Startup Foundations: Interview with Jayce Hafner

Greg Miaskiewiczby Greg Miaskiewicz • 10 min readpublished May 25, 2022 updated June 20, 2022
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Jayce Hafner is the CEO and co-founder of FarmRaise, a startup streamlining the process for agricultural grants and funding. As someone who grew up on a family’s farm, Jayce knows how difficult getting farm funding can be. Hence her decision to build FarmRaise and improve the access to funding for modernizing farm operations.

In our conversation with Jayce, we dig deeper into the funding situation of small and medium American farms, as well as Jayce's story and how she ended up building FarmRaise.

Jayce talks about how she met her co-founder while doing MBA research for her agricultural business studies, and how they've eventually decided to found FarmRaise. Jayce also shares how they've been able to leverage social media to get the initial traction with their customers.

We also discuss the innovation happening in the agricultural space, and what software tools are useful for farmers. Jayce shares her insights regarding the future of the agriculture and food tech industry and highlights the most important challenges lying ahead of us.

🎧 You can listen to the entire conversation here. 🎧

Greg: Tell us what you're working on at FarmRaise.

Jayce: At FarmRaise, we are building the end to end solution for financial access on the American farm. So we're building a full stack financial services platform that enables farmers to access and manage their funding in a way that gives them more time and more insights to empower their work out in the field.

Today a farmer uses FarmRaise to access a massive grant program that's administered by the US Department of Agriculture every year. It's billions of dollars every year, and it's called the Environmental Quality Incentives Program.

This is a conservation grant, so it enables climate-friendly agriculture and regenerative agriculture practices that build up soil health. And from the farmer's perspective, it's fantastic because it enables them to implement practices that not only make their farm more sustainable, but also make it more profitable like rotational grazing or cover crops or low tillage practices.

So that's our wedge and we're stacking on more grant programs this year that farmers can access as well as additional financial products.

G: How did you end up working on this specific product?

J: I was raised on 160 acre Angus beef cattle farm in Virginia Shenandoah valley. I grew up there as a kid and helped my dad manage our livestock business more on the goat side than on the cow side. But I do remember just how physically exhausting, mentally draining, and lonely farming could be as a profession. I remember every day, my dad would be absolutely exhausted and we had no energy or time or bandwidth or really tools to look at optimizing the business side of our farm business.

And because of that, we continued on with really razor thin margins as a farm business. Until when I was a teenager, we were able to access this same grant we're helping farmers get today, this Environmental Quality Incentives Program grant, we applied for it and were able to buy new fencing and water systems so that we could graze our cattle in a more regenerative and sustainable way.

We actually were able to move them holistically around the field with this new infrastructure that the grant funded. And with those new practices, we immediately saw those impacts across our land. The grass was much greener. The yields were much higher in terms of the hay we were producing and a ton of wildlife came back to our farm, which was really cool. But on the business side, we were able to reduce our costs by about $40 an acre because we could graze our cattle outside longer during the year and didn't have to buy feed inputs for them.

So it was great for the land. It was great for the cows and it was great for our business. So that was my first lens into farm funding as a kid and growing up, I just became obsessed with the opportunity to remove the economic barriers that farmers face when they want to implement these more regenerative and innovative farming practices.

G: How did you go about building your first product? Did you build everything in-house? Did you end up hiring an initial founding team of engineers or designers or other members?

J: So we ended up getting some initial accelerator funding and we went through pair VCs. And right before we went in, we had been building some MVPs, just the two of us in Typeform and Formstack that were simplified versions of applications for farm funding, just to see, would farmers use this? Would they pay for it? Would this make their lives easier? And we were seeing early signs of traction there. And so that then gave us confidence.

As we went into the accelerator, we had this goal of getting 500 farmers on a platform, applying for funding, using our products as a milestone over the summer. And neither one of us had a technical background in that sense. So we did end up going with a contractor to build a very basic workable MVP for us over that summer so we could begin that traction journey and during the accelerator, Sammy, and I, realized how much we wanted to have a technical co-founder on our team.

And we began that search in earnest to find that person who would be the third piece in that puzzle and our first investor, part of the pair team, one of many wonderful pair investors, Peshman, he sent out a tweet and a LinkedIn post for us.

Through that, we found our third co-founder Alberta Betty, who was full second engineer worked at Microsoft, Amazon, and then most recently a cyber security startup. He's also a product manager. He had great expertise on the end to end part of product development. And we were really thrilled to welcome him to the team. And he began to build our product out in earnest toward the end of the accelerator and stack on top of that prototype that we had built with the contractors.

G: Yeah. It's interesting how with no code solutions you can build a prototype and test the prototype without having to necessarily hire an engineer.

J: It was crucial. I mean, it seemed like it was the first step in de-risking this opportunity and every step of the way is about just testing that risk. Right? And so it was a good way to begin to push on that.

G: How did you find the first users for the platform? So did you hit your goal of 500 during the accelerator and how did you find them?

I joined a bunch of farmer Facebook groups and just started talking with farmers on Facebook. And I talked about my own farm there too. I think having a farm and having those experiences and bringing them to the table helped as an entry way. But then I would just ask farmers questions about what types of funding they were trying to access, what types of banks they'd had good experiences with, what was lacking. And if they really engaged, I would often take those conversations into private chat and share what I was building and get an MVP in front of them and ask for feedback and they would sign up. We'd find that every time we'd post on a Facebook page, we'd have around five farmers sign up for our platform, which was a great early way to get users without spending any marketing dollars.

And that ended up having compounding organic growth effects for us as we then created our own Facebook group around farm funding. And within a few days we had a thousand farmers on there and that helped us keep the conversation going in an efficient way and FarmRaise dedicated space. So Facebook was great. And I think it actually speaks a lot to a trend that's happening in agriculture right now, which is that even 30 years ago, when farmers would share ideas about products or tools or practices they wanted to implement in their fields, they would share that information at church or at their local input seeds chemicals fertilizer cooperative, where they'd go up and pick it up every Saturday and then talk to farmers there, or maybe at a farmer organization where they go and hang out.

But now a lot of that chatter is moving online. Farmer Twitter is hot. Farmer TikTok is bumping. Like there is a lot of social media activity and we were able to really capitalize that in organic way early on at FarmRaise. And we're going to continue building on that. It's one of our poor go-to market strategies. We've seen a ton of traction with organic and we want to continue building that out.

G: What are the other interesting software products that exist for farmers?

J: This is a transforming field that's happening so fast right now because there are lots of tech products popping up that farmers are engaging and using. And most of them are still very early stage, but it's really exciting. I had this bias even after growing up on a farm, I had this bias when I started FarmRaise that farmers would not be early adopters of technology, which is totally wrong.

Farmers have been adopting technology that is cutting-edge since long before the farming in the United States. But farming, as we know it, and you see that today with farmers using state-of-the-art machinery to process, to harvest, and to manage their crops. And that translates to phone apps as well. In terms of tech that farmers use every day.

First thing farmers will check when they wake up in the morning is their weather app. They also will hop on the successful farmer platform and want to check their local market prices. Like what is a pound of this type of produce going for at the grain bin or what is a pound of Angus beef cattle cut going for? They'll want to look at that sort of thing, but there's also this element of optimizing and managing the farm operation that's taking off too.

And that's where it comes back to this question of what should I plant per acre and how will that maximize my yield and therefore maximize my bottom line? And there's some interesting applications that are coming to the forefront there. I mean, Granular is a really interesting one that has gotten some traction over the past five years and that assists farmers in agronomically managing their fields and understanding yield optimization and inputs and other aspects of the growing process in a way that's digitized. Barn to Door, a great direct to consumer app that helps farmers optimize how they market directly to consumers and just making that process more efficient.

G: How do you see the world of agriculture changing in the next, let's say 10 years? Do you think there will be radical shifts? Like for example, vertical farms supplying produce to urban areas or a shift from eating meat to lab grown meat, how do you feel the future of food and food technology and agriculture technology will take shape in the next decade?

J: I'm so excited to be a part of food and agriculture today and moving into the next 10 years because we are going to see radical shifts like this. And it's going to be really challenging because you see this in the news. It's not just the west now, it's the Midwest too, is dealing with severe resource water constraints. So we're going to have to be really creative and innovative in terms of how we produce food moving forward.

And we're seeing this with farmers, we're seeing customers coming into our pipeline that are vertical farmers, aquaponics farmers, urban growers, who are looking to produce locally for their urban communities. And we're really excited about that. I think there definitely is a growing market for lab growing meats, and we're going to see more innovation on that front too. And when you look at the need for protein rich food that is produced in a cost-efficient way and a resource efficient way, you're not going to see farming as we know it in the Midwest with these row crops.

In addition to, I think a lot of livestock producers, as you see and know them today, I think that they are going to be part of that landscape continuing into the decade as well, because we will need that type of farming too. And that type of farming will need to change drastically. We are going to have to shift to a more regenerative paradigm if we're going to be able to meet the needs of the future. And when I say make that shift, I really mean invest in the soil health of every farm so that it is not depleted and we can continue to grow and to produce in a way that is sustainable and also humane to the livestock that are growing there. I suspect that we'll see a decrease in livestock production potentially, or a change in how that happens over the next 10 years as more awareness continues to rise about confined animal operations and more innovative ways to graze cattle outside.

But I don't think livestock production is going away anytime soon. And I'm a big believer in making a transition on livestock production in a way that's more sustainable and humane to the cows so that you can enable those types of regenerative grazing outcomes. Wwhat I think is really interesting as we talk about making a transition to more regenerative and sustainable farming outcomes is how can the farmer really capture value in this transition? You know, not just make a change because they are going to be penalized if they don't, but how can they capture premium at market because they're actually producing that food in a better way and in a way that reduces that environmental burden.

That's part of something we're thinking about at FarmRaise, there's a lot of frostiness and interest and carbon markets popping up in agriculture now that compensate farmers for adopting soil health practices, if they sequester carbon as part of that. And there are a lot of outstanding questions around those carbon markets that I think will need to be answered as they scale if they are to scale viably, but I'm really excited to be part of those conversations and to enable those types of regenerative practices. I mean, really the heart of FarmRaise is to make farming a sustainable and profitable enterprise for the next generation.

G: What are some things that you wish you'd known when you were first starting your startup that you know now almost two years in?

It's hard to celebrate yourself as a founder. I think we rarely get appreciation from other sources and often I think we're slow to give it to ourselves, but the more that we can celebrate each other and those small wins, the more we realize, hey, this is a really crazy cool adventure that we're on. And so taking that approach, I wish I'd seized that earlier on, but I'm actively trying to do that more and more now and looking for other folks to hold me accountable to that and also to just enjoy the ride.

G: Well, thanks for joining us on the show, and thanks for sharing about how you built FarmRaise!

J: Thank you so much for this opportunity. I really enjoyed our conversation.

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Greg Miaskiewicz

Security expert, product designer & serial entrepreneur. Sold previous startup to Integral Ad Science in 2016, where he led a fraud R&D team leading up to a $850M+ purchase by Vista in 2018.

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