Make My iPhone Measure Soil Carbon

Recently at a talk from Peter Donovan of the Soil Carbon Coalition at Pie Ranch, Peter shared the old anecdote, “Think of a cat looking at a milk bowl on top of the fridge. He’s never going to reach for that milk bowl. But give him a counter, and he starts to try.”

Lately, the food and agtech start-up space has felt saturated. For every “new” idea from a hackathon, it seemed at least three start-ups were already on it, rubbing elbows with whoever they could find to write them a check. Many farmer friends felt a bit overwhelmed by the daily calls about new food delivery models or software solutions guaranteed to make farming everyone’s profit-earning dream job. The overall sentiment of a crowded market with too many players was furthered by this recent article on the coming food bubble.

I have come to view Peter’s “milk bowl” as a food system that feeds the world and regenerates the land. Indeed to continuously feed the world, agriculture must be regenerative- a notion that seems radical given current industrial agricultural practices, but is actually purely logical.

And contrary to the disillusion with food and ag startups as of late, we are going to need more players. We need more innovation. We need more people open to innovation. We need more conversations. Because we are quite a ways from that milk bowl.

For small and big ag alike, many new tech options are arising with guarantees to make lives easier and increase margins. Maybe the agtech startups of today will do that–maybe they are far from it–but the market is proving to be far from saturated. On the contrary, we’ve only begun laying the foundation of that countertop. The more exposure, the more adoption. The more adoption, the more data, the better we can truly evaluate what is or is not working.

Not every tech start-up will disrupt the food system, or transform behaviors and beliefs around food, or a farmer’s yearly agenda. But this incredible burst of innovation is a start. Welcome, tech, to the food and agricultural industry. $48 billion into food startups last year, $2.36 billion into agtech… keep it coming! As it was said recently in TechRepublic, “To increase production and make revenue, farmers of all types need better, more specific tech solutions.”

To those who are technologically averse and felt as I first did about robots in farming: Use this market and technological interest to the food system’s advantage. Become citizen scientists; get more data on your side. Engineers and data scientists are thinking in heads of lettuce–go with it! See what’s possible, whether it thrills or scares you, and decide after you’ve at least had a chance to explore.

To those already innovating in the food and ag space, or considering it for the first time: Talk to farmers, talk to chefs, talk to processors, talk to eaters. Keep presenting alternatives. Keep iterating. Restore the creativity in farming. And please, make my iPhone measure soil carbon!

Rob Trice
Founder of The Mixing Bowl