When Carlo Borquez Schwarzbeck was growing up he always loved the work he saw going on around his family’s farm. But without the aptitude for it, Schwarzbeck chose to go the business school route. Now, with his Los Angeles-based startup ProducePay, Schwarzbeck says he’s giving back to the communities that nurtured him.
His company has just raised $77 million in equity and debt to provide financing to farmers of perishable goods. While there are all sorts of financial instruments for certain types of farmland — including billion-dollar investment funds for timberland, and certain kinds of non-perishable crops — most fruits and vegetables aren’t considered good prospects for loans.
ProducePay has come up with a model that works for those farmers whose crops can’t be siloed or stored.
For Schwarzbeck it’s a means of doing his part for the Agricultural 2050 Challenge. Scientists estimate that agricultural yields and farming methodologies will need to change to support the projected global population of 9 billion people by 2050. For some investors, like the group behind the 2014 Farm 2050 initiative (Innovation Endeavors and Flextronics’ Lab IX), that means investment in technology.
But Schwarzbeck argues that financing is a critical component of any battle to improve farm yields. “What many people don’t realize is that one of the biggest impediments to agricultural supply growth is the proper allocation of funds to the folks who otherwise have the means to either begin farming or increase their current production,” Schwarzbeck says.
ProducePay reaches out to farms to buy their crops at a price that the company sets up front, then goes out and sells those crops on the market. If the company breaks even, the farmer doesn’t owe a cent. If the company makes a profit, the profits are returned to the farmer minus a commission or percentage of the profit that ProducePay collects.
For the farmer, it’s a way to guarantee income on the front end so they can invest in infrastructure projects that will eventually further improve yields and farm operations, according to Schwarzbeck.
And by using the crop as collateral, Schwarzbeck’s company manages to avoid forcing farmers to put up their farms as collateral — the phenomenon that forced many farmers into bankruptcy in the 80s and hastened the advent of industrial farming.
Lead investor CoVenture was impressed enough with the company’s innovative approach to financing to double down on its initial seed investment in ProducePay. CoVenture committed roughly $5 million of the $7 million equity round, and arranged the $70 million debt facility for the company. Additional equity investors included previous investors Menlo Ventures, Arena Ventures, CoVenture, Red Bear Angels and Social Leverage.
“It’s almost like a [software-as-a-service] company with a finance arm attached to it,” says Ali Hamed, a CoVenture partner and director on the ProducePay board. “We at CoVenture like extending credit to people who traditionally have been totally screwed by the financial system… and farmers in Latin America are near the top of that list.”
The importance of access to capital as a tool for social mobility can’t be overstated. By providing additional lines of financing to farmers — without the risk of losing their livelihoods — ProducePay can let farms make significant improvements, Hamed says (echoing Schwarzbeck).
“Fresh produce cultivation and harvest practices are very labor intensive, which translates to huge upfront capital needs, many folks who have the natural resources and disposition to go into farming or invest in infrastructure improvements for higher yields, cannot go ahead with their projects due to lack of capital,” Schwarzbeck wrote to me in an email.
For the farmer, the difference is huge.
“Instead of once a year risking their livelihood and their families’ livelihoods, there is now a fair loan product that lets them maximize their business and not wonder if they’re going to be around this year or next year or not,” Hamed says.