By Stacey Faucett
Submitted by Cisco Systems, Inc.
Now that the Cisco Global Problem Solver Challenge 2021 winners have been officially announced, we are excited for you to learn more about each winning team and the story behind each innovation. The Cisco Global Problem Solver Challenge is an annual competition that awards cash prizes to early-stage tech entrepreneurs solving the world’s toughest problems. Now in its fifth year, the competition awarded its largest prize pool ever, $1 million USD, to 20 winning teams from around the world.
I recently met with seventh-generation Iowa farmer Mitchell Hora, founder and CEO of Continuum Ag, which won one of our $10,000 USD Fourth Runner-Up prizes. Mitchell shares how his startup works directly with farmers to help them increase overall soil health and transition to regenerative agriculture.
What problem is your technology solution trying to solve?
Mitchell: We have to have healthy soil to grow healthy plants to provide healthy food to create healthy humans for a healthy planet. It’s all very much connected in a circle. Farmers need to understand their soil better to make better decisions about improving the health of the products they’re producing and doing it in a regenerative manner.
Many societal issues can arise from agriculture, like releasing carbon into the atmosphere, poor water quality, flooding, and impact on human health. But today, agriculture has the opportunity to be part of the solution, and this starts with improving soil health. However, farmers need better data to understand their soil health. Farmers see the opportunity to be part of the solution, but changing practices is complex, understanding biology is complicated, and changing to regenerative systems is hard.
Continuum Ag is a soil health data company, and we help farmers overcome the logistic and economic risk of change. We assist farmers by quantifying soil health and delivering data into an easy-to-understand and consistent program. Farmers use this data to better understand supply chains, carbon markets, and other service markets, which enables them to profit from better management decisions.
We utilize data and our network of crop consultants and farmers to overcome risk and ensure that they will be successful when adopting regenerative practices, like promoting biodiversity through crop rotation and eliminating or reducing soil tillage. On the Hora farm we have seen a decrease of 45 percent in synthetic fertilizer, 75 percent decrease in pesticides, massive increase in soil carbon and water infiltration, all while maintaining excellent crop yields. Learn more from the attached video about some of the other benefits of planting diverse crops:
Can you explain how the solution works?
Mitchell: Continuum Ag’s TopSoil is an online management platform where farmers can map out their fields and gather data to map soil health. TopSoil helps utilize the latest and greatest technology, like machine learning and real-time sensors, but brings it into a palatable format for farmers. With that data, we provide the analytics and recommendations that empower them to make their own management decisions and implement action on their farms. Farmers can log in at topsoil.ag, it is free to get started, and begin to understand their soil as a living system. Farmers can map out their fields, access new data, and work with their local consultant or agronomists to help them interpret the data. We are scaling the science of agriculture through transparent, unbiased data systems and allowing farmers and their local advisors to optimize the art of agriculture.
We have to provide more food, more sustainably. At the end of the year, our benefits are not just measured based on yield. Benefits are also calculated based on the quality we’re bringing to the market, the carbon footprint in which it was produced, the amount of water that was used, and other environmental outcomes. But it has to be profitable for the family farm too, and sustainability includes the economic sustainability of a farm. We have to ensure that farmers are empowered to make their own business decisions when implementing regenerative practices. Our network of regenerative farmers and consultants is all about sharing and learning together. There are about 270 consultants and 1,000 farmers in the TopSoil Network today.
What inspired you to develop this solution?
Mitchell: I’m a seventh-generation Iowa farmer; my family has been farming in the same county for 150 years. My family has been utilizing regenerative practices since 1978, when we started to experiment with no-till (which helps to decrease soil erosion) and have been utilizing it ever since, and utilizing cover crops (not grown for profit, but to help improve the soil) since 2013. So, we understand how to allow farmers to be successful and change their practices by utilizing data because we’ve done it ourselves and have helped many other farmers do the same. The key thing is that farmers have to drive sustainability.
I started Continuum Ag as a consulting company to help my family farm and help other local family farms understand soil health and access better data tools to manage their farms. As Continuum Ag grew, I needed better data tools, and we needed a soil health platform, and there wasn’t one available, so we built our own. Now, other crop consultants and companies interested in sustainability need these same data tools, so we’ve just modified our business model as we’ve continued to bring value further up the supply chain and help more and more farmers. Today, we’re on a mission to help one million farmers profit from soil health.
I started the company in 2015 while a junior at Iowa State University, and my first customer was a company in South Africa where I helped manage their soil health data. Since then, we’ve scaled up the data tools, and today, we’ve done business in 40 U.S. states and 12 countries, and we now have a team of 21 people. We want to allow farmers to have independence around managing their farms by empowering them with better data.
How will winning a prize in the Cisco Global Problem Solver Challenge help you advance your business?
Mitchell: I’m excited that we were successful in the Cisco Global Problem Solver Challenge competition to continue to showcase to the world how farmers are ready to take on global problems, and can be part of the solution. We can all work together, from the farm to the consumer, to solve global problems. Continuum Ag has proven to be a key player in helping farmers succeed and ensuring that they successfully adopt regenerative practices. It’s always great to showcase the good work that farmers are doing.
Do you know what you will use the prize money for specifically?
Mitchell: Since winning a Cisco Global Problem Solver Challenge prize, we hired another full-time agronomist to help us with our solution. We’ve hired some more software developers as well and expanded our international team in India.
How has the global pandemic impacted your work?
Mitchell: My whole team is remote, so we already used video-conferencing tools. The pandemic has disrupted some of the supply chains when it comes to farmers taking products to market. We also weren’t doing many events or traveling to in-person meetings. Those are all virtual now. But those virtual meetings and events have probably helped us, especially as a small company without a big travel budget. It works well because I can have many more meetings in a day, so I can meet with seven companies in one day through virtual meetings versus only being able to do one or maybe two in person.
Why did you decide to start your own social enterprise versus going to work for a company?
Mitchell: I’ve always been very entrepreneurial. I’ve had different side gigs since I was four years old selling lemonade at the local farmers market (which is still held weekly on the town square and my office is right across the road). My mom, grandma, and aunt regularly sold garden and baked goods at the market. In high school, I rented land, had my own hay business, and raised hogs. I started putting a business plan together for Continuum Ag during my freshman internship in college.
What advice do you have for other social entrepreneurs?
Mitchell: The main thing about being an entrepreneur is that I can bring value in the way that I want to bring value to other people and bring solutions to the world. Being an entrepreneur, or just doing anything in life, boils down to what makes you happy. Stay focused on maintaining happiness in your day-to-day and bring value to as many people as possible along the way.
More from Cisco Systems, Inc.