumer interest in food products with a story will continue to grow. Where was it grown?  How was it grown?  What makes it different?  What experiences are coupled with the food?
  • Data at the right time and place – We have a lot of data in agriculture today.  The question is what to do with it. Technologies, services, models, and algorithms that enable decision making at points in time where those decisions make a difference in outcomes will win.
  • Disruptive economic models – New technologies and accompanying business model innovations enable challenges to existing supply chains and logistics models.  Some may create significant changes in unit economics for production of certain agricultural products /commodities which will drive changes in place of production and logistics of product movement.

What are the most interesting categories of future business opportunities for you?  Why?

Article of the Day

Why Grass-Fed Beef is on a Roll – Wall Street Journal

Supermarkets Make Stars Out of Weird Apples, Knobbled Carrots and ‘Spuglies’ – Wall Street Journal


This magical, marvelous food on our plate, this sustenance we absorb, has a story to tell. It has a journey. It leaves a footprint. It leaves a legacy. To eat with reckless abandon, without conscience, without knowledge; folks, this ain’t normal.
~ Joel Salatin, farmer and author of Folks, This Ain’t Normal; You Can Farm

Food as a Lifestyle Purchase

A megatrend I see underlying change in agriculture and the food industry is a switch from food purchases for taste and convenience to a lifestyle item.  This megatrend expresses itself in all kinds of ways, but it presents both challenges and opportunities to agricultural entrepreneurs.  The ugly fruit and vegetable campaign, growth in grass-fed beef, the bigger organic aisle at your grocery store, local food fans.  All these are indications of changes in U.S. food markets that are being driven by our customers.


Case – Whole Foods. Whole Foods Market Inc. is the grocery store chain featuring foods without artificial preservatives, colors, flavors, sweeteners, and hydrogenated fats.  It is the United States’ first certified organic grocer.  It started in 1980 in Austin, Texas and now has more than 400 stores and 90,000 employees. On a trip to Austin last summer, I spent three hours in the first Whole Foods store.  I talked with staff and customers and checked out products and produce.  Austin is certainly not Ames from a cultural perspective, but I came from that tour with an even stronger sense of the underlying shifts in consumer preferences for food. Consumers interest in the health characteristics, production methods, source, and environment impact of what they eat is increasing, and it’s not a fad that will run its course.   You may or may not be a fan of items in the organic aisle, but its become almost 4 percent of U.S. food purchases, approaching a $40 billion market.


Case – Sawmill Hollow Family Farms. Sawmill Hollow Family Farms in western Iowa is a great example of a farm-to-table business riding the megatrend wave.  Andrew Pittz pioneered growing aronia berries, a native superfood with polyphonolic compounds, including: antioxidants, anthocyanins, resveratrol, proanthocyanins, now considered to be one of the most nutritionally dense fruits on the planet. He evangelized the products made from aronia berries, and has forged a place in the market for a growing array of superfood products.  From an entrepreneurial perspective, consider the boxes he’s checked in developing his business.  Crop/product with an intriguing story – check.  Product traceable to farm – check. Product with unique and marketable nutrition and health traits – check.

Case – Blue Apron.  Blue Apron is a meal kit business founded in 2012 that now delivers more than 5 million meals monthly.  Blue Apron’s approach, the meal kit, offers the convenience of delivery while keeping home cooks in the kitchen. The precisely portioned dinners minimize waste and allow consumers to try ingredients they might not otherwise buy, at a price they’d have trouble matching–roughly $10 per meal per person.  And many of the ingredients are sourced directly from farms.  Is this sort of service just for people in cities?  I heard about Blue Apron from a student who’s parents live in rural Iowa.  Both are busy so they enjoyed the convenience, the quality of the ingredients and meals, and the introduction to new food ideas.

What does food as a lifestyle purchase mean for opportunities for agricultural entrepreneurs?  That’s difficult to forecast, but it’s safe to say that there has never been a better time for the imagination of entrepreneurs to define the future of food and agriculture.  Emergent sweet spots will continue to emerge for entrepreneurs who can reduce transportation costs, have fewer levels between farm and consumer, and create novel products and experiences.

What opportunities do you find most interesting that may be driven by tomorrow’s food consumers?  How will those opportunities shape agriculture and the food industry?

Article of the Day

Idea Evaluation Checklist – Entrepreneur


“Every problem has a solution.  You just have to be creative enough to find it.”
Travis Kalanick, Uber

Evaluating Early Stage Ideas for Startups

The beginning idea for a startup business is only part of what’s necessary to get to a viable business, but it certainly helps to start with a quality idea.  So how should aspiring entrepreneurs both come up with and evaluate the potential of new business ideas?

A tool I’ve developed to help students evaluate their own and other student startup ideas is the Startup Evaluation Matrix.  It also serves as the rubric by which I formally evaluate and grade new startup business concept papers.  In addition, I increasingly use it when speaking to aspiring entrepreneurs from outside the course who are looking for feedback on their ideas.

Startup Evaluation Matrix - Kevin Kimle - Iowa State University

Each of the elements of the Startup Evaluation Matrix reflects a yin and yang relationship; complementary, interconnected, and interdependent forces that shape its attractiveness. This balance in a startup business idea is difficult to shape, yet one that consistently comes through in the most attractive startup concepts.

Migraine Problem/Value to Customer – I use Diana Kander’s all in startup book’s notion of a problem that represents a significant opportunity, a migraine problem. A business needs to solve a problem so significant that customers will do whatever it takes to solve it, including paying someone else for a solution.  Envision the problem as a migraine headache.  The flip side of the problem is the value of the solution to the customer.  Does the solution have a clear and significant advantage?  Does it hit the ‘homerun’ of being better, faster, and cheaper?  Does the solution deliver value while making life simpler for customers?  So many technology startups miss this mark in that they may be able to solve a problem, but they are so complex or require such significant changes in behavior that they simply will never be considered viable by most prospective customers.

Niche Now/Big Market Potential – Peter Thiel in Zero to One writes that entrepreneurs need to look for ‘monopoly’ opportunities; markets where they can shield their businesses through various means from competition that will bid their profits to zero.  I think of attractive market opportunities for startups as being markets that are niches currently, but with the potential of big growth.  When we started E-Markets in 1996, there was not really a market for Internet-based electronic applications in the agribusiness space.  However, the Internet was new as a platform, and clearly had significant growth potential as a better, faster, cheaper platform for e-business.  Today I see agricultural entrepreneurs working on indoor aquaculture, robotics, diagnostic software, and other areas that have an undefinable market opportunity today, but huge potential in tomorrow’s market.

Doable Now/Unique Solution Long Term – Rarely is their something completely new, whether a technology, production system, product, service, or method.  Rather, entrepreneurs combine old things in new ways, and new places to create new solutions to new audiences.  New ideas build on old ones and combine them in unique, new ways. Quality startup ideas balance the do-ability of a new solution near-term with its long-term uniqueness.  A startup that will truly scale can’t be a copycat, it must aim to solutions that are unique and represent the target for which copycats aim.

Contrarian/Surprise Element – An attractive startup idea has some element that is contrarian.  It is treading left while everything else is treading right.  Perhaps that arises from the independent-minded nature of entrepreneurs who chart their own course.  The contrarian nature of interesting new business ideas also lends an degree of surprise or unexpectedness.  The highest impact startups will be something that could not be predicted by most people in advance.  The innovations that disrupt an established market will be initially dismissed by businesses that will eventually be put out of business.  In 1996, I was involved in a consulting project for Kodak.  The Senior VP we worked with dismissed the strategic threat of digital cameras.  Kodak was the first company to market a digital camera in the 1990s, but largely ignored the opportunity. Kodak filed for bankruptcy in 2012.

Deciding the quality of a startup business idea is more art than science.  Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink explains that choices that seem to be made in an instant-in the blink of an eye-actually aren’t as simple as they seem.  I know great investors and entrepreneurs that very quickly assess a startup idea, a business plan, or the viability of a new product or service.  I suspect that they have some kind of internal matrix-like structure that enables them to make snap judgements that are most often on-target.  Their mental matrix has been developed based on experience, but I’ve found that the Startup Evaluation Matrix is a means to embed a beginning way of thinking for less experienced entrepreneurs too.

How would you apply the Startup Evaluation Matrix to the following early stage agricultural businesses?  Which of these business concepts holds the most promise?  Why?

FarmStockNY, LLC – FarmstockNY is a New York based vertical farm delivering locally grown, premium quality produce using only the best organic practices. We use substantially less resources and can produce 10 times more yield (utilizing patented growing towers) than traditional farming methods. With our proprietary greenhouse and business model we can offer a large array of produce in an ecologically and economically sustainable way at very competitive prices.

EndoBiome – Current agricultural practices will be challenged to safely meet the nutritional needs of future populations. EndoBiome was founded to to tap the diversity of the plant microbiome to produce microbial products that increase agriculture. yield and sustainability. Endobiome is differentiated by a proprietary isolation process that yields beneficial microbes and a high-throughput bioassay to identify microbial products that improve root systems.

FarmShots, LLC – FarmShots automates the detection of diseases, pests, and poor plant nutrition on farms. We’ve grown rapidly over the past two years- scaling from small farms to more than 300,000 acres across the United States. We’re excited to be changing the face of agriculture as we know it.

Farb Guidance Systems – Formed with the purpose of developing, manufacturing, and marketing the next generation of machine guidance technology for agriculture: agricultural machinery that drives itself and can be guided and controlled from anywhere in the world. The technology, in conjunction with the equipment, will increase production and profits, decrease accidents, and help develop regions of the planet un-farmable today.

Article of the Day

In divisive election year, voters agree: Infrastructure needs fixing – Agri-Pulse

“Economic development provided the basis; Lincoln said much later, that would allow every American ‘an unfettered start, and a fair chance, in the race of life.” – From Team of Rivals, Deloris Kearns Goodwin’s book on President Abraham Lincoln and his cabinet.

Key Infrastructure for Disruptive Agricultural Technologies

Sara Wyant from Agri-Pulse asked me to participate in a forum this week on rural infrastructure.  Roads, railroads, locks, roads are each examples of infrastructure important to agriculture and rural economies.

The middle part of the U.S. produces a high proportion of U.S. ag output, much of it big and bulky, but efficiently ships those products to customers on the coasts and around the world.  In many ways it was the transportation ability of the Mississippi and associated rivers that enabled the economic development of the U.S. beyond the east coast. and the ability to ship products efficiently has remained part of the competitive advantage of the U.S. even as other modes of transport have developed.

As part of a panel asked to address disruptive innovation and agricultural infrastructure, I identified four key inputs for disruptive agricultural technologies.

  1. Electricity – Electricity is a key input to agricultural technologies involving microchips, controller, sensors, and a range of technologies that will form the basis of robotics and artificial intelligence taking root in agriculture.  Hydroponic and aquaponic technologies are now being used to grow vegetables and deliver them locally twelve months per year.   Use of software and drones is playing an increasing role in crop scouting.  Microchips are being placed in many traditional pieces of agricultural machinery, enabling them to connect to other devices and enabling better decision making based on new streams of data.  In Iowa and most of the Midwest, electricity infrastructure and cost levels are quite good.  Iowa, for example, has a strong group of rural electric cooperatives that are poised to play a key role in emergence of agricultural technologies.  Grade: A.
  2. Water – The FAO estimates that only 0.003% of earth’s water is available for human use.  Yet it takes a lot of water to produce agricultural products.  Water use and water quality are huge issues for agriculture and certainly a key input for disruptive agricultural technologies.  Indoor aquaculture systems are  a key emerging example of technologies that involve water.  Can we produce fish in a sustainable way and relieve pressure on wild catch and environmental issues related to sea and pond-based aquaculture production systems?  Can we use technology to improve water quality in agricultural production systems?  Water in the rural Midwest is largely available, but water quality in streams related to agricultural production is a challenge.  In addition, the water treatment infrastructure of many rural communities could be challenged by both emerging regulatory and consumer issues. Grade: B.
  3. Bandwidth – The Internet of Things has many possibilities for agricultural technologies, with devices, machines, and even crops and livestock connected to the cloud for sensing, monitoring, analysis and intervention.  The possibilities, however, are limited in broad swaths of rural America for lack of bandwidth/cell phone signal.  Given a geographic footprint that’s big and population that’s small, there are inherent constraints to investment in significant infrastructure for rural areas, but clearly there needs to be some sort of breakthrough in wireless technology for agricultural technologies that find value through connecting to the cloud in rural areas.  Grade: C.
  4. Human Talent – The core input for disruptive technologies in agriculture is people.  Whether entrepreneurs who invent and commercialize technologies, or the people that work with them, human talent is key.  The potential for technology is unlimited because it is linked to human imagination, which has no boundaries.  The Agricultural Entrepreneurship Initiative and Iowa State Univeristy has impact in this through the work our graduates do in rural communities, as well as other higher education institutions.  But that’s only part of the population.  I fear our public schools, especially at the high school level, are not preparing rural young men and women as well as they could for careers of impact in their communities.  Grade: ?.

What do you think are the key pieces of infrastructure for agriculture’s future?  Which parts of that infrastructure do you anticipate will be important for your career and entrepreneurial aspirations?

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