Stories of Technology, Innovation, & Entrepreneurship in the Southeast

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June 11, 2024 | Katelyn Keenehan

Cultivate Appalachia Bootcamp launches with more founders and more innovation than ever!

The bootcamp started on Tuesday June 11, and will end with a Demo Day on June 13.

“The agriculture industry is ripe for innovation,” said Pete Nelson, President of AgLaunch at the kick-off event for the annual AgLaunch Cultivate Appalachia Bootcamp.

The three-day program helps innovators in the agricultural industry turn their ideas into a profitable business.  Katie Ellis, the Appalachian AgriFood Innovation Cluster Lead, said the 2024 cohort is the largest, and most innovative that AgLaunch has ever seen.

Many mentors, industry partners, and ecosystem supporters showed up for the morning workshop session of the BootCamp, including Daryl Leven, the Founder of  New Way Aquaponic Farms (NWAF).

“We are truly servant leaders, and we want to help you help our community moving forward,”  Leven said. It’s his third year as a mentor for the program.

Each of the nine companies provided an elevator pitch for their innovation. The companies range from launching a new creamery to turning manure into water. Read more about each company and founder in this article.

Nelson was the first featured speaker in the bootcamp, and he started by encouraging the new founders to think with a different mindset.

“We have not done our job if you don’t leave here with a new frame of thinking,” Nelson said.

Pete Nelson
Pete Nelson

Unlike other accelerators based around a university system, cooperation, or organization, the AgLaunch Bootcamp is highly based around the farmers. They invest in farmers, which in turn helps other farmers.

He shared some of the greatest difficulties that innovators may face when trying to roll out new ideas and technologies to farmers. The first is the older generation: many farmers have been working their fields for years, meaning innovators are battling family traditions. Sometimes technological changes won’t be implemented until a younger family member takes over the property or business.

Second, while some mega-agribusinesses may be quicker to implement new technology, still a large portion of our food and textile supply in the U.S. comes from family farms. Nelson shared that family farms shockingly hold more than $3 trillion in assets. Gaining the ear of some family establishments is critical to rolling out innovative concepts.

Lastly, Nelson discussed the notion that the agriculture industry isn’t doing as well as the public perceives.

“We are at the end of the ‘Roman Empire’ period for agriculture, so we are building on that reality. There is no better time to bring innovative solutions to market,” he said.

What does Nelson mean by that?

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), since the pandemic, the profits for the agriculture sector continue to fall. In 2022, it was a $185.5 billion industry, in 2023, it fell to $155.9 billion, and experts project it may fall below $116.1 billion in 2024. The USDA shared that the decrease in profits is largely due to increased production expenses – equipment, labor, and materials. Direct Government farm payments have also decreased for the past two years. This decline is largely because of lower supplemental and ad hoc disaster assistance to farmers and ranchers in 2024 compared with 2023.

The fact that the industry is struggling means it’s ripe for innovators to provide unique, useful, profitable solutions. Jeff Brown, the President of the Biz Foundry in Cookeville chimed into the conversation to share how the right value proposition will be welcomed by those struggling farms.

“If you’re blaming your customer for not being smart enough to use your product, that’s not on them, that’s on you,” Brown said. “It means you haven’t found your value proposition. You haven’t proved to them that life is better with your product.”

The nine companies will be visiting a few farms over the next few days to gain insights into processes.

The Demo Day will take place on June 13 at 5 p.m. EDT at the Techstars Office on Gay Street.

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