The Next Cloud-size Disruption: Food and Agriculture

Ed Byrne is the co-founder of Soilworks Natural Capital, a public benefit corporation focused on accelerating the move to regenerative agriculture; he is also the co-founder of Scaleworks, a Venture Equity Fund that invests in, and operates, software-as-a-service companies.

The food and agriculture sectors are on the precipice of a fundamental shift that shows many of the hallmarks of the change that software and computer infrastructure started going through 15 years ago.

The Cloud sparked a sea-change to an entrenched trillion dollar IT industry.

The two poster-children for ‘the Cloud’ revolution (which has been called ‘Cloud Computing’, ‘Web 2.0’, ‘Infrastructure as a Service’ and ‘Software as a Service’) have been Amazon Web Services (AWS) on the hardware side, and Salesforce on the software side.

Since the 1970's, software was installed ‘on premise’ (in your office), on a bunch of servers hidden in an IT closet. It was a large single-purchase, with a big install charge, and an annual maintenance contract. The server and network infrastructure needed to run it was sold in much the same way. Then every couple of years a new version would need to be purchased, and computer hardware upgraded to run it. Big contract — large cash expense — depreciated on the balance sheet over five years.

The problem with this model is if your business grows or shrinks, you would have a large stair-step expense to increase capacity, but no way to reduce costs.

This was, and still is, a massive industry — on the trillion dollar scale — with incumbent brand names like Oracle, Siebel, Cisco, IBM, and Hewlett Packard.

Then the Internet matured to create an ‘inflection point’ where better, faster, and cheaper, was possible.

In 1999, Salesforce launched a web-based customer relationship management tool. They charged per-seat, no install fees, and since it was web-based, all you needed was your existing computer and an Internet connection — no server closet. The first version might have been pretty feature-light compared to what the entrenched players like Siebel offered, but the business model was a game changer for prospective customers.

As the SMEs grew, and as Salesforce matured, the product got better, quickly becoming better AND cheaper than the old ‘on premise’ world could offer. Winner = Salesforce (~$15 billion in revenue). Heard of Siebel lately?

AWS was much the same — they had no existing business in the computer infrastructure world — nothing to protect and nothing to lose — and when they launched a Simple Storage Service (called S3) in 2006, the traditional hardware world scoffed. “No self-respecting business or software company would host on a book seller!”. “This is just their spare capacity, it’s not reliable!”. They were wrong.

The incumbents told themselves that story, incredibly, for nearly a decade, despite the meteoric rise of AWS. It was a vastly superior business model for customers — pay as you go, unlimited scaling up and down, no contracts. It was the difference between building an electricity generator to boil the kettle at home (the old way) and plugging the kettle into a socket in the wall connected to an electricity plant somewhere many miles away (the new way).

AWS continues to be one of the fastest growing businesses in history, with over $40 billion a year now. How much of your IT spend is on on-premise hardware and software these days? Odds are it’s shrinking, or it’s already zero.

The Food and Agriculture Industry is hitting an inflection point.

The market is huge; food and agriculture is a 1 trillion dollar industry in the US alone.

The incumbents are behemoths — the likes of Tyson, Purdue, and Monsanto — and they wield massive power. They are regularly accused of having monopolistic traits, and exerting far too much control over the Farm Bill through excessive lobbying (Mark Hyman’s Food Fix book goes into this in detail).

These so called ‘Big Food’ and ‘Big Ag’ companies have invested countless billions into their supply chain — forcing farmers to use patented seeds, converting pastures into mono-culture grain fields, many of which are grown for animal feed (instead of grass and forage — which is free — but free is not good for Big Incumbents!) and consumed in industrial feedlots.

Their purchasing power and regulatory influence drives prices down and reduces farmers to being consistently near bankruptcy.

Up until now, consumers have been largely locked into this Big Food system too, with no alternatives to nutrient poor, sugar rich, chemically treated and often heavily processed foods — that wreak havoc on the environment and cause many health issues.

But consumers’ awareness that food quality matters is growing fast — and they are already voting with their wallets when they can.

The change is starting — Regenerative Agriculture could be a ‘Cloud’-size opportunity.

A new form of farming called Regenerative Agriculture is gaining traction. It’s a reversion to a more natural model of farming, that actually creates more nutritious food, without any reliance on fertilizers, pesticides or antibiotics.

Better outputs and fewer inputs increases profit for farmers. Farmers practicing Regenerative Agriculture can become independent and profitable businesses again. Farming should be an attractive and rewarding profession — it’s certainly an important and large enough one to warrant making sure farmers can succeed.

While Regenerative Farmers currently lack the distribution model, infrastructure, and brand recognition to scale, as the movement grows, whole new ecosystems of software tools, processing plants, packagers and distributors, and consumer brands will be created.

It’s Day 1 today, efficiency will come, but the business model of Regenerative Agriculture is a game changer, and it’s already a better deal for farmers.

The consumer model is nascent — consumers can buy groceries and meats from independent farmers through Farmers Markets, directly from the farmer or on their website, or from emerging Direct to Consumer (DTC) brands like ButcherBox or Greensbury. As the ecosystem grows, consumer brands will emerge and traditional retailers will carry them, bringing Regenerative Produce mainstream, and removing some of the middle-men — the incumbents.

What about the incumbents?

Existing entrenched and successful players rarely innovate their existing business model out-of-business. It’s not just because they lack the outsiders creativity, it’s also because they have such tremendous amounts invested in their existing infrastructure. Those business leaders, employees, suppliers, and shareholders, would revolt if the infrastructure that’s taken decades to build up — the moat that it’s created against competition — were to be sacrificed.

The reality is that it’s nearly always industry outsiders who create the next waves of businesses that displace the old ones. (Safi Bahcall’s book — Loonshots — explains this really well).

Industry outsiders are unencumbered — some would say naively so — by years of ‘knowledge’ of what works and what doesn’t, and what the customer wants. I say ‘knowledge’ because it’s really just decades of norms built up in the current model and inside the existing players, with assumptions that the current way is the right way, and years of compounded doubling-down on investing more and more into that model.

Outsiders don’t see the pitfalls. Outsiders don’t have the investments in infrastructure, lobbyists, supply chains and so on — which are an asset to the current way but a hindrance to a new and different way.

To make matters worse for an existing player, often the sacrifice — the new business model — on the face of it seems inferior: less profitable, less scaleable, lower margins, less protection from competition. But to an outsider — all of that is still new business and low margin business for a startup is fine, but existing companies would never invest in lower-margin producing projects.

The software and computer hardware incumbents didn’t react because they didn’t believe ‘the cloud’ was a credible threat, and even if they did, they simply would not have the willpower or stakeholder support to radically change their successful, massively-invested-in, business infrastructure.

Why won’t the incumbents own Regenerative Agriculture?

The current system is broken. Feedlots, chemicals and antibiotics, massive amounts of grain grown to feed animals that really only want grass, and a system that perpetuates its own demise with continually reducing soil, and therefore nutrient, quality.

Big Ag’s infrastructure is actually a barrier for them. Can you imagine how hard it would be to have invested billions, over decades, in a supply chain that focuses on quantity-at-all-costs, and then start decentralizing it and disrupting yourself? It’s just not in their DNA, or in their short-term quarterly-earnings driven self-interest.

The lobbying power and regulatory barriers created as a result will prop up these incumbents for a while, and may slow down the mass-market affordability of regeneratively farmed produce, but there is plenty of pent-up demand that will fuel the growth of regenerative farming.

Regenerative Agriculture is going to give farmers back their independence and pay them fair prices for their labors; it’s going to heal the land and help restore the environment; it’s going to produce great, natural-tasting, healthy and nutritious food for consumers; and it’s going to mint thousands of new successful entrepreneurs.

Partner at Scaleworks. Growing SaaS businesses.