My chat with Jayce Hafner, Cofounder & CEO of FarmRaise
From growing up on a farm to getting disillusioned in the policy advocacy world to founding a startup to help farmers
One of my interest areas is exploring different ways startups engage with the public sector as partners to amplify the intended impact of the policies and programs the politicians and regulators have put in place. It is no secret that the public sector is not great at thinking through and designing the user experience. I will explore this theme with founders across India and the US. I spoke to Ritwik Pavan, Cofounder of Vade, a few weeks ago about how they are helping local governments with urban planning by providing real-time curb data. For this week, I talked to Jayce, the CEO of FarmRaise in the US. She is helping farmers get public funding for investing in growth. Jayce’s enthusiam for the farmers community is quite inspiring. She grew up on a farm in Virginia, worked in policy advocacy in DC, and is now a startup founder. Her transitions from farms to policy to tech gave her a unique vantage point to explore cultural tensions in these different worlds.
Sar: Your email signature is a good starting point. It has a hyperlinked text that says here's what every VC should know about farming. I've never seen anything like that in any founder's email ever. The blog post you link out to demystifies what you believe are tropes about farmers. You share your thinking on the widely held views like farmers are slow tech adopters, farmers are impossible to access, and farmers won't pay. If I hadn't read that piece, one of my questions would have been, how tech-savvy do you think farmers are? Can you give us a rundown of your thoughts?
Jayce: At FarmRaise, we’re crossing the chasm between two very different worlds. The farming world is place-based and often (although not always) rural, and the venture capital world is usually urban and highly mobile. Both of these communities have misconceptions about each other. Through FarmRaise, we want to bring those worlds closer together in a way that builds value and enables mutual understanding.
When we first went out to fundraise, it was fascinating to hear how skeptical investors were about the idea that farmers want to adopt new technology. Growing up on a small livestock farm in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, I remember how often my dad worked to innovate and make our operation more efficient by experimenting with different practices and tools.
One innovation that paid off for us was shifting to a more sustainable grazing model. We invested in an electric fence that my father physically moves about 20 paces across the field daily so that our cattle graze in a holistically managed pattern. That enables the cattle to interact with the landscape in a way that doesn’t deplete soil health and enhances the soil’s organic matter. That, in turn, promotes soil fertility and enables us to grow more grass throughout the year, ultimately reducing our costs so that we don’t have to spend as much purchasing livestock feed. That innovation is a big win-win for the land, the cattle, and our pocketbooks.
Farmers aren’t just innovating in their physical practices - they’re also investing in software tools. My dad doesn’t like spending time on a phone screen, but there is an app on his phone that he regularly uses to draw boundaries across his fields to plan his practices. It’s a fantastic app that helps us run a tighter operation. Getting to tell these sorts of stories to investors is interesting, but getting to build a tool that farmers love is even better.
Sar: That's awesome. What is that app called? What other software have you seen farmers typically use?
Jayce: The app is called GPS Fields Area Measure. Regarding other software platforms, farmers constantly use Facebook and other social media apps to promote their farm produce and brands and to tell their stories to wider audiences. Farmer YouTube is an amazing rabbit hole that surfaces videos like “watch us rescue a Black Angus calf from freezing temperatures!” and “how to treat your corn for smut.” There are music video parodies with real farmers dancing and singing along with their operations (viral farm PR). Beyond social media, I’ve seen farmers regularly use commodity price apps, weather apps, and field management apps.
Sar: What are some common reactions from the investors when you tell them these stories?
Jayce: Investors want to know, “Okay, is this a one-off situation, or do most farmers use these platforms? And aren’t most farmers older and not tech savvy?” So then we have to go back to the data and look at the last Agriculture Census to see what’s happening, and what’s cool is that almost 1M farmers in the previous census (out of 3.4M total in the U.S.) are designated “young” or “beginning” farmers. That is a big part of the changing farming demographic toward a new farmer profile, a beginning, a digitally native farmer interested in regenerative agriculture and open to innovation.
Sar: You spent a couple of years in DC. Talk about that world. You transitioned from rural farm life to an urban political advocacy life in a town obsessed with insider gossip, political theatrics, and hierarchical power. What frustrated you?
Jayce: I came to Washington because I grew up on a farm and wanted to support policies that steward land across generations. As a twenty-three-year-old (and still today), I was asking: how can we interact with landscapes to safeguard food security, promote biodiversity, and mitigate climate change? After college, I joined an organization working on advancing environmental conservation campaigns in Congress.
DC was a whole new world, Sar! I believed that going to Washington would mean joining the “doers” of the world, the people hustling hard to mobilize impactful change at the largest scale. And in many ways, this is true: DC draws in idealists with a vision for the impact they want to achieve and a vocational focus. But there are a lot of other dynamics in Washington; the one that I wrestled with the most is politics. The negative optics of compromise (elevated by social media), the short election cycles, and the infusion of money in election campaigns are significant forces that deter members of Congress and other stakeholders from effectively working together across bipartisan lines to enact strong policies. There is so much opportunity in Washington, but I saw more talking, thinking, and posturing than meaningful traction.
Still, I found a lot of meaning in my work. Building coalitions to mobilize hundreds of thousands of people to take action to address climate change is energizing. I am passionate about social movements, so I'm building a tech company. I love getting millions of people to take action on something meaningful. I read a lot of Rebecca Solnit during that time, and her essay Some Monsters Die Slowly was like good medicine. It reminded us why we must keep working to mobilize change with a sense of patience and resilience because the most impactful change often happens across generations.
Policy making is a long game, but I continued to feel impatient. I was struggling to align my energy with the longer timeline. I questioned if my voice was impactful in that advocacy role and whether things were moving fast enough. Ultimately, I left Washington to get more tools to address climate change quickly, completing a joint degree at the Stanford Earth School and the Graduate School of Business.
Sar: Talk about the transition to business school and how you started with FarmRaise.
Jayce: It was a wild transition from the policy world. My classmates and the University revealed a whole new landscape of opportunity. In this environment, I became more interested in software as a tool for mobilizing large-scale change. Like my dad, I am skeptical of the technology as an end in itself. But what about using software to eliminate the blockers farmers face in adopting sustainable practices? What about leveraging software to help farmers spend less time knocking their heads against barriers and more time doing what they love? I saw opportunities to use this tool to transform the massive, ancient, and complicated agricultural industry.
I didn't meet many people in my class who loved farming, but one woman named Sami was farmer-obsessed. She grew up in Missouri, worked at the USDA, and knew firsthand the challenges and opportunities embedded in that government agency. And so we teamed up, did some cofounder dating with our third cofounder Albert who has a product and engineering background, and engaged in some deep needs-finding work with a bunch of farmers and ranchers across the Midwest and in California.
During those conversations, the farmers told us, “I’m so tired of sitting at a desk filling stacks of jargon-packed paperwork to run my business. I need to apply for capital, but this is hard. I just want to get back to farming! Can you build us a TurboTax for farm funding?” It didn’t matter if the farmer was a row crop farmer or a livestock farmer—applying for farm funding was a common problem faced by farmers of all different production types.
Funding is critical to the farm: starting up, scaling up, and maintaining operations yearly is essential. Financing also empowers farmers to transition to more sustainable practices because it de-risks farm innovation and gives these farmers the runway they need to improve their soil health, build energy-efficient systems, and invest in the future of their farms. Accessing this funding has huge implications for mitigating climate change in agriculture because it enables farmers to begin implementing more sustainable, lower-carbon practices. And that's when we knew this funding paperwork piece was an opportunity, a blocker to solving climate change, a wedge in this industry. It was a problem worth spending our lives trying to solve.
Sar: What economic levers are farmers worried about the most?
Jayce: Whether you’re starting or established, the one thing that keeps you up at night is cash flow. Farming is a highly cyclical business; you have to stretch that cash into the lean months to pay for expensive, upfront inputs that power a harvest a few months down the line. If you want to innovate or improve infrastructure on your farm, it will probably be expensive, and it will come down to cash flow, too.
The farmer is thinking about cash in two categories: first, revenue. Can I reach more customers if I go direct, digital, or wholesale? Should I get certification and market my products as premium?
The second is cost, often the first lever we try to pull. Farmers adopting sustainable agriculture practices can reduce their input costs over time and improve cash flow. More efficient energy and water systems waste less and cost less. Soil health improves productivity and reduces fertilizer dependence. Cost is often the bucket that farmers struggle with the most when fertilizer and fuel expenses skyrocket (like they did this year), and by adopting these sustainable practices, they’re taking out an insurance policy on the farm. But getting started on these sustainable practices often requires an upfront cost, which is why accessing funding is critical.
Sar: What funding did you guys go after first? You mentioned the idea of derisking innovation.
Jayce: The first funding we sought was conservation cost-share funding from the USDA. This funding bucket is a lot like an R&D grant that de-risks on-farm soil health and sustainability innovation and, as you said, encourages the farmer to try new practices. I've gone through this application process for my farm. Cost-share funding is free money from the government. It’s a financial incentive for farmers to adopt regenerative practices like cover cropping and sustainable grazing.
But the process of applying requires stacks and stacks of jargon-packed paperwork and has questions that farmers struggle to answer. Some farmers just get in their trucks, drive to their local USDA office, and wait in line for help with paperwork. Over the past two years with COVID, the wait times have only exacerbated. The USDA is overwhelmed. So that's how we identified a wedge through which we could get into the practice of helping the farmer manage their business. That is our starting point.
Sar: So there are all sorts of government programs at the state and federal levels dedicated to farming. But, as often with government programs, the interface is not as pleasant. What’s frustrating is the process of actually applying and figuring out what one should even use for in the first place. That reminds me of Propel. They got started with helping people sign up for food stamps! The program, the policy, and the funding are there, but the interface sucks. So not everyone who should be getting that benefit ends up getting it.
Jayce: It's frustrating! We've heard farmers use all sorts of very colorful language to tell us about that process. That being said, USDA has been an amazing partner in solving these profitability and sustainability challenges. They're providing support and funding. And they're dealing with a behemoth of bureaucracy. We’re all for it if we can make their job easier by solving this first touch point.
When a farmer shares their data once with us to apply for one of these programs, we can securely store that for them and help them apply to other programs in the future. We've found opportunities to structure that data in new ways that will enable farmers to run their businesses more efficiently and be better candidates for funding. The endgame shouldn't be simply getting funding: it should be operating a profitable business. Our vision at FarmRaise is scaling vitality in farming communities, and profitability is critical to that vision. We are building a holistic product that helps farmers with their point-in-time needs and structures their data so that we can set them up to be more successful in an ongoing way.
Sar: What kind of data do you collect in helping them apply? You seem to be on a three-step journey. The first step is helping farmers access the public funding they want. The second is proactively helping to get more funding from other public programs. And the third step is to help them better run their businesses. How far along are you guys? Why did you pick what you do today as the wedge?
Jayce: We collect business entity info (basically a cap table for every farm), financial info (like financial statements and sales), and agronomic info (what is a farmer growing and across how many acres?) We store this information securely so that we can help farmers match with more resources for their farm and more efficiently apply for more resources in the future. And you’re right; we’re on a 3-step process. We are executing steps 1 & 2 and building out step 3. We believe that helping farmers access funding is a fundamental first act because it helps establish a relationship with the farmer and builds trust. When a farmer applies with us today for a funding program, we start to learn about what they're producing on their farm and how they're producing it. Based on this knowledge, we can recommend better ways to run their business and invest in their natural resources to improve soil health and biodiversity.
Farmers are excited about these conservation practices because there’s a fantastic movement in farming today to invest in soil health (you see farmers talking about this on YouTube all the time). They don't think about it necessarily in terms of climate change (although soil health is a massive lever to address climate change). For the farmer, it can be about weatherproofing the farm, reducing costs, and improving the natural resource assets to preserve the farm across generations. There are all these sustainability practices that farmers can employ, and we can help them plan to do that and access funding to empower that soil health investment. And so they can steward the health of that natural asset and pass it down to the next generation.
Sar: Do you talk to the government systems? How do you simplify the application process?
Jayce: We don't have a USDA API, but we communicate regularly with government offices and see them as partners in the process. We've taken the government forms required for these different programs, synthesized them, streamlined them, and given them human language and a digital format for the farmer. Once the farmer submits to us, we send that completed app to the USDA. We're saving farmers a long drive to their local USDA service center and all the uncertainty of knowing where to start, what program to go for, and how to apply for it confidently. We aim to mitigate farmers’ confusion, time, stress, and loneliness as they go out for funding.
Sar: Walk me through your biz model. Why charge a subscription?
Jayce: Yeah, we charge a subscription fee to keep farmers in the loop on the state, local, and federal programs, so they don’t miss out on an opportunity. And then we also charge an upfront fee to help farmers with the application support.
Sar: Are the grant amounts big enough for them to justify this cost?
Jayce: Yeah. The average grant size for the USDA conservation cost-share programs is around $30,000 per farmer.
Sar: Are there any controls on how the money gets spent?
Jayce: Yes! Farmers must validate that they’ve done the project. Let’s say a farmer signs up to implement a conservation plan on their farm with the grant money. The farmer has to build a folder of evidence that they've done the project. This folder can include pictures of the practice on the field. It can include receipts of things they've purchased to accomplish their goal. It can consist of paperwork stating, Hey, I've done the project.
Sar: Any plans to get more involved with money management? Do you want to get into banking or lending?
Jayce: Our philosophy is to invest first in a high-value funding product that farmers love and trust before introducing a debit or credit card. Many farmers will go with their local bank for their banking needs because they trust their local bank. That said, we see an opportunity to build trust with the farmer and then offer banking solutions. If we're going to transform the agriculture finance industry, we need to have a strong wedge to build on and nurture that relationship with our farmers. We've started with funding to build that foundation, but more is coming.
Sar: You just help with getting funding from public sources, right?
Jayce: We also send the farmer targeted funding opportunities that aren’t government related, saying, “here's a private grant we think could be interesting to you. Let us connect you.”
Sar: What are the growth vectors for FarmRaise in the short term? Talk about your go-to market.
Jayce: Over the past year, we’ve targeted two farmer segments: young, smaller farmers on both coasts with a few years of experience and more established, mid-size row crop farmers in the Midwest. Reaching farmers requires persistence and insight into the farming world: Many startups try and fail to reach farmers because they don’t align their efforts with farmers’ needs and behaviors. When I’m fundraising, many VCs ask me about go-to-market more than they ask me about the product because there’s this pervasive belief that farmers are a highly elusive customer segment. In truth, they’re reachable, but you must think like a farmer to reach them at the right time and place.
When we first started, we decided that we’d learn the fastest if we headed to places where farmers hang out. We traveled to farmer conferences, farmer’s markets, and trade shows. These interactions were so valuable to us from a learning perspective, but they weren’t delivering sales in a scalable way. We knew that we had to build a more efficient go-to-market channel, so we decided to meet farmers in another place they were hanging out: Facebook and YouTube.
Farmers love social media; this is where we’ve found go-to-market success. Our go-to-market strategy today relies a lot on organic, word-of-mouth referrals and digital outreach. We acquired our first few hundred users through posting our landing page on Facebook and got a rush of energy just watching farmers share and comment on our posts. We’ve found that social media is the most cost-effective way to reach our first target segment: those young, smaller-scale farmers. Our customers from this segment often come from underrepresented farming demographics: women farmers, farmers of color, and young and beginning farmers who are often overlooked but are the industry’s future.
We’re also strategically building referral partnerships with some of the largest and most farmer-trusted companies to reach mid-sized farms and embed sustainability practices in these massive supply chains. This summer, we partnered with Land O'Lakes, one of the largest farmer-owned cooperatives in America, via their sustainability arm Truterra, to partner with their farmers to unlock funding for regenerative agriculture. We believe this is the right moment to rewrite the agricultural narrative to a more socially equitable, ecologically resilient, and profitable paradigm. FarmRaise is a major player in this regenerative transition but certainly not the only one. Our long-term mission is scaling vitality across farming communities, and now we’re building a team across the agriculture industry to accomplish this vision.
Sar: Do you believe your time in the policy world has helped you run this company in any way?
Jayce: Understanding the long timelines that policymakers are dealing with helps us calibrate our expectations at FarmRaise regarding how a new bill or funding allocation will impact farmers’ lives. It turns out coalition building is as crucial in the tech world as in policy advocacy; we can achieve more impact when we offer unique synergies to organizations already trusted by farmers. The policy world also has lessons on the effects of politics and intellectualism in executing important stuff. We’re working hard to instill a culture that eliminates gossip, encourages bias towards action/experimentation rather than theory, and operates on real-time feedback.
Sar: You mean you are conscious of not replicating the culture you saw in the policy world, right? It taught you what not to do. We talk a lot about the idea of fast feedback loops in the startup world.
Jayce: Exactly. We’re learning the power of small, concentrated experiments with tight feedback loops that enable us to glean information quickly and build on that. It’s step after step of de-risking the product. Rather than seeking reasons to support our product hopes, we must be brutally thorough in discovering all the holes in our hypotheses and then pressure-test them again.
Sar: Have long-standing beliefs or ideas been challenged after you founded FarmRaise?
Jayce: I wondered for a long time if I was the “right person” to start a company. What type of experience is necessary to be successful, and when would I have enough of it? I realize now that it is less about intelligence, experience, or creds. You have to be comfortable taking one step forward at a time into the unknown, find positive, resilient people to share the journey with, and be ready to bounce back when you hit those rejection roadblocks. You have to find ways to take those incremental steps. I love our team, and their passion for farmers makes me bullish about our company’s future.
When we started, I had a naive assumption that we could take any fintech or go-to-market model and apply it to this sector and innovate. Finding an analog from one industry and slapping it onto agriculture doesn’t always work. We must constantly ground ourselves in the farmers’ perspective, the cyclical nature of their business experience, and the stressors and joys that impact them the most. We have to be farmer-obsessed to take those incremental steps forward, and farmer obsession is more important than anything else we do.
Sar: I often hear about self-doubt from first-time founders. Are you learning any hard lessons in building a team? The kind of people you work with on farms and in the policy world is not the kind of people you typically hire in early-stage startups.
Jayce: People - finding, motivating, and aligning people - are the most fun and also the hardest part of my job. I’ve learned and continue to learn many hard and important people lessons at FarmRaise.
I need teammates who care more about outcomes than process, bias toward solutions rather than simply calling out a problem, and are optimistic while staying grounded. Intellectualism can stymie a startup, and I look for teammates who delight in taking action more than opining on opportunities and risks. Still, blind action can slow down a startup, too, so we have to be thoughtful in defining our experiments and what success looks like even as we bias toward experimentation.
Positivity goes a long way, but I don’t want a teammate who just says ‘yes’ all the time: I want a teammate who calls out the risks involved with our course and then takes responsibility to address those risks head-on.
Sar: What do you wish more people were paying attention to in agriculture?
Jayce: I wish we were paying more attention to the young farmer’s segment, a large and expanding part of the agriculture world. When we talk about farming, we usually focus on the media narrative of the 58-year-old row crop farmer in the Midwest who farms in all the conventional ways. But that’s not the whole picture. A large group of innovative farmers will write a new farming narrative this decade. And not all of these innovative farmers are young, either; many are in their 60s and 70s, and they’re watching YouTube and learning about new tools and practices to farm more sustainably. That shifting landscape gets me excited.
Sar: What are some other big problems that farmers face that you think deserve venture capital and founder interest?
Jayce: Farmers face massive challenges in essential services that many of us take for granted. Internet access is one example; many farmers we chat with say, “We can’t wait for Elon to bring Starlink to my count.” I’d also like to see VC money flowing to companies digitizing agronomic management to enable farmers to download and share that data across other operating systems. Right now, that data is tough to extract. Building more integrated data-sharing tools and options embedded in existing tools will make the farmer’s life much easier.
A lot of investment flows to soil carbon market startups. While it’s exciting to see those resources channeled toward climate mitigation, soil carbon quotients are just one part of the puzzle. A whole list of indicators like biodiversity and water retention in soils are more holistic measures of sustainability and ecosystem health. Let’s not ignore these critical parts of the puzzle; let’s enable and incentivize farmers to invest in these holistic indicators and get more dollars flowing to the farmers to reward and empower these sustainability practices across the whole value chain.
Sar: Are there any interesting startups on your radar that do that?
Jayce: A new company called Farm (yes, you read that correctly…what I would pay for their Twitter handle @Farm !) is building an impressive platform to accelerate investment in regenerative agriculture projects. Farm promotes a holistic MRV (Monitoring, Reporting, and Verification) process that includes broader indicators beyond carbon. They’re also a fascinating team of experienced startup founders who bring expertise and passion to solving the climate challenge through conservation tech.
Chat from earlier this week :