50. Sarah K Mock: US agriculture needs a narrative shift

Journalist, story teller and Twitter warrior

Hi, if you are new here, I am Rhishi Pethe and I am excited that you have elected to join the “Software is feeding the world” community. You will receive this free weekly newsletter at the intersection of technology and agriculture/food systems. I work as a product manager on Project Mineral at Alphabet X, focused on sustainable agriculture. The views expressed in this newsletter are my personal opinions.

This week’s newsletter is a conversation with Sarah K Mock. Sarah K Mock is a journalist, story teller, prolific writer, and trouble maker on Twitter. If you have spent any time on AgTwitter in the US, you couldn’t have missed her.

Love her or hate her, but you cannot ignore her.

She is currently working on a book called “Farm (and other F words)”, with part 1 slated to come out in April and part 2 towards the end of the year.

Image provided by Sarak K Mock

Summary of our conversation

A The Tech Paradox: Sarah is a big fan of science and technology. She believes in the scientific process of inquiry and experimentation. She is not a big fan of Silicon Valley or AgTech startups. She believes that startups and tech optimize for profit, and not necessarily to offer the best solutions. She also does not believe in using carbon markets to pay American farmers more money for adoption of regenerative agriculture practices, which she believes they should be doing anyway.

B How can agtech be more mature?: Sarah believes that tech companies are really good at customer obsession, software, hardware, branding, and marketing. Their employees have ownership in their companies. We discuss if tech companies need to get into farming. She talks about the psyche of American farmers, and compares the buy-side co-op model of FBN, with the sell side co-op model of Amul Dairy in India.

C American Gothic: Sarah believes that the story currently being told of an American farmer needs to change. Her desire is based on the history of American agriculture, and the contribution of different peoples (Indigenous, African American, Asian, Hispanic, White) to it. She wants to change the narrative, and currently spends time, and money, to highlight BIPOC and Indigenous artists.

D Inspirations: People, Books, and Movies: Sarah and I talk about people that have inspired her (Dr. Sarah Taber, Chris Newman etc.), books she has enjoyed over the years (we both share the love for Charles C. Mann), and her love for Bollywood movies!

A The Tech Paradox

Rhishi: Hi Sarah. I am excited to talk with you today. I heard your podcast “End of Agriculture'' with Connie Bowen. You call yourself a tech optimist. And then in the context of Robinhood, you wrote, 

“However much I’ve wanted to believe that tech startups could be the remedy to our myriad broken systems, they haven’t proven themselves up to the task.” How do you reconcile this?

Sarah: It does seem like a paradox. I love science. My background is in science, I literally named my dog Sagan [after the astrophysicist]. I am a huge believer that science and technology is one of the most noble ways we express ourselves as human beings. I am all for taking things we learn and understand about the universe and applying them to try and make our lives better. Technology has, especially from an economic perspective, made sure Malthus's prediction never came true. 

This drove me to tech startups as I was leaving college. I came into the tech world, especially the ag tech world, and expected to find, and did find, a lot of people who shared that optimism. They believed that if we tweak the circumstances and build software to support people, they can make better decisions.

People want to be good. Tech startups believe that they can help people be good by taking away some of the limitations. 

Startups are not about that though. Tech in it's most perfect iteration might be, but startups are about return on investment. And especially when it's major venture backed tech, you have to have a quick and big return on investment. So [the virtue] breaks down. Silicon Valley has become the exported R&D sector of Wall Street, where a startup investment portfolio works by throwing many ideas at the wall and hoping that one or two of them work out big (unicorns.) 

I believe in doing science, by making a hypothesis, testing out many possibilities, and then iterating on the best ideas and abandoning the worst ones. But “best” [for startups] means the one that makes the most money, not necessarily the one that provides the best solution. There are a lot of solutions that make a lot of money. But they are not the best solutions to feed people, or to farm in ways that doesn’t threaten the long term viability of human life. 

We also have an inherent justice and equity problem in agriculture that tech is not addressing, which is another limitation of tech for profit. If anything, [current solutions are] entrenching it. Our idea of tech is to enable meritocracy, and when it is equally available, the best will rise above. But the reality is that, when tech is expensive, the best don't rise above, the richest rise above. Technology, ideally, goes to most people, and then the best people will succeed. But that is not how tech works in reality. 

I believe in technology as a time-honored strategy of putting science to work. I believe less in the execution of tech startups.

Rhishi: You cannot apply tech and imagine that all problems will go away. These are multifaceted problems. It requires policy, political will, financial and economic incentives etc. Tech does have a role, but it is not 100%. Given that AgTech is relatively new, do you think it is a time horizon issue?

Sarah: Absolutely, it is not just tech. Tech is a part of a bigger solution. But I don’t really believe that agtech is “all good” and it’s just the fault of policy-makers that things aren’t better. Tech is part of the problem as well. 

Precision agriculture is a good example of this. Precision agriculture is a solution that's been given up on. It was all the rage in 2014/15 along with its weird bastard cousin - decision ag.

Every farm decision was going to be driven by precision. Nobody was going to over-apply fertilizer. Nobody was going to over-irrigate. Nobody was going to overuse pesticides. Everything was going to be used precisely and save everyone a ton of money. We were going to save the environment. Everything was going to be great and super-efficient. But precision agriculture is not the focus for big companies raising the most money in agriculture now.

Nobody's trying to limit the amount of inputs farmers buy. The biggest companies in ag sell inputs. They don't want people to use less. If farmers reduce their input purchases by 20%, the companies can't raise their prices to compensate for the difference. 

People are kind of sick of hearing that it's just around the corner.

Rhishi: That sounds like a time horizon issue. The technology has not matured and eventually people will figure it out. Wouldn't AgTech companies or startups have a bigger interest to solve that problem? If I can help you save 20% of your input cost, wouldn't that be an interesting conversation? Today in the developed world, the promise is a 2-3% improvement. The 2-3% might not be worth the risk?

Sarah: I see a lot of advertisements that are about making $8 - $10 more per acre. To matter to a farmer in the US right now, that just isn't enough. I would believe that there is a time horizon problem with some of these technologies and that we're going to get there-- but how do you monetize that conversation?

The people who have money in ag are the input companies and they are not interested in investing in getting farmers to pay less for inputs. It's a bad outcome for us, ecologically, as a nation, and in a lot of ways, for farmers themselves. 

This fits (kind of) into the carbon market conversation, too, where part of my issue is that we're going way too fast.

There's a clear economic advantage to being the first company to set up and start selling carbon. But in two years or ten, will we realize that we are paying farmers for doing the absolute bare minimum? I understand that there's a huge amount of money to be made and a huge amount of reputational value to create by creating these carbon markets. It is worth taking a little bit more time to make sure these systems actually work and to prove that there's actually any carbon being stored at all over any significant period of time.

If you can become the NASDAQ or the New York stock exchange of carbon trading in agriculture, there is an infinite amount of money to be made. So, of course they're all rushing to do it. They're all trying to be the first.

One of the things that gave me pause was just talking to the farmers that I know who are really interested in these markets. There are farmers really interested because they see it as a way to earn money while making minimal or no changes to the way they operate. You do not create value by doing nothing. That is just not how economies work. So if farmers believe that doing just about nothing is going to make money fall from heaven, we've created a bit of a problem. 

There's another deeper question too. Are we already doing that in agriculture? Isn't that what commodity payment programs are? They're guaranteed revenue. It's a universal, basic income, but only for farmers.

Sarah wrote (another!) provocative article called “80 million reasons not to pay for regenerative farming” arguing against payments to farmers for adoption of regenerative agriculture practices.

B How can tech be more mature?

Rhishi: I want to dig in on your example of that doctor and Peru. If we apply that principle to tech companies, tech companies are good at tech. Where should they invest their money? What kind of problems should they go after?

Sarah: There's nothing stopping an ag and food tech company from farming themselves. Tech companies are really good at making great hardware and software. They're great at marketing. They have grit and determination. They have obsessive customer focus to create a great brand, to be super responsive to their customers, to build a great customer product and to deliver returns for their shareholders. A little bit more of that in the actual production level of farming would be transformative (Plenty is a good example of a company doing this).

We see vertical integration in the plant-based foods space. What is stopping those ag tech companies from integrating all the way up to the farm. I don't want to denigrate the advanced technical skills required to do farming, but the challenge of running a farm as a business is not actually that hard.

Morning Star tomatoes do canned tomatoes all the way back to the farm. They have redefined the cost structure of the tomato space. They are a multi-billion dollar company that innovated the entire scope of its production.

Rhishi: I think I disagree with you on this. For example there is a tech company, for invoice management. You're good at managing invoices and not farming.

Sarah: Yes, it is a better use case for food tech companies than ag tech companies. 

One of the problems I see with the advanced agtech space is that, quite simply, the vast majority of farms in the US are not sophisticated enough to use these advanced and expensive tools that are being created. If you’re selling agtech in the US, you have less than 1 million potential customers, and probably fewer than 100k in terms of consistently commercial farms. 

When I look at a company like Granular, they're selling this incredible advanced software to farmers. Most farmers are small family businesses, run by one or two people. A lot of these big agtech software is great and powerful, but you have to sell it to a bunch of people who are not going to appreciate it, because they are just mom and pop guys comparing your product to Google sheets. At that point, it’s a question of product-market fit. 

I know that startups often look at the national and global scale of that ag industry and their heads explode with dollar signs, but it’s worth remembering that $3 trillion in US agricultural assets is locked up in land value and not cash in hand to buy tech. So there comes a time when, sure, a company might make great invoice software and want to sell it to farmers, and either that’s not a good market for it, or they’re going to need to gain some real expertise in the farm space that helps them grow their customers enough to use their tech effectively.

Rhishi: I don't want to pick on any company, but any company which puts out a product has to understand who their customer is, where to meet them, and how to build easy-to-use delightful products. A deep understanding of your customer is needed to put out the right products.

It's a little bit harder here in the US because only 1-2% of the population is involved in agriculture. So the common person on the street has no understanding or empathy. So when you hire people, you need to train them, you need to get them out to really start to have empathy with your customer. That's your only chance of building a good product.

Sarah: I hundred percent agree with that. It's so funny because it's such a cliche of Silicon Valley. Tech bro builds a technology for a guy in Illinois, who he's never met and doesn't know anything about and guess what? It doesn’t work. In ag, there’s an extra challenge. Because there's what farmers say. And then there's what farmers do. And those are not always the same thing.

I hear farmers say all the time that if something is going to make me money, I will look into it. But what farmers are less likely to say, but is almost universally true in my experiences: if it pays a lot it's worth it, otherwise it's too inconvenient.

If your technology is going to make me feel stupid, add a lot of manual hours to my job, make it unpleasant in any way, I am not interested. They don't want cover crops. They want clean fields. Many don’t want to talk about no-till. They farm the way they farm. And they're not really open to alternatives. It literally doesn't matter how much you pay them. You have to understand a little bit more deeply to know if the farmer is actually going to buy your tech in the end.

Rhishi: I work as a product manager and it applies to any space. If you're building a product for doctors and nurses, then you really need to understand their problems, motivations, and incentives. 

You worked at FBN which is a tech company. One way to describe FBN is that they are a co-op. You have written about the milk-cooperative Amul Dairy in India. How would you compare the two models?

Sarah: India is a really different economy than the US and so there are a lot of nuances. But as a big fan of the coop model, certainly the network effects of FBN were one of the key things that drove me there.

I was reading Stephen Johnson's “Emergence” around that time on network effects and how they facilitate the spread of best practices and create visibility and transparency to help individual actors learn from one another. I think emergent systems are amazing. 

How that works at FBN is, farmers put all of their data into a big bucket with the data from all other farmer-members, it’s anonymized, and then you can look at it and learn things from it. And that's super powerful. There's some fascinating conclusions that FBN has found and revealed looking at that data. Though having the information and getting farmers to use it are two different problems. And having people actually change the way they make decisions is very different than just presenting it.

It was part of my job while I was there to have conversations with farmers about using that data. And the reality is, all this best-in-class, first in the world information became just one small part of their consideration. They were putting a lot more weight on recommendations from their sales agronomist. You could tell them that this other seed could give you a 30% increase in yield, but they are still like “but that $20 extra per bag seems like too much.” There's a perceived risk factor for sure.

FBN and other digital agriculture companies can work with anonymized and aggregated data to offer insights to growers, retailers, dealers etc. Image from 2020 Dealer Survey report published by CropLife.

Rhishi: The maturity of the tech is not where you can tune your model for that particular area easily.

Sarah: Maybe it's being underutilized because it's not mature enough. 

Beyond the software, though, FBN acts as a buying co-op. They procure inputs and sell them at relatively low rate to their members. But, so does CHS and others. That's not a new model.

Amul Dairy, on the other hand, is a sales marketing co-op. It also procures inputs for its members, but its primary function is to sell. There's sales co-ops in the US as well. The difference is scale. Amul dairy is owned by 5 million very small producers.

There's a hundred thousand commercial grain producers in the United States. The problem with ag and co-ops, especially local co-ops is that there is a zero sum game in agriculture and it's land. I want more land. And I can't have it, unless someone else does poorly and wants to give it up so that I can have it. And that kind of zero sum relationship, eventually causes some real problems, and I think inevitably erodes the coop model for commodity grain growers in the US. But elsewhere, I do believe in the model.

I believe in a lot of what FBN is doing though. And yeah, I'm a shameless fan girl of Amul dairy, and pretty much everything they do use.

C American Gothic

Rhishi: I'm a huge fan of Charles Mann. There's a concept of a Milpa, which was very popular before the Europeans came. Do you think that's possible today? Do you need tech? Do you need more people employed in agriculture? It has been done for hundreds of years and we seem to do less of that today.

Sarah: I'm a big Mann fan as well. There's places in Central America where the Milpas have been continuously cropped for 4,000 years. We do not have any other evidence of such a durable type of agriculture. It's mind-boggling and world changing.

So we should be doing it. It would require a lot more people. This is the fundamental tension of agriculture in the United States, as too few individuals own too much land. And there's not enough labor to work it at the price that it needs to be worked to maintain the value of the land.

A lot of Indigenous cultures who pioneered the Milpas had a fundamentally different way of thinking about land ownership. European cultures who colonized North America had a full understanding of commons-style systems. As a matter of fact, a lot of European invaders came to America, because they were evicted from their own commons. And then they came to America and evicted (and then committed genocide on) Indigenous people.

This is where my tech optimism comes back. I do not believe hand labor is the only option. Hand labor is awful. When corn dries it, it cuts you, it causes injuries when you harvest. The labor is grueling. It’s hard. I don't think we should do that. We should use our technology to improve our harvesting practices, improve tending practices, to supplement things that we've destroyed.

We could use our technology and our brain power to make the work easier. It is going to require a lot more people to be in agriculture. But to get more people in agriculture, you need to take some of that land and turn it into money to pay the people. But we're going the opposite direction. We're getting more land into the hands of fewer and fewer people. So it doesn't seem we're on a path to bringing back the milpas, but I would love to see it.

American Gothic: Image from Art Institute of Chicago

Rhishi: Through your writings, you support a lot of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) artists. Tell me more about it.

Sarah: We have an insanely troubled and problematic history in American agriculture of dispossessing Indigenous People, enslaving Africans, and then Black people, stealing the livelihoods of people of Asian descent in the West and then just completely disenfranchising Hispanic/Indigenous farmers.

Between the Civil War and the fifties, 95% of tenant farmers in the US were evicted. That century pushed nearly all of the People of Color and a lot of poor whites in farming off the land, and they were replaced with wealthy, almost-universally white farmland owners, who, given advances in equipment and technology, could farm commodity grains on the land that use to support dozens of families, all by themselves. In those sectors where technology has not replaced hand labor, the eviction of tenants was still worth it, because things like the Bracero program allowed them to use foreign-born farmers who had essentially no protections and made a fraction of what other workers made. Today, we have undocumented labor, the natural continuation of that system.

There would be no US dairy or vegetable industry without undocumented farmers and farmworkers. A recent study, found that as much as 90% of all the food on our table is grown on farms worked by farmworkers, who are almost-universally People of Color. But when people think about what an American farmer looks like, it’s a white guy in overalls. It is the American Gothic. It is fair because more than 90% of the American farmers are old white men. But they are not the people who have historically fed America.

And yet when we want to talk about agriculture, climate change and regenerative ag, white people are back in the center, being the people that we celebrate and love and are fighting to save their farms because they are third generation family farms.

And we love that. And we see them in Super Bowl commercials and in food packaging. But wait, remember when we've just said that it's all People of Color who are doing the work, where are they represented in this art? Where are they represented in the way that we talk about farms and the language in the images, in the videos, in the music? We meet old MacDonald and his farm when we are small children in English-speaking countries, the farmer in the dell, baba black sheep etc. All of these agricultural things are very European. They're very white. And they tell us that Euro-American farmers are good people, and erase everyone else.

This art also suggests that farms are safe, cushy, and beautiful places where you and your children can be safe. And that's not true. Farms are one of the most dangerous work sites in America, but we just have all these visions of what a farm is. 

As a journalist or a writer, narratives are one of the few things I can control. We need to begin a conversation of how to organize agriculture differently, how to provide different kinds of opportunities, how to pursue equity, how to right some of the historic wrongs, not just all of the injustices of the systems that I just described, but if you want to talk about why farmers are overwhelmingly wealthy now, it's because they've built businesses with stolen labor.

People continue to directly benefit from those things today. So maybe to have a different conversation, we just need to see farmers who look a little different. We need to start with a different nursery rhyme that we can teach to kids that isn't about a white farmer, and we need different pictures, movies, etc. So the #FarmArt project is just my effort to have a little bit of a different narrative. Let's give people something else to talk about.

Plus, I had a little bit of a marketing budget to use to promote my upcoming book, and I wanted that money to go towards supporting BIPOC artists, who often don’t have nearly enough opportunity to make art and tell stories about agriculture and get paid for it. So I put the little bit of money that I had to work for BIPOC artists to explore what the intersection of farming, food, nature, and people meant to them.

D Inspirations: People, Books, and Movies

Rhishi: Who are your inspirations? Who are the people you look up to look up?

Sarah: I do very much still feel that I'm just a kid figuring out how to navigate the ag and agtech world and I’m still learning a lot. I met Dr. Sarah Taber originally on Twitter, and now she is a good friend. She's very thoughtful and has fascinating experiences that inform her perspective on agriculture. Chris Newman: We work together at Sylvanaqua Farms. He has been a farmer for seven years - he is a half black, half Indigenous farmer in rural Virginia. He is a very fascinating person and has a tech background that we bond over. 

I'm a bit of a bookworm: Carl Sagan, Steven Johnson. I love a science books and books about agriculture. Charles Mann is a great one. Also Greg Grandin and his recent book “The End of the Myth,” which reframes the American West. I grew up in Wyoming, so I love to reconnect with Western topics whenever I can. 

Rhishi: I have enjoyed Rachel Laudan's books. She tries to break the myth that farming in olden times was great. What we have today is not perfect, but it is much better than 100 years ago in some respects.

Sarah: The idea that farming used to be great is not common around the world. Most other countries and cultures understand that farming is not great. Farm work is hard and there is a weird fantasy that on our great-grandfather's farm, everything was beautiful and fabulous. And life was easy, No, it was not.

Rhishi: You watched a lot of Bollywood (Indian film industry) and Shahrukh Khan(one of the biggest Bollywood movie stars of all time) movies in India. What’s your favorite Shah Rukh Khan movie?

Sarah: I think the greatest Bollywood movie of all time is Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham. There's no question. And I will not accept any debate! It has Kajol and Shahrukh Khan, which is the best Bollywood couple of all time. It has all the callbacks to their old movies, it’s funny, and it’s powerful. Amitabh Bacchan is in it. 

Rhishi: I expected an interesting conversation and you stayed true to that promise! Thank you!

Conversation Notes

End of Agriculture podcast with Connie Bowen. Some of my favorite episodes are “End of Glyphosate,” “End of Ethanol,” and “End of Commodities.”

Podcast with Sarah Nolet, Agtech so what? “Not a cheerleader, not the enemy", journalist Sarah Mock on making windows in the walls around agriculture.

Is it possible to farm without exploitation? This is a provocative article from Sarah, which got a lot of attention (both positive and negative) from many people. It is worth a read.

So, what do you think?

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