Celebrating and Elevating Ag Entrepreneurs with Emma Larson

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Show Notes

Emma Larson

Summary

On this episode, Katie Ward interviews Emma Larson, Assistant Director of Industry Relations at American Farm Bureau. Emma grew up on her family's farm in California and made her way to Washington, D.C. to begin her career advocating for America’s farmers and ranchers.

Emma leads the Ag Innovation Challenge, a national business competition that showcases American startups developing innovative solutions that address challenges facing farmers and rural communities. Listen to this episode as we get to know the top 10 Ag Innovation Challenge semi-finalists and talk about how these entrepreneurs are changing the agricultural industry for the better. 

Links

  1. Birds Eye Robotics
  2. Caravan Tech, LLC
  3. CHONEX
  4. ExciPlex
  5. Grain Weevil Corporation
  6. Marble Technologies
  7. NEK Supply
  8. Propagate Ventures
  9. StemPunk
  10. Vulpes Agricultural Corp.
Transcript

Katie:

Welcome to the Farm Credit AgVocates Podcast, I’m your host Katie Ward, ­­­­Public Relations & Communications Specialist at MidAtlantic Farm Credit.  I’m excited to introduce our guest today, Emma Larson, Assistant Director of Industry Relations at American Farm Bureau.

Emma grew up on her family’s farm in California and made her way to Washington, D.C. after college to begin her career advocating for America’s farmers and ranchers.

Emma leads the Ag Innovation Challenge, a national business competition that showcases American startups developing innovative solutions that address challenges facing farmers and rural communities. Listen to this episode as we get to know the top 10 Ag Innovation Challenge semi-finalists and talk about how these entrepreneurs are changing the agricultural industry for the better.  Thank you again Emma for joining us on the podcast today.

Do you want to start by sharing a little bit about your background and why you chose the agriculture industry?

Why Emma Chose Ag

Emma:

Absolutely. Before I begin, I want to thank you for having me on here. It's an honor to speak a little bit more with you today, as well as with the folks that will be tuning in.

I was born and raised in California, Central Valley, otherwise known as the bread basket of the world, into a farming family. I grew up on the ranch, riding around with my dad and my grandfather. I would go to the coffee shop in the morning, sitting at the table with everyone, and changing the water at all times of the night. I really understood what it took at a young age to not only be a part of this profession, but also the lifestyle that comes with it and I was hooked.

In high school, I became involved in my high school's FFA chapter, was an officer and held different leadership roles. After high school, I went on to study Agricultural Communications at Cal Poly. Those four years couldn't have been better or have gone by more quickly.  I was lucky to have a great mentor during those four years, Dr. Vernon, who really encouraged his students to say yes and get involved. We actually still keep in touch to this day.

During all of those experiences, it was incredibly clear to me that this industry truly has the best and most genuine caring people that you can find from coast to coast and in all regions in between. Farmers and ranchers are truly the salt of the earth and I'm reminded every single day that it's a privilege to work on their behalf in DC.

Katie:

Yes, I couldn't agree with you more.

How did you end up going from California to Washington DC?

Emma:

It really stems back all the way to college for me. When it came to summer internships, my parents were incredibly supportive of me gaining new experiences, even if it meant it was a few miles or a few thousand miles away from home. Two pivotal summers really come to mind.

The first was spent in Denver, working for Agrium, now known as Nutrien. The second took me to Kansas City where I interned at Osborn & Barr, the marketing agency. Each of those experiences and opportunities really helped shape my career, but also served as a springboard for what was next.

I graduated school and took a marketing role for a crop input company in Phoenix, and then a year or so into that role I met Sarah Brown who would later become my boss at the Sunbelt Ag Expo in Georgia. A few short months later, I packed up my bags and headed east to work for American Farm Bureau. It really did happen in the blink of an eye.

Katie:

Wow, that sounds like quite the journey, and you had a lot of different experiences along the way.

How did you end up then becoming the Assistant Director of Industry Relations at American Farm Bureau Federation?  Was that your first job or did you have previous roles at AFBF?

Emma:

I did have a previous role at American Farm Bureau, but also in the Industry relations department. The industry relations department was initially one person, my former boss, who was growing external affairs. She was growing our discussions with supply chain companies, running the Ag Innovation challenge and managing sponsorship revenue as well. She needed more staff help and made a really good business case to bring me on board. She was from upstate New York, a Cornell grad and an eighth generation apple farming family. With my west coast roots, it was the perfect combination to be a team of two. We call ourselves the dream team. It was a wonderful experience.

Katie:

It’s funny you say that because our marketing department here at MidAtlantic Farm Credit refer to ourselves as the dream team too, especially when we get done a campaign or a project that we're really proud of.

Can you give a little detail into your current role and what it entails? Do you have any programs or campaigns that you're currently working on or have upcoming?

Working at American Farm Bureau 

Emma:

In my current role, I lead the execution of industry relations projects and initiatives. I serve as the external contact for supply chain companies and manage the sponsorships for not only the American Farm Bureau Federation, but the American Farm Bureau Foundation for Agriculture events and programs. One of the special programs that I do and have the opportunity to lead is the Ag Innovation Challenge, which of course is what we're here to talk about today.

Katie:

Thank you so much.

Can you share a little bit about what the Ag Innovation Challenge is and give a little background on the program?

Ag Innovation Challenge

Emma:

The challenge was first launched in 2015, and it was the first national business competition of its kind that was focused exclusively on rural entrepreneurs. Since its inception in 2015, it's now evolved into really showcasing US startups that are developing innovative solutions that address challenges facing American farmers, ranchers and rural communities.

Each year, we look to identify the top entrepreneurs addressing both traditional and new challenges that farmers and ranchers face every single day. In 2021, we hit a large milestone as Farm Bureau has officially awarded more than $1 million in startup funds to innovators across the nation. We're really proud to share that externally.

Katie:

Wow, that's really exciting. That's a lot of money given towards a great leap in the industry.

How do you go about finding these entrepreneurs?  Is there a certain application and judging process in the program?

Emma:

Yes, there absolutely is. It all starts with submitting an application and throwing your hat in the ring. The application typically opens in the spring time, and from there we work with Farm Credit Rural Investment and Innovation Workgroup to vet these businesses. They evaluate their business models, novelty, viability, and strategies.

Lastly, but most importantly, is if the innovation or business is addressing a relevant and high priority issue that's facing Farm Bureau members and Farm Credit customers. Once those teams are announced, they'll participate in individual pitch training from Cornell SC Johnson College of Business, which happens in the fall. From there, the teams will go on to compete live at the American Farm Bureau Convention in January of each year. It will take place in Atlanta, Georgia for 2022.

Katie:

That’s exciting!

There are 10 finalists, is that correct?

Emma:

Yes, there are 10 semi-finalists. We're really excited to have them join us in Atlanta this year.

Katie:

Once the finalists are chosen, what is the top prize?

Emma:

In total, Farm Bureau awards $165,000 in prize money to these 10 businesses, which of course is made possible by our generous sponsors. Competitors do accrue money as they advance through the program, but I'd like to call out three prizes.

The first is the Ag Innovation Challenge winner, who will win $50,000. The second place prize will win $20,000. The People's Choice team, selected by a public vote, will win an additional $5,000. $165,000 is a lot of money on the table, and we distribute it to the 10 teams as they advance through the competition.

The 2022 Top 10 Semi-finalists

Katie:

I do agree, that is a lot of money. I've attended the AFBF annual meetings in years past, and I have been able to witness the semi-finalists giving their pitches. They're all such incredible entrepreneurs, programs and organizations. I found it nearly impossible to choose a winner. I do know that they all have a great impact on Ag innovation.

I'm really excited to hear from you about the top 10 semi-finalists for 2022.  I thought we could go down the list, and you could give our listeners a summary of each semi-finalist.

Do you want to start with Birds Eye Robotics?

Emma:

Birds Eye Robotics is based out of Nebraska and is led by Scott Niewohner. Birds Eye Robotics has developed an autonomous robot, Birds Eye, that removes bird mortality, tills up caked bedding and improves overall animal welfare by stimulating bird movement for the poultry industry. It is really an exciting innovation for the poultry industry, especially as labor challenges continue to persist.

Katie:

That does sound really interesting. For a lot of our listeners here in the MidAtlantic region, poultry is a very prominent commodity in agriculture. I know that's going to be really interesting for our listeners to look into.

Emma:

Absolutely.

Katie:

Up next we have Caravan Tech.

Emma:

Caravan Tech is based out of Alabama and is led by Richy Naisbett. They are developing a tool to help the real time livestock tracing and a multitude of other farm management applications. Caravan Tech’s three flagship products working in unison are the Smart Ear Tags, intraruminal bolus and Caravan Chat system. They're really helping the traceability and sustainability piece of livestock management.

Katie:

That sounds really interesting. I'll have to read a little bit more about that one.

Up next, we have is CHONEX.

Emma:

CHONEX is led by Michael Lynch and is based out of Alabama. They're a soil health company that's developed a biological, proprietary process for upcycling poultry manure. They're taking that manure and really turning it into a concentrated microbial bio-stimulant used to improve soil health by increasing soil microbes. This is another poultry sector innovation, but something that's very different from the autonomous robot that's helping stimulate animal movement.

Katie:

That's a whole other side to poultry, but also equally important.

Emma:

Yes.

Katie:

Next we have ExciPlex.

Emma:

They are based out of West Virginia and Daryl Staveness is the team lead. They are developing a diagnostic technology for the on-site detection of mycotoxins in animal feed and feed inputs. This technology is designed to operate at every level of the feed production chain, thus a single core invention will deliver multiple solutions to a variety of customers.

Mycotoxins are an issue that faces many grain farmers and the livestock side, where folks are wanting to ensure that they're feeding their animals the best and most nutritious quality of food.

Katie:

I know animal nutrition is a really hot topic, so that'll be something that's really important and I'm excited to learn more about.

Next we have Grain Weevil Corporation.

Emma:

Chad Johnson leads the Grain Weevil Corporation team based out of Nebraska. It is a grain bin safety and management robot that directly engages the surface of the grain by leveling, breaking crusts and conducting inspections. Not only does it impact the quality of stored grain, but it also improves the farmer well-being by controlling risks, controlling costs, and most importantly, removing the farmer from the bin.

We constantly hear about farmers and grain bin entrapment, so it’s nice that this robot will go in there and do the work for the farmer. The farmer will stay safe out of the bin and will no longer need to get in there and face any risks.

Katie:

We partner with Nationwide Insurance every year and sponsor Grain Bin rescue tubes for our local fire departments. Like you said, unfortunately the entrapment of farmers in the grain bins is a big issue. This innovation would be very helpful for their safety, as well as keeping the grain clean and getting data.

Next is Marble Technologies.

Emma:

Britany Wondercheck leads this team and they are based out of Nebraska. They are developing a robotics solution that reduces the labor needs, specifically in the meat packing industry and those facilities to improve workplace safety by conducting tasks with a history of worker injury.

They're using computer vision, artificial intelligence, and sensing technology to help automate these tasks in meat processing, beginning with a task of packing vacuum-sealed meat into boxes.

Katie:

That’s also a very timely innovation with losing a lot of the meat processing employees to the pandemic and just not having as much access to the work.

Next up is NEK Supply.

Emma:

NEK Supply is led by Blake Chance and they are based out of Kansas. Blake has developed the Quick-Pin design that allows tractors to be quickly, easily and safely unhooked from an implement, especially in cases of emergency.

By removing the Quick-Pin’s top shaft, hopping in the tractor and releasing the pressure, the main shaft will fall out allowing the tractor to become quickly and easily unhooked from the implement. This invention was developed with balers catching on fire and needing to get the tractor away from the implement as quickly as possible. Blake’s Quick-Pin has been a really wonderful solution, and he really prides himself on keeping the manufacturing here in the United States.

Katie:

That sounds like a really good safety feature that all tractors and equipment should have.

Next, we have Propagate Ventures.

Emma:

Propagate Ventures is led by Ethan Steinberg and are based out of New York. They are developing an agroforestry platform that makes it easy for farmers and ranchers to access the operational know-how, implementation tools, financing and off-take agreements needed to reduce business risks while integrating fruit, nut and timber trees with animal or crop farming systems.

They go on operations and look at how they can introduce native vegetation, trees and shrubs. This helps all the carbon sequestration concerns that we're hearing about these days.

Katie:

That sounds very interesting.

Next, we have StemPunk.

Emma:

StemPunk is based out of Pennsylvania and led by Leighton Rice. It is the world's first hand-free, dual-dexterous, apple stem-clipping device to reduce stem punctures in fruit. The unique, patented design adds a large measure of efficiency to the process of harvesting high-value, fresh apple varieties.

Farmers receive the highest dollar for the quality of their fruit, so when there're stem occur, they receive a lower quality grade and a smaller dollar amount. StemPunk really helps ensure that farmers are getting the largest bottom line as possible, but also making sure that their quality of fruit is as high as it can be.

Katie:

I'm going to be honest with you, this one sparked my curiosity ahead of time. I visited their website and watched some of their tutorial videos and it was really neat.

Last, but not least, we have Vulpes Agricultural Corporation.

Emma:

Vulpes Agricultural Corporation is led by Rick Shang and is based out of Missouri. They are a manufacturing startup that has developed Carbon Black Acid, a fertilizer additive, through their accelerated R&D process.

Carbon Black Acid turns agriculture waste such as corn cob, sawdust, and sugarcane bagasse into carbon sources that the soil and crops can use. It also modifies the carbon sources into carriers of nutrients and water. It is really neat that they're using Ag waste and turning it into fertilizer.

Katie:

That is definitely super environmentally friendly and sustainable too.

Emma:

Absolutely.

Importance of Innovation in Ag

Katie:

Thank you for going over the top 10 semi-finalists for us. It sounds to me like all of these innovations revolve around technology. I know that's something that the industry has seen really grow the past few years.

Why do you think innovation is so important in our industry?

Emma:

Innovation is really critical to the future of agriculture. It's why the industry has been able to continue to sustain a growing population with the shrinking amount of arable land. I think of my family's operation and how it started.

My grandfather certainly doesn't farm the same way as he did when he first started and the same goes for my father. The industry has made some amazing advancements and strides, and will continue to push the envelope and all of that is because of innovation and technology.

Katie:

I could not agree more and I love seeing the transition. I'm sure with you growing up on a farm, you've been able to witness it all firsthand.

Emma:

Absolutely. I think of when I was on a tractor with my folks in my earlier years. Now you push a button and the GPS does everything for you. The rows are straight, and you don't have to worry about white knuckling and making those rows straight yourself. That advancement has been an absolute pivotal thing for the industry.

Katie:

Exactly.

Where do you see the future of Ag heading in the next 10 to 20 years with all of these innovations?

Emma:

I see the industry continuing to innovate and adapt as the need arises. There are innovations and technologies that we haven't even dreamed of yet. I think if you asked my grandfather if he could press a button and have a tractor drive a straight row for him, he would have thought you were crazy.

Farmers and ranchers are the most resilient people that I know. I have no doubt that they will continue to persevere and meet the challenges of today and tomorrow.

Katie:

I agree. I think it's funny too, because when people look at the stereotypical picture of a farmer, they don't really think of them to be technologically advanced. The equipment used by grain farmers are used with GPS and computers for precision agriculture, are far more advanced than a lot of other industries. It always amazes me how they embrace the new technology.

Emma:

Absolutely. That really gets back to the mission of the American Farm Bureau Foundation, which is Ag literacy and Ag education. It's not old MacDonald with a pitchfork. It's the farmer you see today, who are in the field.

They're using technology, went to college, and have specialized education for their certain field. They are running diversified operations. We have pistachios, wine grapes and processing tomatoes. They have irrigation systems, fertilizers schedules and are managing a multitude of things. It’s not Old MacDonald anymore.

Katie:

Exactly. It's Young MacDonald and Mrs. MacDonald now.

Emma:

Yes, exactly.

Katie:

I love that.

How are these top 10 semi-finalists in the Ag Innovation Challenge contributing to that shift that we're seeing in the industry?

Emma:

This year's teams, along with previous program participants, are all developing innovative solutions. It might be in the same sector, but its different challenges that are being addressed.

These are all challenges that farmers and ranchers are facing. These innovations will continue to move the industry forward. Celebrating and elevating these entrepreneurs this year and every year, because these innovations will be the way of the future.

What Emma Advocates for in Ag

Katie:

Celebrating and elevating, I love that.

We always ask all of our podcast guests the same sign off question before we end our conversation.

What do you advocate for in agriculture?

Emma:

With less than 20% of Americans living in rural communities and 1% of that being farmers and ranchers, my true passion is sharing the real story of agriculture. I want to ensure that the public understands where their food comes from and how it's grown.

Most importantly, ensuring that farmers and ranchers have a seat at the table, not only here in the beltway, but across the countryside as well. We want them to continue doing what they do best, and that's growing safe, abundant, and sustainable food, fiber and fuel for the globe.

Katie:

That's awesome. I think all of our listeners today can hear that passion throughout our conversation and agree with you wholeheartedly.

Emma:

Thank you for having me here today.

Katie:

Thank you, Emma. I appreciate your time.

Thank you for listening to today’s episode. Please rate, review, subscribe, and share this episode with a friend. You can head over to mafc.com/podcast to get the podcast notes and subscribe for future email alerts. Send any topic or guest suggestions over to us at podcast@mafc.com.

Thanks everyone. We'll see you next time.