Pete Nelson

The world is rapidly changing, and the COVID-19 pandemic has only accelerated that change, especially in agriculture. The pandemic has been referred to as a “wake up call” to the weaknesses that exist in our food systems and “an insight” into how climate change is affecting our food security and our overall health. The truth is that these two factors will disproportionately affect those among us with the least. Areas already experiencing food insecurity and instability, like parts of the Mississippi Delta region, will be most impacted by market supply chain and trade disruptions.

There is a lot to be done in the food supply chain and food systems, and we know technology can play an important role in addressing those issues. Unfortunately, in the past, agriculture has been one of the least digitized industries. However, it is clear that Mississippi understands just how important technology is to the future of the agriculture industry and the vital role that farmers play in bringing these innovations to market.

That’s why I was so pleased to be a part of the Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce’s recent roundtable discussion regarding agriculture technology and building a stronger, farmer-led innovation framework in the state.

AgLaunch is a public/private partnership developed with the Tennessee Department of Agriculture focused on attracting, starting, growing and supporting new agriculture companies and initiatives to revitalize our rural and urban communities and create new pathways for diversity across the Mid-South region. With strong support from Tennessee’s Commissioner of Agriculture, Dr. Charlie Hatcher, AgLaunch has been designated by the Small Business Administration and Economic Development Administration to lead a Regional Innovation Cluster focused on food and agriculture that includes key states surrounding Tennessee, including Mississippi.

Between precision ag, drones, artificial intelligence and many more applications, farmers are faced with a huge opportunity to take their yields and profits to the next level. But sometimes understanding and correctly implementing the various tools available can be challenging. At AgLaunch, we believe that part of the problem is that farmers have not been brought in early enough in the conversation. They’ve got to be at the table discussing what works and what doesn’t. Since starting in 2015, AgLaunch has assisted more than 50 companies, which have in turn raised more than $70 million and created more than 200 jobs, with an average annual wage of more than $60,000. All of these companies have been supported by and are actively working with Tennessee farmers to go from an idea to a final product. We believe these kinds of results are not possible without farmers being part of the development team to ensure companies and products are meeting farmers’ needs.

Commissioner Andy Gipson has seen first-hand how technology is being used to create profits and sustainability on farms. He gave the example of a product called TensorFlow being used on a dairy farm in Waynesboro, Georgia, that is using Google’s open source, machine-learning framework to keep cows healthier and more productive. By putting a wearable sensor on the cows, the farmers are able to capture data that helps make critical decisions in the care of the herd. This is just one example of the many ways technology is truly transformative. Others include Rantizo, the first FAA approved agriculture drone spraying company, which recently raised $7.5 million; Stony Creek Colors, which is creating natural dyes from alternative crops; and Swinetech, a company using sensors to reduce swine infant mortality.

I appreciate Commissioner Gipson’s leadership on this important topic and the continued willingness for partnership between Mississippi and Tennessee for the benefit of the entire Mid-South region. AgLaunch looks forward to continuing to be a part of the conversation to expand the regional innovation approach that is led by farmers to create the innovations of the future.

PETE NELSON is executive director of AgLaunch in Tennessee.

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