Farmers Business Network Plows New Ground

Startup is bringing Amazon-like price transparency to the Farm Belt, upsetting giant legacy players.

Farmers Business Network says it’s bringing data transparency to the world of agricultural supplies. Similar to how Amazon overturned the book trade in the early days of e-commerce, the Silicon Valley-based startup is looking to revolutionize how seeds, chemicals, crop insurance and other supplies and services are bought and sold across the U.S. farm belt and beyond, with the idea of saving farmers many millions of dollars a year.

Also similar to Amazon when its revolutionary approach to retailing gained popularity with consumers, Farmers Business Network’s e-commerce platform has created huge opposition from traditional suppliers and retailers across farm country in North America, as American and Canadian farmers have taken to it. Every new enhancement of FBN’s offering generates more resistance by entrenched players in the agricultural community, ranging from giant ag-supply outfits such as Bayer, to huge grain processors.

Yet FBN is flourishing, long ago having passed the benchmark of $100 million in annual revenues and growing its customer network by about 70 percent, since September alone. About 100 new dealers and retailers began selling via the FBN platform during that time as well.

“We started in 2014 and now have more than 20,000 farmer members around the world, including Australia,” FBN Co-Founder Charles Baron told Chief Executive. “They own or manage more than 70 million acres of farmland, and they do a variety of things with us including data analysis, buying crop protection and seeds, insurance and even health-care insurance for farmers and their employees.

“Basically, we help farmers become more profitable. We help them manage their costs and get a secure foothold in the future, in their markets and in the way they do business.”

Baron was a denizen of Silicon Valley and Harvard Business School when he and an old colleague from San Francisco, Amol Deshpande, who had worked for ag giant Cargill at one time, decided there were big opportunities in bringing digital communication and e-commerce to the farm. They started by getting farmers to share data online about seed performance, then aggregated it so farmer members could understand the value propositions of seed brands and types as well as crop-protection services.

“What we found was that the price differences farmers were experiencing in the market were horrendous,” Baron said. “You could have chemical prices being seven times each other between two farms and certain products, and seed prices varying by 100 percent within a state. That is caused by a lack of transparency.”

FBN has rapidly spread into many nooks of agricultural e-commerce. As recently as the fall, the company charged farmers $700 for the privilege of membership. But now membership is free, the change motivated by farmers’ struggles during the Covid era, Baron said, as well as by the fact that FBN is realizing ever-growing revenues and profits from e-commerce sales per se.

As FBN’s success has grown, Baron said, the company has experienced increasing “anti-competitive behavior and even bullying tactics” from industry-legacy companies, and an ongoing investigation by Canadian regulators of farm-supply companies that stopped selling their wares through FBN.

One of the arguments that existing seed, fertilizer and ag-supply companies and retailers make against FBN is that the guys from Silicon Valley don’t understand the Farm Belt, row-crop, commodity-based economies where the startup is still focusing.

Baron’s counter-argument to that includes the fact that 80 to 90 percent of FBN’s 500 employees are located in rural communities in South Dakota, Montana, Alberta and Australia.

“We have dozens of facilities around the country, including distribution centers and warehouses, and hundreds of farmer dealers in communities,” Baron said. “So when [competitors] say FBN isn’t local, that’s absurd. Besides, the most important ‘local business’ in the farm system is the farmer’s farm; it’s the core economic engine. And that’s where we are.”