Of Haymakers and Rainmakers

2012 Panopticonopolis over at The Pinprick of Desire:

Recently, I went to a panel discussion on urban agriculture at the Kellen Gallery, part of the Living Concrete/Carrot City exhibition. To anyone tuned into the food debate in the New York area, familiar sentiments were on display: scrappy entrepreneurs with a love for farming and/or eating, nurturing their holistic vision of a just society, itself replete with happy farmers tilling ever-healthier soil, which in turn produces nutritious fare for contented locavores, farmer’s-market enthusiasts, schoolkids, or [insert your constituency here], building greater community while lessening our carbon footprint, etc.

Being the happy curmudgeon, I was glad to sneak in the following during Q&A:

“Aerofarm is a startup that is only a few years old. Their model does not have anything to do with creating community, or building soil health, or even encouraging food awareness or organic agriculture. They have developed technology that allows people to grow food in enclosed spaces, without sunlight, without soil, even. They recently received $500,000 in seed funding from several venture capital groups. Is there room for everyone to play in this space, or does Aerofarm, etc represent a threat to the vision of (urban) agriculture as implicitly envisioned by this panel and the food movement as we know it in general?”

It was disappointing to see the panel – or what takers there were – squirm their way through this question. One posited that “hydroponic agriculture” is a tremendous waste of resources. This may be or may not be true, but the fact is that Aerofarm is not a hydroponic operation. Another was concerned with the fact that Aerofarm was going to dilute the nascent “brand” of urban agriculture. No one really understood that my question was about money.

So what, exactly, does $500,000 “mean”? Let’s compare Aerofarm’s seed funding with the MacArthur Genius Grant, which itself is $500,000.

According to the MacArthur Foundation’s website, “MacArthur Fellows Program awards unrestricted fellowships to talented individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction.” This essentially means that you have been busting your hump for a good chunk of your life before the Genius Grant smiles on you, eg: Will Allen, MacArthur 2008.

In fact, it was Cheryl Rogowski, not Allen, who was recognized as the first farmer-recipient by MacArthur, and that was in 2004. She has been farming since 1983. Wags might point out that people have been, in fact, farming for quite a bit longer than that. Nevertheless, in business school parlance, 20 years is one hell of a product development cycle.