An Iowa agtech startup whose software helps farmers implement regenerative agricultural practices and manage soil health has had a big year. This summer, Continuum Ag was chosen as one of the Cisco Global Problem Solver Challenge winners, and last month the company received a $200,000 investment from the Clean Energy Trust during a pre-seed funding round.
“Clean Energy Trust got involved as a good strategic partner to help us continue to build out our sustainability software,” said founder and CEO Mitchell Hora. The support will allow the business to add employees and “diversify our investors to get people from outside of agriculture — but people that understand renewable energy and the carbon credit space.”
To be recognized for the Cisco challenge from a pool of more than 1,700 applicants was a “pretty sweet deal for us,” Hora said. “It also showcases how agriculture and family farms here in the Midwest … can now be part of a solution to sequester carbon, improve water quality, improve against flooding, improve water efficiencies, and drive a better product into the marketplace. It’s exciting to see more awareness for those family farms.”
Regenerative farming practices enrich soil and maximize the amount of carbon that plants capture from the air while minimizing the loss of carbon stored in the soil. But Continuum Ag is trying to overcome a common challenge: Making a business more sustainable often is expensive.
Often the up-front costs of implementing regenerative farming practices outweigh the benefits farmers receive from carbon credits, Hora said. He wants to help farmers simultaneously increase profitability, long-term economic resiliency, and environmental sustainability.
“If you don’t have success and are unable to see the right results and get it to pay, it can be a multi-hundred-thousand-dollar gamble,” he said. “We’re helping the farmer to stack the different sources of revenue they can gain to overcome that economic barrier, but also help them logistically make the right decisions so the practice itself can be self-sustaining. … Farmers need to have trusted advisors around them and better data tools to make sure that they’re overcoming some of the risk of change.”
How it started
Hora himself is a seventh-generation farmer with degrees in agronomy and ag systems technology. He launched Continuum Ag in 2015 as a soil consulting business that primarily helped farmers use the Haney soil health test — an integrated, data-driven approach to determining soil health.
“Over time, we needed better data tools to manage all the data that we were collecting. There wasn’t software available, so that’s when we pivoted and raised some capital and brought on software developers to build our own,” Hora said.
They built a web-based platform, TopSoil, to help farmers quantify and improve their soil’s health by examining the balance of chemical, physical, and biological components. Now Continuum Ag is considered a software as a service (SaaS) company that has expanded into carbon credits. The cloud-based nature makes the platform easily scalable, Hora said.
The system is a profit-sharing program. Farmers get to use the software for free to map their fields, insert data, and gain insights. They share revenue with Continuum Ag when they get paid for their more sustainable practices.
“We’re hoping to open new revenue streams for farmers to get paid for carbon credits or other sustainability drivers,” Hora said.
The entrepreneurial process
Hora says part of his success with Continuum Ag comes from being part of the community he serves. He aims for transparency in product and service development as well as regenerative farming accomplishments.
“I’ve been able to have success in doing these practices on my own farm, and learning and failing, and figuring out why we failed,” he said. “It’s because I’m part of the community and I’m learning from other farmers. We’re transparent about what’s working and what’s not working.”
How it’s going
Continuum Ag is still an early-stage startup and is currently running some pilots with partner companies. For example, they’re partnering with Rabobank on a pilot in which participating farmers who implement regenerative agricultural practices receive compensation based on the amount of carbon sequestered, measured, and monitored by Continuum Ag’s analysis technology.
Although Hora hasn’t exactly had difficulty raising capital, he says it’s not the “massive amounts of capital like they raise on the coasts.” He aims for another funding round early next year.
Meantime, he works to change some farmers’ belief that “sustainability is stupid and regenerative ag is all smoke and mirrors.” That idea is reinforced when carbon credit businesses “flop and they over-promised and under-delivered to the farmers,” Hora said. “Farmers have seen that happen from other companies that attempted to be disruptive. … It ends up hurting the whole movement.”
Hora intends to further automate Continuum Ag’s soil health tool and add more features to it, some of which should roll out this year and next year. He plans to offer solutions for all types of crops, not just the corn and soybeans that are prevalent in the Midwest. Eventually, the goal is for Continuum Ag to be acquired by an organization that can take the solution to a global scale.
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