A conversation with Connie Bowen, co-founder of Farmhand Ventures, a venture studio redesigning the future of work in agriculture, about the labour issue and building collaborative automation agtech.
LISTEN TO THE CONVERSATION ON:
Around the world, millions of people are exploited to pick our table grapes, tomatoes, lettuce, peaches, etc. We don’t like to think about it, but unless we fix the labour issue we will never have enough skilled people working on regenerative diversified farms. Learn more about this hidden issue and more importantly about the potential of a venture studio in this space, building companies, and building collaborative automation agtech, not to replace farm workers, but to make their jobs less heavy.
Labour is a huge issue in specialty crop farming
A massive labour force is needed to pick a lot of crops and they do it in brutal circumstances. They are very badly paid, under high doses of chemicals, under the sun, etc. This is because we want very cheap food. Working on farms is physically draining and mentally challenging. Unless we acknowledge that there is a massive, extremely exploited in most cases, labour force underpinning this agricultural system, we’re never going to design solutions that actually serve.
‘Talking about it as unskilled work is total nonsense, no one moves faster than farmworkers […] It’s totally skill- based, it’s very hard to pick lettuce very quickly, actually, without hurting yourself in the long run.’ – Connie Bowen
‘I’ve worked with a farmland Investment Fund in Oregon, actually managing crews of about 100 seasonal workers during blueberry and hemp harvest season. And actually working with those people, alongside them and supervising them, and understanding the economic constraints that they face in their everyday life’ – Connie Bowen
Most agtech isn’t built for farm workers
According to Connie, the adoption of novel agriculture technology is not happening as quickly as it needs to be, and that’s partly because the technology is not being designed for the user, so the invested dollars are not resulting in positive outcomes.
‘…employing folks who have typically less than full citizenship rights, probably have some language barriers, probably are different ethnicities than the majority in that region, and are therefore very easily exploited. And so that is the group of people who gets the fresh food, and the weeds and the prune, gets all of the stuff done on farms. And that group of people has a very limited voice in what we’re actually designing to make that farm system more efficient.’ – Connie Bowen
‘It’s increasingly common, and this is good, to talk to farmers as part of the due diligence process. But what’s important to understand is that farmers and farm managers are not necessarily the user. And they don’t necessarily like the people who are ‘the user’. So, that creates a real communication challenge. I think that most people will really struggle to get access to the actual user.’ – Connie Bowen
The world needs much more collaborative technology for farm workers
Fresh crop transport is a type of collaborative technology that mechanizes the transportation of crops. For instance, if you’re harvesting table grapes, the workers will pick table grapes manually and waste 30% to 40% of their time transporting them.
‘With Future Acres product, the wheelbarrow says: “Hey, I’m getting kind of heavy over here, please come pick up the grapes”. And so a little wagon comes over. The worker just has to load the grapes onto that wagon, wagon goes back to the central weigh station. That becomes very interesting.’ – Connie Bowen
‘I don’t know how you justify investing in that collaborative robotics investment that’s going to take longer, need more capital to bring to market and have a limited addressable market, relatively speaking. And also societally, we really need to invest in that stuff.’ – Connie Bowen
Regenerative farms need a lot of skilled farm labour
In regenerative agriculture, we want to see fewer chemicals, and manual weeding, which means more labour. We also want to see a greater diversity of crops, and less monoculture, which means more rotation.
‘How do you mechanize something that’s constantly changing? How do you fully automate that? It’s technically very difficult and expensive. All of these things that we want to see more of in regenerative systems, require more hands on the job’ – Connie Bowen
‘We have to stop thinking about labour as unskilled. There’s no such thing and it’s insulting. The people who are doing the work are very undervalued. And if we could just shift the narrative a little bit to say you know what, these guys are experts.’ – Connie Bowen
‘This is a problem that’s important to point out in the context of agricultural robotics, and this gets into the whole kind of capital stack side of everything. It is very expensive and it’s technically difficult to scale most very specific, automated solutions across different crop types. It’s expensive even to do it across regions and different fields. And it just gets even worse when you try to do it across different crops.’ – Connie Bowen
OTHER POINTS DISCUSSED
Koen and Connie also talked about:
- Measuring the atmospheric flux of carbon dioxide;
- Syntrophic agroforestry;
- VC opportunity in agtech;
- What would Connie would do with 1 billion dollars.
- Ichsani Wheeler and Tom Hengl – Everyone has the right and the data to know what is happening on our planet
- Sarah Mock, Treat Farms Like Businesses
Feedback, comments, suggestions? Reach me via Twitter @KoenvanSeijen, in the comments below or through Get in Touch on this website.
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The above references an opinion and is for information and educational purposes only. It is not intended to be investment advice. Seek a duly licensed professional for investment advice.