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The Startup Taking On Bayer With Cheaper, Non-GMO Seeds

Farmers Business Network, a sort of Glassdoor for agriculture, is now selling its own seeds, too.
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Illustration: Joe Melhuish for Bloomberg Businessweek

Farmers don’t have a reputation for skewing to the political left, but just get them talking about seeds. At an expo center on the outskirts of Memphis one gray February day, several dozen of them make for a receptive audience as Charles Baron expounds over plates of scrambled eggs and home fries on the inequities of Big Ag. “On either side of your family business are these massive oligopolies,” the 35-year-old says, gesturing toward a PowerPoint slide bearing the logos of agrichemical companies and commodities traders. “You, as growers, should have the power in the industry. There’s no reason you should have the lowest incomes when you do all the work and take all the risk.” Around the room, baseball caps wag in agreement.

Baron is co-founder of Farmers Business Network Inc. (FBN), a five-year-old startup that says it can do for corn and soybean seed what Warby Parker has done for eyewear. For most farmers of such grains, genetically modified seeds with patent-protected advantages (weed resistance, insect immunity) have become the largest variable expense—and one over which they have little control given consolidation in the market. U.S. farmers spent $22 billion on seeds last year, 35 percent more than they did in 2010, and that increase can’t be explained by additional acreage. The product is sold through local dealers or retailers—almost never online—and prices typically aren’t posted.