Always Be Learning: One of my professors said that his classes were letters to his future students. They might open the letter during the class, the following week, in a year’s time, or never. But that framework, or understanding that everything is a lesson, even if I don’t grasp it at the moment, has been really powerful for transforming the way I look at my business and the way I learn from my mistakes.
Modern farming is actually very different from common conceptions. Farming today is dramatically different from the farming done a few decades ago. In this interview series called The Future Of Modern American Farming, we are exploring the modern technological changes that American farms have been making. We are also exploring how farmers are adjusting to the supply chain challenges, the challenges of climate change, and the challenges of sustainable farming.
As a part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Connor Harbison.
Connor Harbison is a 3x startup founder who is currently finishing his MBA at Babson College. Before moving to Boston, Connor lived in Bozeman, Montana, where he led a startup accelerator, coached 1000 early stage entrepreneurs, and served as an AmeriCorps VISTA helping members of underserved groups start businesses. Like the Fresh Prince, Connor was born in West Philadelphia, and though he has been vegetarian for over two years, he has strong opinions about cheesesteaks.https://cdn.embedly.com/widgets/media.html?src=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.youtube.com%2Fembed%2FXdjpEdGZSmI%3Ffeature%3Doembed&display_name=YouTube&url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.youtube.com%2Fwatch%3Fv%3DXdjpEdGZSmI&image=https%3A%2F%2Fi.ytimg.com%2Fvi%2FXdjpEdGZSmI%2Fhqdefault.jpg&key=a19fcc184b9711e1b4764040d3dc5c07&type=text%2Fhtml&schema=youtube
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
Thank you so much for having me. I’m excited for our conversation. I had sort of an indirect path to this career. I studied history in college, but after graduation I moved to Montana to do a year of service with AmeriCorps. While living in the Rocky Mountains, I did a ton of hiking and camping in the National Parks. My absolute favorite park is Grand Teton, and it was during my first trip there that I stumbled on the concept of vertical farming.
I was coming off a day-long hike, and I was all dusty and sweaty from the trial. I drove into Jackson to get a beer, and as I was walking to the brewery, I saw this amazing building made out of glass and steel, with magenta lights inside. The sign on the building said Vertical Harvest, and a quick google told me it was a vertical farm. This idea blew my mind, because I had a very fixed idea of what agriculture could be. And after that encounter, I didn’t really think about it for three years.
It wasn’t until I was starting business school that I revisited the idea of vertical farming. I had a few ideas, but the one area I kept returning to was food supply in cities. Vertical farming seemed like the perfect solution to food deserts and other supply challenges. Why not just build one of these farms in every neighborhood? Unfortunately, it’s slightly more complicated than that, but over the last year and a half, I’ve pivoted several times and learned a ton. I started growing food in my own apartment, starting with herbs and moving on to fruit and leafy greens, and then I built my own hydroponic tower. From there, I expanded to a network of these towers, and now we’re growing food in places you’d never expect. And it was all because of a hike I took in Wyoming.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began this fascinating career?
I was astonished when my first seeds sprouted, and even more so when they grew to maturity and I was able to harvest and eat the food that I’d grown. As someone who hasn’t been in this field for very long, it was incredible to see these little seeds start to send out little green tendrils, then leaves, and finally grow into recognizable crops. I think the growth process for plants is so fascinating, and anyone who has met me will tell you I kind of geek out whenever I get to speak about it. There are so many factors that go into it, and I find that our urban, indoor sprouting is a very delicate process. Luckily, I love solving puzzles, and that’s how I approach this whole endeavor. But I have to tell you, when those first seeds germinated, it was a feeling of “I can do this, I can grow food” and that was beyond empowering.
You are a successful leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
Stubbornness — I think anytime you’re trying to do something new, there’ll be people who don’t get it. Sometimes they’ll even be powerful people, or have a lot of experience in the field you’re trying to change, and it might seem as though they know something you don’t know. The thing that kept me going was remembering that each person has a limited experience, and that one person raining on my parade was just that — one person. It may not be the healthiest trait, but when I have these conversations where people absolutely trash my ideas, it puts me in a mindset where I want to go prove them wrong. I remember speaking to a local entrepreneur about my idea, and he tore me apart. He said I had no idea what I was talking about, that I needed to start from the beginning, that I was nowhere near ready for anything. I took that sentiment, built my first tower, and started growing.
Willingness to learn new things — When I was 25 I taught myself to code in order to launch a software startup. At 27 I went back to school to learn finance and accounting, even though I hated math. Now, at 28, I’ve learned how to be a hydroponic farmer. I think the learning process never really ends, and everything is a lesson, even if you don’t achieve what you wanted to achieve. I talk to people all the time who say they have a brown thumb, and that they could never farm or garden because they kill plants. I’ve killed more plants than all my friends combined, but all of those mistakes have been lessons for me to get better. Now, I’m pretty good at what I do, but I go into every day looking for new ways to keep adding to my knowledge.
Comfort with uncertainty — So much of farming is out of your control. What if a storm happens? What if your harvest goes bad? I think getting comfortable with not knowing is a really great skill for life, but especially useful in farming. Probably the greatest example of this in my life was when I moved to Montana, to help members of underserved communities start businesses. I had no idea what I was getting into, but it felt like there were tons of opportunities. I’ll also say that had I not taken the leap and moved across the country on two weeks’ notice, I never would have gotten into farming, and my life would be much different today.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
One of my mentors once told me “find your unlevered advantage.” He meant that you should find the things that you are naturally great at, the areas where you have an unfair advantage, and go all in on them. Michael Phelps might make a fine accountant, but he shouldn’t be anything but a swimmer because he has such an advantage over the competition. It took some time to figure out what my unlevered advantage was, but I eventually figured out that I’m an autodidact, and very good at teaching myself to do things. I taught myself to code and published software in three months for my first startup, and it took me about six months to figure out hydroponics. I approach everything like a lesson, and analyze it afterwards so that I can improve the next time. A great example of this process would be our seedling nursery, which has cut costs by 94%. Unfortunately, the process is a little uneven so far, but I’ve been able to observe and learn from my mistakes (I’ve easily killed more than a hundred plants in the last couple weeks) and we’re on our way to sustainable growth, both financially and environmentally.
Can you share something about your work that makes you most proud? Is there a particular story or incident that you found most uplifting?
I’m particularly proud of a salad I made for my friends from some of the lettuce in my second harvest. We grew more lettuce than we’d anticipated, so I took some of the extra and prepared a salad for my friend’s birthday dinner party. It was a super simple salad, just the lettuce with some lemon cream dressing, thinly sliced cabbage for the crunch, green onions, mint, and sunflower seeds. Everyone at the party loved it, and came back for seconds. I was so happy that I was able to grow this lettuce, turn it into a delicious dish, and share it with the people I care about. This is how food should be; sensory, delicious, inviting, and communal. It’s my mission to help make this sort of experience something everyone can share in.
Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about Modern Farming. It seems that most industries have all converted to tech and modernized their old ways. Can you share with our readers a few of the ways that modern farming has modernized? Can you share how tech has improved your business model?
Our business model doesn’t work without technology. I think the most interesting thing is the way hydroponics and vertical farming have changed the industry. The traditional image of a farm is a big field, maybe there’s a barn and some cows, but I really don’t think that’s going to be what farming looks like in the future. with with Hydroponics you can really grow food anywhere you know you need light in water you need nutrients and that’s about it so you you’re not going to need to grow food in the Central Valley of California or in the midwest or wherever else you might do you can have a farm in New York City you can have a farm in down town of wherever and I think the really interesting questions are what happens after that how do people respond how does society begin to rearrange itself around these new farms and that’s what I’m interested in that’s what Atlas is all about.
Do you think modernization for farming is a slower process than for other industries? Can you explain what you mean?
Absolutely, I think modernization is slower in this field than in other industries. Think about a software company that can implement a new piece of code and run it and get their results almost instantly. With farming, you have to wait until the crops grow in order to see if your change to the process was successful, which takes a lot longer. I think the iteration cycle is slower in farming than in other industries, which limits the pace of modernization and innovation.
Are there farms resisting the “tech bandwagon”? Why do you think this is so?
I think the challenge is twofold, partially for farmers and partially for consumers. Firstly, farming is a very traditional practice. One of the things I always keep in mind with agriculture is how long we have been doing it. Humans started farming 12,000 years ago. That’s twice as long as we’ve been writing. So I think there are some very deeply ingrained traditions in this field. Trying something new could possibly kill your whole crop, and that could cause your farm to go bankrupt. So I think there’s a level of deliberateness, rather than what you see in the tech industry where it’s “to the moon” and there’s no such thing as too fast.
On the customer side, you also have to deal with public perceptions about food supply (and there is so much work that needs to be done about food education). But I think one reason for hesitancy about technology adoption in agriculture could be a perceived hesitancy from customers, who don’t want to buy crops grown with the latest technology. I’ve encountered some of this with my hydroponic farms. It blows people’s minds when I tell them we don’t use any soil, but once I explain how things work (and that we use 95% less water than traditional agriculture) they are fully on board.
With all that being said, farmers are some of the most innovative people out there, and some of the technology that’s coming to market is unbelievable. So just like any big industry, you’ll see rapid adoption of technology, but also extreme hesitancy.
The idea of farming has a very romantic and idyllic character to it, especially to some people living in a busy cosmopolitan context. Do you think now would be a good time for younger people with no farming history to get involved in the farming industry? Can you explain what you mean?
Absolutely. I think every industry needs new people to come in and disrupt it. We also need people with sustainability on their mind. With that being said, I don’t see any conflict between cosmopolitanism on the one hand, and the romantic ideal of farming on the other. My company, Atlas Urban Farms, is focused on bringing food production into spaces that you’d never expect to have any agriculture, like coworking spaces. I don’t think there’s any turning back the clock; we’re not going back to a time when most people had a small farm and that’s their job. But technology like hydroponics, LED lighting, and IoT sensors can make urban farming feasible, and bring a bit of that green nostalgia into our more cosmopolitan places.
Where should a young person start if they would like to “get into” farming?
Buy some seeds, soil, pot at your local hardware store. It’ll cost you $10 or $12. Alternatively, you can try propagating herbs (placing cuttings in water until they grow roots, then putting them in soil). Actually you don’t even need soil; I started with broccoli sprouts, which take about 5 days to grow, are unbelievably healthy (look up “cancer sulforaphane”) and all you need are seeds and a mason jar. Anyone can be a farmer, and you don’t need to have acres of land under cultivation to start growing delicious food that’s also good for the environment.
How does inflation affect farms? What steps have you taken to keep costs down?
Inflation absolutely affects farming, both from the supply side and from the customers’ side. One thing we did recently was bring our seedling growth in-house. This allowed us to cut related costs by 94%, have greater control over our supply chain, and ensure a higher survivability rate for the seedlings. There were certainly some hiccups early on as we tested out sprouting systems, but we’ve gotten it pretty dialed in, and we only expect this process to get more cost efficient in the future, which means passing those savings on to our customers.
There are of course different revenue streams that can be generated from a farm. What are your current avenues of profiting from your farm? What would you suggest to other farm owners to add to expand their revenue streams?
Alternative revenue streams are the whole point of Atlas Urban Farms. We don’t sell food, we sell the experience. I would recommend using low margin products (like the food you grow) to bring customers into high margin areas (events, value-added products, etc.). For other farmers, I’d recommend getting creative. Can you create and monetize online content? You might offer tours of your farm, or have pick-your-own events (which also reduces your labor cost). There are plenty of ways to make money as a farmer that don’t involve directly selling your produce, but they take a little bit of lateral thinking to get to them.
Here is the main question of our interview. Can you please share your “5 Things That Need To Create A Successful Career In the Modern Farming Industry”? If you can, please share a story or example for each.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Probably Robin Pierson, the host of the ‘History of Byzantium’ podcast. I’m a huge history nerd (that’s what I studied in undergrad) and I’ve been particularly interested in the Byzantine period. There’s a lot to learn about, and the podcast has been great to throw on while I cook or do chores around my apartment.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Our website, Instagram, and LinkedIn
Atlasurbanfarms.com, @atlasurbanfarms on Instagram and https://www.linkedin.com/company/atlas-urban-farms/about/
This was very meaningful, thank you so much, and we wish you only continued success.
Thank you! I enjoyed this conversation, and really appreciate your interest.