Agtools brings decades of data and agricultural expertise to bear on the global problems of food waste and market efficiency
by Dave McKenna, Editor CREB on September 1, 2020
Martha Montoya is the Founder and CEO of Agtools, a food supply-chain analytics platform designed to help secure the food supply, optimize the efficiency of markets, and help farmers thrive. The Colombian-born founder, is a former professional tennis player and holds degrees in Chemistry and Biology. She has overcome many obstacles along the way to launching Agtools.
One inspiration on her journey was a chance meeting with Mr. Phil Roman, the five-time Emmy winning animator. Roman was the lead animator for How the Grinch Stole Christmas. He founded several production companies and produced shows like The Simpsons, The King of the Hill, and Garfield. He was nominated for a total of fifteen Emmy Awards and won five times.
“Mr. Roman was an Hispanic man who started life harvesting fruits in Salinas, CA. He eventually became a world famous animator,” said Montoya.”He said to me, ‘keep your eye on the ball. Stay focused on your goal – like a horse with blinders – not distracted by things to the left or the right. And eventually, you will get to where you want to go.'”
Montoya is laser focused and on a mission. She is turning her education in Science and her decades of experience in agriculture to the challenge of the global food supply-chain and farm health.
Awarding Winning System for a Time of Crisis
Agtools won the 2020 Best Investment Opportunity Award in June and is fighting to keep farmers on their farms by arming them with data. Utilizing twenty-five years of market reporting, weather information, and 76 other factors, Agtools analytics helps farmers and commodity buyers optimize the food supply chain globally by reducing waste and improving profitability.
In times of global crisis, we naturally concern ourselves with the “essentials”. Essential workers, essential relationships, essential travel, and of course toilet paper. Food is perhaps the most essential of the essentials, and the pandemic has highlighted just how dependent we are on the global supplies chains which bring food to our tables. Interrupt that, and things get serious very fast.
But its first mission is to help farmers (the most essential workers of this universally important industry) to be more profitable and to stay on their land.
Food distribution worldwide is grossly inefficient as is evidenced by the volume of waste in the system. The wasted food is not only ethically troubling, it is very expensive. The current levels of waste drain resources from the earth and profits from farms. Impacting a global problem like food waste could be a game changer for farmers. Montoya believes that giving farmers and commodity buyers better data and analytical tools will make the entire system more profitable and sustainable.
Montoya gained a love of science from her parents who were prominent academics in her home country of Columbia. She also learned to love the land and those who work it from her family which also owned a large coffee farm. After completing her scientific education in Chemistry and Biology, Montoya began her career as a commodities buyer for a food company in Newport Beach, CA. Her search for produce like strawberries and bananas gradually opened the whole world to her. “Like a giant cobweb,” said Montoya. “It is all connected.”
She learned from local farmers from Thailand to Spain to Morocco how the global food market draws producers into global competition and how the market forces stress their business, and their way of life.
Montoya also witnessed the enormous waste and market inefficiencies in the global produce industry. The numbers are staggering. According to Montoya, 62,500 truckloads of produce are discarded every single day around the world. If those trucks were stacked one on top of the other, the vertical convoy would reach 160 miles into the sky. You could climb up to the International Space Station on a stack that high. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that the United States wastes 30-40% of its food supply, amounting to $162 billion per year. “You would never run a company this way, yet that is the way we live today,” said Montoya.
Montoya sees the inherent waste in global food distribution as an enormous opportunity for Agtools to enhance the profitability of the farmer. And profitable farmers stay on their farms, they help ensure a more secure food supply, and reduce the ecological burden of feeding a hungry world.
A key insight is that a great deal of the waste occurs even before the food reaches supermarkets. The global supply chain of produce and commodity agriculture is a consignment industry in which the farmers are only paid for their crops if-and-when they are accepted for delivery at a processing center. The farmer bears the entire risk from the time the seeds are sown to the time the harvested product arrives and are accepted. If the container is refused for any reason, the farmer suffers a complete loss and the food is discarded. Agtools applies current data science to the enormous volumes of data available in agriculture to aid farmers in selecting crops, timing planting, and selecting the optimum harvest windows to maximize successful deliveries. “The idea is that the farmer can forecast how the market is likely to behave, given historical data. For example, if in the last five years there has been a market behavior in a certain time, the farmer can plan his harvest time to optimize the return,” said Montoya.
Founder of Color
Founding a startup is hard under the best of circumstances, but Montoya has also had to confront racial attitudes as well. When she first arrived in the U.S. twenty-five years ago, she visited a tennis club to help keep her skills sharp. When she got off the elevator she was told she was in the wrong place. “I thought, ‘there must be a different elevator for the players?’ But no. They did not want me there because I had a different skin color than theirs. They assumed I was a caddie, not a player! I was very naive,” said Montoya. Through tenacity and talent, Montoya was overcame that barrier and was able to play.
Her experience as a founder of color hasn’t been much different than that at the tennis club. “There is agtech in Silicon Valley, which does not have a great track record with women and minorities to begin with. It is just white-guys investing in other white-guys. It is like a club. Millions-and-millions are invested and often they very have little real farm experience.” But staying focused on her goal, like Mr. Roman encouraged her, continues to inspire Montoya to stay the course and overcome the on-going challenges.
Not Here to Flip a Business
Montoya takes the long view. Agriculture is a very old human endeavor. Its rhythms seem to promote patience and moderation. Nothing happens overnight in agriculture as the earth makes her annual circuit, all the plans of men must await her Judgement. “The payback periods in agriculture are very long. It takes, on average seven years, to determine if an investment pays off — twelve years for citrus. You cannot just try something new and expect to know if it works in a few months,” said Montoya.
Agtools is more than a startup to Montoya –it is her mission and passion. “We are not in this to flip the business like a house. We are doing this to help the farmers and make sure we have food for the coming generations. The way we do that is keeping our farmers healthy,” said Montoya. Healthy farmers and a healthy environment are the vision. “Agtool is about sustainability”, said Montoya. Less waste will lower the carbon footprint because less food is cultivated only to be thrown out, and thousands of trucks are taken off the road that are delivering food no one will ever eat. Less water, less soil, fewer chemicals when you reduce the waste,” said Montoya.
Montoya is methodical and determined like the scientist and athlete she is. Her passion for the mission is deep and her fortitude is granite-hard. Agtools will help save money, soil, fuel, and farms. She is not pursuing riches necessarily, but a commonwealth. “Everything comes from nature, even the silicon in your computer starts with nature as a commodity. Agtools was created to see all the phenomenological faces of nature and not just the market. If we can be humble enough to understand that everything starts from the earth, and study the data, we can make things better.”