Agriculture Is A Bellwether Industry; AgTech A Bellwether Of Change In The Heartland

EQ spoke John D. Santi, co-founder of Davos on the Delta, an AgTech conference, and discussed his vision for the conference and for the future of American agriculture.

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Davos on the Delta just hosted its second three-day conference last week (May 15-17) at the Peabody Hotel in Memphis. The AgTech conference is run by St. Louis-based VC firm iSelect, whose aim is to spur innovation in AgTech by bringing innovators, leaders and customers together.

On the first day of the conference, I took the chance to speak with one of Davos on the Delta’s founders, John D. Santi. Santi is an investment professional from Memphis, Managing Director of the Santi Company and Chief Strategy Officer Company at Kimery Wealth Management.

Throughout our conversation, Santi returned to and expanded upon many of the main themes that were already developing at Davos, specifically:

  • Convergence (how new technologies will bring together the grower and the customer);
  • the Millennial uprising (how Millennial choices and habits will disrupt agriculture);
  • and the Heartland (how capital and innovation are moving from America’s coasts to its heart).

Why “Davos on the Delta”?

Asked about the name, Santi explained that the founding vision for the AgTech conference was to create a meeting that would be global on the scale of the Davos World Economic forum, with ideas and attendees from all over the world. Indeed, the conference hosted companies and investors from New Zealand to Abu Dhabi.

Regarding the conference’s purpose, Santi described how he and his colleague bring together customers, innovators, capital and entrepreneurs necessary to spur innovation and new business in agriculture. “Davos [on the Delta] is about doing stuff and getting things done… People are doing deals right now, as we speak.”

Agriculture industry leaders converge to discuss AgTech innovation at Davos on the Delta.

Davos on the Delta allows for customers, sellers, vendors, partners and friends have the opportunity to meet face to face. “Marketing to me is the fish chasing the boat. This is really a big agricultural marketing event and once people are here they can put a hook in the water, but I don’t want to chase a fish around the whole ocean.”

Mississippi Valley Strategy

“Where you’re sitting is essentially the transportation center of the country,” Santi explained that Memphis’ geography and economy make it a natural fit for a conference on AgTech. “You’ve got air, water, rail and car, all stacked on top of each other. This place is fundamental to logistics, and it’s fundamental to ag.”

Memphis is not just well-connected, but essentially acts as a portal to AgTech’s end-users, farmers and ranchers.

This links to what what Santi called that “Mississippi Valley Strategy,” which aims to promote collaboration between Mississippi cities such as St. Louis, Memphis and Baton Rouge. He wants to see more collaboration and information-sharing between institutions like St. Louis’ Danforth Plant Science Center and Memphis’ agricultural experts. He predicted that, through effective cooperation, “You’ll see a convergence of capital and technology into these parts of the heartland.”

Venture capitalists and other investors are already turning their attention to these Mississippi cities. Essentially, Santi argues, if entrepreneurs and researchers along here can accelerate their innovation efforts and combine forces, they stand to accelerate the flow of capital.

His finger is clearly on the proverbial pulse. One of the major themes from Davos on the Delta was the movement of Capital and innovation to the American heartland echoed a concern at VentureBeat’s Blueprint conference, another event which is dedicated to understanding the Heartland Tech trend.

A Bellwether for the Global Agriculture Industry

Asked about his vision for the long-term future of the conference, Santi explained that he wanted Davos to become a “truly global conference… with 30 countries represented.” He stressed that the ideal meeting wouldn’t, necessarily, be a great deal larger, but would feature more and more world-leaders from agriculture year after year.

Davos on the Delta felt like a bellwether for agriculture and for innovation as a whole. Capital is flowing from the coasts to the heartlands, and the USA needs the heartland to innovate in order to solve issues like pollution, declining soil quality and the over-use of agricultural chemicals — essentially to feed a growing population safely and sustainably.

In essence, Davos — a convergence of capital, entrepreneurs, buyers and sellers — is a metaphor for the structural changes that must happen in agriculture more generally.

We need and will experience a convergence on many levels: geographic, as investors and entrepreneurs meet in the heartland; economic, as the growers connect with customers technologically; and in terms of consumer trends, as innovation unifies the demands for price and quality. All of these trends will be facilitated in part by the rise of the Millennial generation, whose experimental, internet-first and values-driven nature will force more and more change as they age.