P | P | P feat. Agreed Earth

We caught up with Sarah Power, a Co-Founder of Agreed Earth as part of ‘Product | People | Potential’. Agreed Earth are focused on helping farmers profit and simultaneously reduce the impact of farming on the environment through the construction of a regenerative agriculture data hub.

The purpose of article series ‘Product | People | Potential’ is to feature and showcase the very best UK start-ups with grand potential, truly inspiring businesses that are shaking up their sector. We capture and share the stories behind the name. We collate authentic peer to peer real talk, while celebrating the growth and success thus far and gather a glimpse of what’s ahead.

Hi Sarah, it is great to meet you! Please could you introduce yourself, what Agreed Earth do, the stage you are at currently, and what makes your business offering unique?

Sarah: My name is Sarah Power, and I am a co-founder of Agreed and our mission is to accelerate the adoption of more sustainable farming practices. We came together as 3 co-founders last year, founding in July 2021. We met as part of a climate accelerator programme called Climate13 and came together of our mutual love of nature-based solutions and specifically the challenges and opportunities of the Agrifood sector. The Agrifood system and associated land-use more broadly causes nearly 25% of greenhouse gas emissions globally. However, it can also be a significant part of the solution and a way to mitigate some of the climate damage that we are seeing. Our mission is to drive the adoption of practices that can both reduce agricultural emissions and also help improve the quality of the soil and its potential to sequester carbon as well as improving biodiversity, water and air quality. We have a specific focus on the reduction of synthetic nitrogen fertiliser.

Do you mind discussing your background and your co-founder’s background further?

Sarah:  Absolutely. I’ve spent time working as a management consultant and also working in international development on various social impact programs. My focus and experience has been in landing and embedding change with different groups of people – new ways of working, new tech, changes to culture, behaviours and so on. One of my other co-founders Kelly (Price) is a biologist by academic training and has a passion for nature-based solutions – she loves her soil. Reed (Walker) is an electrical engineer by training and in the past has worked with NASA to help commercialise satellite data.

In terms of helping with the regenerative agricultural practices, how do you determine what works best?

Sarah:  Well, the first thing to be aware of is that every farm is different, every field is different and potentially every corner of a field is different so each farm would need to be assessed individually to understand the changes or practices that would suit that farm. We’re focused on unlocking transition financing and support for farmers to de-risk the move to more sustainable practices or operations. We’re a free service that connects them to other farmers that have similar operations and have made a change, then benchmark, measure and verify the reduction in emissions as a farmer transitions. This then helps banks and financial institutions with farming clients that are coming under increasing legislative requirements to disclose their climate risks, opportunities and emissions reductions plans.  

We are partnering with both sides. Partnering with banks to see how they can support farmers financially and equally supporting farmers with guidance, support, and community to help them decide what is the best practice for their farms as ultimately it is the farmers decision and their land. We provide a choice and the experience of other farmers who have made changes so that the farmers can ask others for advice and what worked.

It is so important to put farmers in contact with one another to stop their isolation, as some farmers have no neighbours i.e. – the farm is purely commercial and far removed from what we traditionally consider as a working farm.

Sarah: Yes, and that is where a lot of my background comes in; I have done a lot of work in change, helping different workforces and stakeholder groups move and adopt new ways of working. Some of the principles from behavioural science that we are applying are around the concepts of social proof and norms. We are more likely to adopt, or at least try, something new if we can see others doing it. We then feel included rather than excluded from a community and are more likely to persist with the change.

Moving to people, could you share some challenges you have faced, are currently facing or are anticipating around scaling and growing your team. Do you have any top tips you could give to businesses that you think will share the same issues?

Sarah:  We are at a really interesting stage as we are in the process of making our first perm hires. In the past year, we’ve been working with a fantastic group of contractors and consultants, but we are now ready to build out our core team. We’re really aware of the contribution that new joiners make to an early-stage start-up – to its culture, its growth, how we shape our product and services. We’re focused on getting the right skills, capabilities, and experience, but also the right values alignment. It’s really important that we spend time getting to know each other. By this I mean the company gets to know the potential employees, their vision, their values, where they want to go with their career as much as the candidate needs to get to know us as a small start-up; are we the right fit for them?

The other thing we are really focused on, and it ties into building a high-performing culture, is diversity. It is increasingly well understood that diverse teams perform better however it’s sometimes less well understood that it takes energy and purposeful leadership to make that diversity work, to integrate lots of different personalities, working styles, backgrounds etc.

That is true; when you are building a team at the early stages, you need that commonality and you might be drawn to people with similar backgrounds but you also need the diversity as someone could join the team with a completely different angle and help you think outside of the box.

Sarah:  Yes, and diversity is worth the extra effort, we know the return will be there.

Yes, absolutely. Moving to product, what has been your approach to understanding and implementing product market fit, or sales cycles?

Sarah: Regardless of your sector or business, it’s critical to understand your customer needs and requirements and the ‘value’ you can then create for them. You need to spend as much time as you can with your customer. Sometimes start-ups, or larger businesses even, come with a clear product idea and spend their time building and launching it rather than intimately understanding the problem to be solved. If you’re laser-focused on the problem you’ll understand your clients’ needs far better, and ultimately design something that better meets those needs.

It’s then important to get a first version of your product into customer hands quickly so you can get feedback as early as possible and evolve it accordingly.

The sales cycles question is an interesting one for us, as we’re working with large financial institutions where traditionally things don’t move particularly fast given the many different decision-points and stakeholders to work with. And the other group of people we’re working with, although they don’t pay for our services, is farmers who work to the agricultural cycles of sowing, harvesting and so on. We need to be mindful of both when it comes to not only sales but product development, piloting and launch.

Yes, absolutely. Having spoken to a few Agri-tech companies, the seasonality of agriculture cannot be overlooked. For potential, do mind sharing some challenges or barriers you have had to overcome when creating Agreed Earth?

Sarah: From a customer perspective, with banks for example, the first challenge can be getting the initial meetings so that people will take the time to share with you their needs but also listen to your proposal too. We have found that if you really understand the problem and can propose a solution that meets that problem and communicate this story well, people are generally open. From there it is how you turn the initial interest into a longer-term partnership and relationship. You need to be able to deliver on what you have agreed in that first conversation; you need to be able to show early evidence of how you will be able to meet their needs, so they are convinced of the longer term value.  

It is excellent that you can market regenerative practices to farmers as there are so many different avenues to reduce the environmental impact of agriculture.

Sarah: Yes; it’s really important to put yourself in the shoes of a farmer. Ultimately, they are running a business and there is often an added level of pressure and stress due to it being family-owned or run. If it is a family-owned farm, there will be a legacy and history of how previous generations have farmed the land, or different things that have worked or not from one year to the next. A change to a different way of operating is a financial risk that they must carry. Often, a farmer has to be 10 different roles in one, they have to be financial director, innovation director, HR manager, sourcing, never mind the land management and food production aspect. Sometimes farmers can be vilified for not making the move or the transition quickly enough, but understanding some of the pressures they are under, you appreciate that it’s not always as easy as it may seem from a remove.

Yes, I completely agree, especially given the cost of living getting increasingly high. In terms of the cost of food relative to income, it is actually at one of the lowest % rates that it has ever been. However, as soon as people think the price of food may increase, they blame farmers and don’t appreciate that the price of the food may have been undervalued previously, with the farmer not making a sufficient margin and being reliant on subsidies etc.

Sarah: Yes, it is similar to fuel poverty. The price of energy and food is such a challenge for all of us, but especially low-income households. The challenge is that we haven’t been paying the true cost of producing high-quality food in terms of externalities and the impact on air, water and broader climate. However, this doesn’t take away from the fact that we need to be able to provide quality food at a price that people can afford.

I think interestingly, one thing we are focused on which distinguishes us from other Agri-tech companies, is our focus on nitrogen fertiliser and how we can reduce the use of nitrogen fertiliser. This is in comparison to other Agri-techs being focused on carbon and carbon sequestration which is of course really important and comes with improved soil health. What we are focusing on is this entry-point, and right now it is even more meaningful as the price of nitrogen fertiliser has tripled since last year, from £200 a tonne (2021) to £900 a tonne (2022). This is directly related to the energy crisis and the Ukrainian war and the impact on food production is significant. By reducing the use of nitrogen fertiliser with the help of things like cover crops, low/ no till, rotational grazing there is the potential to reduce your environmental impact, improve the quality of your soil, and ultimately have a more robust operation. This simplifies the problem and solution of course, but it’s definitely one of the means to reducing agricultural emissions and improving soil, biodiversity, air and water quality.

It is also good that companies are looking into developing fertilisers and pesticides that do not bioaccumulate or bio magnify and are more pest specific.

Sarah: In connecting farmers with other farmers, we are also looking to connect them to new suppliers, for example bioorganic fertilisers and things. It is not that farmers don’t need inputs, but different types of inputs and tools that have a reduced environmental impact.

Yes, I agree; it is making sure farmers are aware of the new start-ups and products reaching the market, but luckily, they have you!

Sarah: Yes, that is the plan!

Investment can often be a challenge for start-ups and scale-ups; do you have any piece of wisdom you could share around best approach?

Sarah: You need to be resilient and be ready for the many conversations you will be having with potential customers and investors. Investors particularly are looking to your commitment – they want to see that you are passionate and in it for the long haul, so making sure that you are really focused and committed to the problem you want to solve is key

The other point is to have a good values and culture fit with your investor – having really open lines of communication, transparency and trust is always going to be the foundation of a good relationship.

Thank you for your time, Sarah!

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