One Year In, Seven Learnings

Plus! 11 hours left (and counting) to avail 50% discount offer on the subscription of Agribusiness Matters and become 2X wiser in matters of agribusiness.

October 13th, 2020. Fully sensing the uneasy pit feeling in my stomach, I mustered the courage to turn on the paywall for this newsletter. Although my LinkedIn newsletter was more than two years old, the substack newsletter was a four-month baby. As soon as I hit send, Nipun Mehrotra (Founder of Agri Collaboratory) wrote a beautiful email and signed up as the first subscriber. It was the sweetest email alert of my life that carried a heartwarming message: I wasn’t writing into a vacuum.

Somewhere, something was happening.

One Year in, my newsletter revenues look like this with 70+ members in the Agribusiness Matters Community.

Now that I am talking of revenues, let me share with you my next goal: I want to reach $100K ARR well before I get ready to write Two Years In, Seven Learnings (I am superstitious about 7) on October 13th, 2022.

How can you help me achieve the next goal? For starters, you can recommend this newsletter to your folks if you’ve found it valuable. I haven’t really done a good job of promoting the newsletter.

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I’ve been blogging since 2007 mostly for esoteric reasons. I mean, there are people who blog for careers, jobs, and money. And believe it or not, there are people who blog because they are enchanted by how the blogging medium mirrors the fluid nature of human perceptions.

I’ll be honest. It feels preposterous to think that somebody would pay to read my fleeting thoughts about a domain that is rapidly evolving in front of my eyes.  

Even today, it feels surreal, given the fact that most of my writing is detailed, but fun note to myself, mostly written in a first-person account, trying to explain along what I am reading, spotting trends, listening, and sensing from ground truths (sic), and connecting the dots together using frameworks of history, complexity, strategy, and technology.

I had turned on the paywall with 399 INR a month (3999 INR per year)and earlier this June, I kickstarted Season 2 of this newsletter and tripled the amount with an 1199 INR a month (11999 INR a year) subscription.

It helped to receive kind emails from subscribers saying that what they were getting is WAY more than what they were paying.

I had also introduced a new patron/sponsor tier, Agritech Partner in Crime subscription for fervent readers of this newsletter to collaborate for ongoing research projects. Soon after, Mark Kahn, who tops the leaderboard for deep readers of this newsletter, signed up to become a partner in crime in the truest sense of the word, with research and collaboration in emerging frontiers of Agribusiness. 

Today, with 70+ paid subscribers so far from India, US, Canada, and Europe, the Agribusiness Matters community is steadily growing. I am also exploring newer research themes (Climate Change, Sustainability, Agri biotech) and exploring new ways to collaborate and engage with the agritech and the larger agribusiness ecosystem.

I am not a journalist. I work as an independent consultant in this domain and my hunt for insight is a question of my survival and my skin in the game. My objective in writing Agribusiness Matters is straightforward: In order to survive and thrive in the future, how can we grapple with vexing questions of food, agribusiness, and digital transformation in an era of Climate change?

These are vexing questions because issues surrounding food, agriculture, climate change are complex, involving warm data (data with context), and not cold data (data without context).

And when you are talking of complex domains of food and agriculture, you can't neatly isolate the problem from the solution. Every problem we define and every solution we propose to the agritech table for farmers has life-changing (good or bad) repercussions for farmers.

This is a matter of great responsibility. To celebrate the first anniversary of turning on the paywall, I am offering 50% off on annual subscriptions. This offer will be available for the next 11 hours (and lesser).

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Now that all the niceties are done, I want to share seven brief learnings from writing Agribusiness Matters in the first year.

Seven Lessons from Dancing with Food and Agriculture Systems

Shortly before she died of cerebral meningitis in 2001, Donella Meadows, lead author of the famous 1972 Club of Rome Report - the definitive critique of economic growth which heralded the Sustainability movement- was working on a manuscript.

She wanted to share how she applied the concepts and tools of Systems Thinking to sustainability and distill her 30 years of working in the field of sustainability consultancy, research, and education.

Before Living with Systems was published, excerpts from her work were published by the Whole Earth Review under the title ‘Dancing with Systems’ (Meadows, 2001).

It’s one of my all-time favorite pieces of the Internet. The title of the essay came from her central insight:

We can’t control systems or figure them out. But we can dance with them!

When I re-read her essay recently, I realized that her take-home lessons aptly summarize what I have discovered willy-nilly from modeling food and agriculture systems and writing this newsletter to further refine those models.

It’s hard to digest, but that’s the truth. Everything you know is ultimately a model. And always remember the golden rule: The map is not the territory.

1) Get the beat

Whether it is crop sowing data, or commodities fluctuation data, or macro indicators like Producer support Estimate, one of the best perks of agribusiness is that there is plenty of data to study the beat: You can study the behavior of the system that you are trying to change.

But there’s a catch. You are going to deceive yourself if you are only measuring nouns and not verbs. God save you if you still swear by that hackneyed phrase: If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.

In his brilliant essay, Economics in Nouns and Verbs, W. Brian Arthur describes some of the distortions that noun-restricted metrics produce. Although he wrote about the problem of nouns in economic theory, his insights are absolutely critical in the domain of ecology and agribusiness.

Take any metric you love. They are quantitative nouns — a rate of something, an amount of something, a percentage of something. These quantitative nouns fail to describe matters related to processes, formation, adjustment, and creation. In short, they are oblivious of matters of non-equilibrium.

I deconstructed the Producer Support Estimate metric in this context and its limitations a few moons ago.

I am not talking about dismissing nouns completely. KPIs, measures are good. The real problem happens when we idealize them. As I wrote in my Producer Support Estimate essay,

“Metrics have ring-like qualities.

They can be addictive (Who doesn’t want to slay the beast of complexity inside a system?) and often have a strange will of their own. If you don’t pay attention, they can create a spell and transform, for worse, the very system you are trying to manage.

If you don’t believe me, ask the British economist Goodhart who coined Goodhart’s law in 1975 in response to Margaret Thatcher’s trigger-bound monetary policy.

Any observed statistical regularity will tend to collapse once pressure is placed upon it for control purposes.

Verbs describe actions.

And agriculture is teeming with actions.

And in order to capture verbs along with nouns, you need algorithms that can handle processes, objects, and quantities. Computational agriculture has terrific potential to discover beats faster than humans. However, we have a lot of groundwork to be done.

For now, you need to find or make a time graph of actual data from the system. You need to find out the history: To find out why agri-input retailers are the epicenter of Indian Agriculture, you need to grok history. To find out why Jai Kisan is appointing agri-input retailers in their fintech platform, you need to grok history.

And when you study history and the facts on the ground, you start to think seriously about the actual behavior happening on the ground. You merge nouns with verbs - You discover stories that explain causality chains.

2. Pay attention to what is important, not just what is quantifiable

This is an extension of the previous point. But it’s supercritical. Despite the profusion of systems in food and agriculture that are available to get the beat, agriculture resists most efforts of prediction and control. And that’s not a bug. It’s a feature of the system.

Why is Regenerative Agriculture marginal (and often criticized by naysayers as unscientific)? When regenerative practices are sensitive to local conditions, how can they be isolated and quantified to show the effects of a single practice?

Why are agronomy models much more sensitive to micro-climate?

Despite being awash with data, let’s not forget the fact that we don’t have the mechanism to measure what’s important.

And that’s what you are essentially trying to figure out if you are a newsletter writer like me. Can I discover that which is important, which the data is not telling me right now?

3) Listen to the wisdom of the system

Every time I write about agri-input retailers, many often write to me asking why do I keep supporting them in my blog posts. Of course, I know that they milk their margins in the subjective agronomy advice they give to farmers to sell more agri-inputs. But why do I defend agri-input retailers when agritech startups have made a villain out of them?

When you are trying to transform the system of agriculture and agribusiness through technology, you are better off if you understand the forces that run the system by itself.

When you are designing technological interventions, the worst outcome you need to watch out for is this: Never end up destroying the system’s own self-maintenance capacities. Before you come and transform how farmers buy agri-inputs and sell their produce, can you pay deeper attention to what’s valuable that’s happening out there?

4) Expose your mental models to the open air.

When you write only for yourself, you are constantly exposing your model in the open for others to take a shot at. I don’t have one big model. One big explanation like Aggregation Theory. One big hypothesis that explains everything.

I am constantly on the lookout for new models in complexity theory, strategy, and technology. When you collect multiple models and consider them plausible, you hedge the risk of identifying yourself from one particular model.

I try and draw every model (That’s why you see at least one drawing in every post of mine except this one) so that it is easier to dismantle them when I find contrary evidence and redraw the system that I am trying to grasp from inside (not outside).

5) Stay humble, Stay a Learner

Writing is a dangerously good practice to polish your ignorance. It keeps your ignorance shiny. After I wrote my seventh sprouting reads, mapping the agritech technological revolution using Carlota Perez’s framework ($), I discussed the essay with few investor friends and discovered woefully that my essay had several lapses of judgment. More importantly, it taught me a lesson or two about the real agritech technological revolution that’s happening underway .

This is inevitable. When you are continuously writing about agribusiness, simply by doing agribusiness, I keep discovering how incomplete my mental models are, how complex the world is, and how much I don’t know.

Every time I discover that my essay had gotten the mental model wrong, I embrace my errors, lick my wounds and resolve to write further.

6. Locate responsibility in the system.

Every system creates its own behavior. If the food and agriculture system has been designed to treat farmers as innocent, noble, creatures who need benevolence either from the governments or from the markets, it is important to step out of your comfort zone and ask a morally uncomfortable question: How does the system create its own skewed behavior of farmers addicted to benevolence?

What are the triggering events that cause food and agriculture systems to constantly subsidize farmers for farming unsustainably and collect taxes to keep the broken systems from not breaking down?

It’s only when we locate responsibility, we can redesign the system with the right set of incentives that serve the system as a whole.

It’s only when we locate responsibility, can we look at redesigning the system with intrinsic responsiblity.

7. Expand Time And Thought Horizons

When you are looking at analyzing India’s farm laws, you have to look at the upcoming UP State elections happening in India and also consider the long-term repercussions a few decades from now when the dust of uncertain near futures has settled.

My analysis on Farm Laws so far:

Part-1: Setting the Context 🔒 | Part-2: No Country for Middle-Men | Part-3: In Defense of the Government 🔒 | Part-4: Samudra Manthan in the World of Agriculture: | Part-5: "Annadata" Conundrum" And Mapping the Cultural Wars of Agriculture 🔒 Part 6: Grey Pills on Farm Laws | Part 7: Greta Thunberg and the aftermath of farm laws politics

In agriculture, phenomena at different time scales are nested within each other. There is no such thing as short-term and long-term. What you do now has some immediate effects and some whose effects become obvious for decades to come.

I’ve been promiscuous when it comes to the boundary of the discipline called Agribusiness. I’ve attempted to be, as they say, “epistemic trespasser”. I draw insights from popular pop movies, tweets, videos, and the entire social stream for this reason. I follow Food and Agriculture systems wherever it leads.

It has been a fun ride, learning from Agronomists, Agriculturists, Commodity Traders, Technologists. I want to venture boldly into the wilderness and grope the beast called Agriculture with humbling awareness of the impossibility of the task - We are the blind men, with each of us, in trying to cope with the mysteries of the beast, grabbing hold of some part or other, and, in the words of John Godfrey Saxe’s poem:

Rail on in utter ignorance of what each other mean, And prate about an Elephant Not one of [us] has seen!

I hope some of you join me in this adventure! I promise it will be fun and worth the journey.