Looking for the next big thing? Rural Tennessee is a great place to start.
AgLaunch, which aims to bring 100 new agricultural businesses to Tennessee by 2022, focuses on developing entrepreneurs, inventors, innovators and job creators specifically in the agriculture sector.
“Gov. Haslam has asked every department to contribute to the success of his priorities, and creating jobs is his No. 1 priority,” says Commissioner Julius Johnson of the Tennessee Department of Agriculture (TDA), the contact point for this initiative. “We want to do what we can to create jobs in agriculture.”
TDA has partnered with the Memphis Bioworks Foundation and USDA Rural Development for the initiative. In 2015, officials announced at an event in Ripley, Tenn., that $220,000 of state and federal funding will serve as seed money to help attract private venture capital needed to fund early stage development activities.
AgLaunch may be the most comprehensive focus by any state on attracting early stage agricultural companies.
“Tennessee farmers have been very innovative to embrace new technology, and we think that gives us an advantage for attracting new companies focused on agriculture here,” says Pete Nelson, AgLaunch director at Memphis Bioworks.
Additionally, AgLaunch will have a coaching component that will mentor entrepreneurs.
“Agriculture represents 13 percent of the state’s economy,” Johnson says. “The agriculture sector is driven by technology, and farmers and producers are early adopters of technology. There are new applications of technology and new innovations on farms, in farm shops, and in rural communities all across this state. We want to help those entrepreneurs bring those new ideas to the market place.”
A New Kind of Picker
Jimmy Hargett, from Bells, is one of those innovative farmers. In the 1990s, he devised a design for a new kind of cotton picker.
Mechanical pickers pull cotton bolls off the plant. The bolls are deposited at a module builder, which compresses the bolls into 11-ton bales for transport to the cotton gin. The process requires three or four workers per cotton picker.
“Building a combination module/picker was all about reducing labor,” says Hargett, whose idea caught the attention of farm machinery manufacturer CaseIH. Work on a prototype started in 2000 at Hargett’s farm shop. “It took a team of people to make it work.”
He worked closely on the prototype with a retired CaseIH engineer. The company then built the first generation combination picker/module builder from 2010 to 2014.
“Most good ideas on the farm come from a farmer trying to make his life better.”
Farm and Lab
AgLaunch helps provide direction for new agricultural ideas.
“We keep a database of everyone contacting us with ideas and maintain a network of farmers willing to test new technologies at field scale,” says Pete Nelson, AgLaunch director.
Helping farmers test their ideas is only part of AgLaunch, which also identifies scientific discoveries – made in Tennessee – with commercial potential for agriculture. That includes work at UT’s agricultural research and experiment station network statewide, as well as research at institutions like Vanderbilt University and Oak Ridge National Laboratories.
Memphis Bioworks developed the AgLaunch framework and is recognized as a Mid-South leader in encouraging entrepreneurship in the health sector.
“We saw a connection between health, food production and economic prosperity,” says Dr. Steve Bares, Memphis Bioworks president and executive director.
Focus on Precision Agriculture, Biologics
One focus of AgLaunch is precision agriculture, using GPS-based technology to make soil and crop management decisions tailored to every location in a field.
“Nationally, no one state or region has focused on technology development in the precision agriculture space,” AgLaunch’s Nelson says.
AgLaunch also identifies “biologics” as promising for attracting innovators to Tennessee. Biologics involves harnessing biological solutions to agricultural problems – diseases, insects and even weeds.
An area ripe for development in Tennessee: helping farmers manage field data. For example, Granular, a farm-focused startup headquartered in California, is developing software that sorts through a farm’s millions of data points to help make money-saving management decisions. The agri-tech startup was one of several companies that demonstrated at the funding announcement in Ripley.
AgSmarts is the type of company that AgLaunch aims to encourage in Tennessee. Started in 2013, AgSmarts developed a “field node station,” a device placed in farm fields to remotely track variables including moisture, humidity and temperature. Early field tests were conducted at the UT-Martin research farm, while AgSmarts was based at the Northwest Tennessee Entrepreneur Center.
The company has raised more than $1.5 million in capital investment and is now headquartered at Agricenter International in Memphis.
The Mississippi Delta is a good fit for the company, says Brett Norman, AgSmarts co-founder and CEO.
“We can drive 30 minutes in any direction and be on a 10,000- plus acre farm. It lets us right out in the field, working on software apps and provides a good location where our dealers can come for training.”
The AgLaunch team believes it is time to replicate development successes like AgSmarts. And with global capital investment in agriculture increasing from $2.5 billion in 2014 to $4 billion in 2015, growing new agricultural businesses appears to be a sound strategy for growing Tennessee’s economy.