By Maggie McGrath and Chloe Sorvino
When our nation was founded 241 years ago, farming was the economy’s primary driver. By 1870, nearly half of the employed population held jobs in agriculture. Today, it’s a $3 trillion industry – but only 2% of Americans hold a farm-oriented job.
This is, in many ways, thanks to technology. Tractors and other automation advances in the 20th century let large farms shift management to only a handful of people. But this, paradoxically, has also slowed things down in the 21st. With only a few people working every farm, there’s not a lot of time – or incentive – to innovate.
“You only get 40 attempts at farming. From your 20’s to your 60’s, you get 40 seasons,” says Duncan Logan, the founder and CEO of RocketSpace, a tech accelerator company. “In tech, you get 40 attempts in a week.”
But even farmland isn’t immune to the information revolution. Today, there are hundreds of agriculture tech startups around the world, and some experts say the situation reminds them of the early days of the internet: There’s a lot of activity in agriculture, but no clear winners yet – it’s hard to say who might become the Facebook or Amazon of the scene. Couple that with climate change pressures, the fact that two billion more people will live on this planet by 2050, and that just 40% of the world’s land is available to grow crops, and you have yourself a market ripe for innovation — and big money.
“The ag tech space right now is in a very unique position. You can’t ignore the fundamentals,” says vice president of Business Development at AgTech Accelerator Corp., Corey Huck. “You have to produce a lot more crop on limited acres, and 70% of fresh water is already being used in agriculture. We have to do more with less at the end of the day and the only way you can do that is with technology.”
From irrigation hardware engineered to beat the drought to biotechnology startups cultivating future cash crops, Forbes has identified the 25 most innovative pieces of burgeoning technology in this space. Together, they have more than $400 million in financing. Those investments come from the likes of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Kholsa Ventures, GV (formerly Google Ventures), Monsanto Ventures and Andreessen Horowitz, as well as in-house venture capital arms like Campbell Soup’s Acre Ventures. Even President Barack Obama’s former White House chef is getting in the game.