Tridge Stories
Tridge Stories

From farm to tech: An interview with Agri-Insider host Alicia Abendroth

Oct 10, 2023
10 min read

Meet Alicia Abendroth, host of Agri-Insider podcast. From hands-on experiences in farming to working in international trade and agri-tech startups, Alicia’s insights into the vast and complex global agri-food supply chains are unparalleled. Her roles have taken her from the fields of Chile to the trade centers of Germany, offering profound knowledge and relationships with diverse people that are shaping the agri-food industry. In our interview, she delves deeper into her past experiences, the inception of the Agri-Insider podcast, and how she aims to drive forward-thinking conversations around the future of food. 

Can you share a pivotal moment from your childhood on the farm that ignited your passion for agriculture and agtech? How did it shape your career path in this industry?

There are many pivotal moments I could share from my childhood on the farm that made me who I am today. Watching my parents strive  to make a career in agriculture and building our agriculture business alongside them drove my passion to advocate for this industry. 

I experienced a lot of uncontrollable hardships on the farm. For example, losing an entire hard-earned fruit crop to a hailstorm, a mysterious disease plaguing an orchard for years without a proper diagnosis, or labor shortages causing a panic around finding enough hands to pick over 100 hectares of fruit.   

Mother Nature doesn't care that you've invested 80-hour work weeks for 9 months straight to bring a beautiful, nearly absurdly perfect, crop of fruit to market. She will destroy the crop if she wants to.

The same goes for the modern consumer. Few people ask themselves the questions: "Where does my food come from?" or "How did this apple get to my supermarket?" and do not appreciate the lifestyle that modern agriculture enables them to have. I wanted more people not to take their food, and the people who produce it, for granted.

From these many firsthand experiences, I realized pretty early on that I had to get the word about agriculture out to the world. I had this deep-down sensation, burning inside of me, that this industry, and all of the incredible people in it, deserves more spotlight.

You've had a diverse career spanning different roles in agriculture. What specific experiences or challenges along the way have deepened your interest in agtech and sustainability within the food industry?

It's true; I've worked in several different roles along the agri-supply and value chain. After several years of managing and growing our orchard business, I began to wonder: what happens after our fruit goes in the bin? I started to feel frustrated that we didn't have more control over our selling prices and the markets we served. The agri-supply chain seemed so set in stone, and I needed to figure out why. So, I embarked on a journey to understand global agri-supply chains. You could say I wanted to swim downstream. I moved to Europe and secured a job as an International Fruit Trader.

This was a key chapter in my career. I learned how complex, and especially fragile, our food supply chains truly are. I was trading fruit internationally during the heart of Covid-19. This period really shaped me, as I saw how food supply chains began to deteriorate under the policy shifts and uncertainties of the pandemic. I think 2020 was the first time modern consumers started to realize that our supermarket shelves are fully stocked due to a highly sophisticated supply chain, and that one glitch in that system can cause a ripple effect leading to no toilet paper, or worse, no food. Fear was in the air, all around the world, and while Covid-19 was an absolutely terrible event, I believe it birthed a certain gratitude for food and awareness of supply chains that I had been deeply longing for from everyday people.

Another silver lining that I attribute to this “black swan event” called Covid is the rise of sustainability. With an awareness of our food supply chains has come an increased desire to protect those supply chains. Covid gave people a taste of what a world could be like without modern supply chains, and as a result, more and more people are asking themselves: “How do we ensure our modern lifestyle long-term without destroying the planet?”.

I absolutely subscribe to this notion of preserving life. It's been amazing to see the agtech space respond to this trend and start providing solutions that address food security and sustainability. I'd challenge all those trying to tackle these big questions to expand their viewpoint and work together. We have to address sustainability in its purest sense, from multiple angles all at once. That means looking at not only resources and carbon but also financial viability and human equity.

In your international journey through various agricultural systems, have you made any notable observations, especially in relation to the implementation of agtech and sustainable practices?

Working in international fruit trading showed me how interconnected we all are. For example, Mrs. Müller in Germany, who bought her fresh South African grapes from Aldi supermarket last Monday, has, with her 3 Euro purchase, contributed to enabling an entire web of an economy. She contributed to the farm worker’s income in South Africa, the cost of the plastic the grapes are sitting in, the spray chemicals that were imported from China to make the grapes look perfect, the profit margins for the 4-5 middlemen who have in some way touched, handled, or resold the grapes (including the retailer), and the international reefer container that shipped the fruit up to 30 days across the ocean.

The fact that the agri-food industry can provide Mrs. Müller with a 3 Euro nearly perfect packet of grapes, from a country over 13,000 km away, still amazes me to this day. I don't think it will ever stop amazing me.

While this modern agri-food system is jaw-droppingly impressive, it doesn't mean we cannot improve upon it. Enter agri-food tech! What excites me about this industry is the room for innovation and improvement. We need to make our food systems more equitable, resilient, and symbiotic with nature.

We've seen quite a few startups enter the space, especially recently, that are trying to tackle these challenges, each in their own way. I truly tip my hat to all those trying to create change in this industry through a startup. Not only is it hard work, but you also hold a moral and ethical responsibility for the planet and its precious life.

There are so many opportunities to impact the global agri-food supply chain - look at the few I was able to mention in the Mrs. Müller Case Study. At each step of the chain, starting at the farm and ending with the consumer, I guarantee there is an area needing improvement or support. It's just a matter of intimately understanding this industry and honing in on your angle for success. The startup journey will be filled with challenges, but understanding your “why” and deeply committing to your impact path is how I've seen startups succeed.

With an impressive educational background at places like Cornell University, how has your formal education shaped your understanding of the intricacies of agriculture and the potential role of technology in its future?

I graduated from Cornell University with a Bachelor of Science in Plant Science. I also minored in Viticulture and Enology, in case that sparks a connection with any wine connoisseurs in our viewership.

Cornell taught me how to think. It taught me how to take complex topics and break them down into tangible, digestible pieces (otherwise I’d have never passed all those Chemistry and Physics exams). Cornell taught me how to ask questions and challenge the status quo. In fact, it was probably good I graduated when I did because at the depths of my studies I started to question the fundamentals of scientific principles. If scientists were constantly being disproved over time, why couldn't even the most accepted principles be questioned today?

Alongside all of my agriculture courses, such as Weed Science, Wine Making, Botany, and Plant Propagation, I was required to take a few electives. One elective I took, which I thought would be just a side piece during my time at Cornell, actually left one of the longest-lasting impressions on me. It was a philosophy course that discussed the relationship humans have had with nature over time. My key takeaway from this course was that the way humans interact with nature is constantly evolving. Humankind has had many types of relationships with nature, almost like a temperamental relationship between two lovers. Men have been victims of nature, homeostatic with nature, and in a state of conquering nature. I am simplifying this greatly; however, I believe we can draw a lesson from this elective course that is greatly applicable to our current times. Thanks to Covid, Climate Events, and general sentiment, we are being asked to reinvent our relationship with Mother Nature. Agriculture plays a big role in that. Between Farming, Fishing, and Forestry, a large portion of the earth is stewarded by agri-professionals. What an enormous responsibility! This interplay of feeding the planet, stewarding the earth, and entrepreneurship is what excites me about this industry to this day.

My education, coupled with the experiences I was receiving at my family farm in parallel, gave me a unique perspective on the industry. I was receiving a scientific-level understanding of agriculture, along with a unique toolkit and high-level understanding of the world. All of that, paired with my innate hunger to question everything, to find out the “why”, set me up to excel in the agtech space and embrace the forthcoming of new technologies in agriculture.

You've mentioned your goal of creating solution-oriented spaces for collaboration in the agri-food industry. Could you elaborate on how you envision these collaborations working and their potential to address pressing challenges?

At the risk of sounding cliché, I truly believe in collaboration. The only argument I can see against collaboration is competitive advantage. However, I once met a man from a successful startup business who said he isn't afraid to share his ideas, no matter how great or revolutionary they may be, because most people don't have the guts or stamina to execute upon those ideas. I think especially in the startup space, there are so many opportunities to find your unique angle that one shouldn't prevent collaboration over fear of their ideas being stolen. In fact, I believe you have more to gain than to lose by openly sharing your perspectives, insights, and ideas within the industry.

In an ideal world, I'd create a space for collaboration that would unite experts from all different parts of the industry to give their feedback on the solutions being devised in real-time. One thing I have learned in life is that the expression “it takes a village” holds truth. We need communities to function.

In the case of agtech, I'd like to see panel-type collaboration sessions that embrace a spirit of open innovation. The panel would consist of people from all across the supply and value chain. Meaning, small shareholder farmers, retailers, logistics, mega-farmers, traders, government officials, consumers, engineers, business experts, professors, etc. I think every person involved in this industry has a seat at the innovation table. In the context of healthy debate, every expert’s voice can be leveraged to find solutions that actually work.

The keyword here being "actually." Far too often, we witness agtech companies crafting solutions without a connection to the market they intend to serve. It may sound surprising, but many early-stage startups fail to prioritize their product-market fit and to define the key deliverables for their future clients. In my opinion, establishing industry connections early on in a startup's journey can have a twofold impact: it benefits the industry itself and, equally importantly, ensures a solid return on investment for investors. I'd like to help facilitate this kind of collaboration and bridge this gap. If we manage to bridge this gap successfully, I think we'd see startups succeeding more quickly, investor money going further, and we'd truly accelerate solving some of the largest challenges facing our future.

Agri-Insider brings together experts and thought leaders in the agri-food industry. What inspired you to start this podcast, and what kind of insights and conversations are you hoping to uncover through it?

Agri-Insider is an amalgamation of my experiences in this industry and my goal of bringing the arguably most important industry to humankind into the spotlight. I have dedicated my career to exploring the complexities in our food systems and connecting the dots between different industry actors. This is meant to be a documented extension of all my learnings and findings.

This podcast is about all the amazing people in the agri-food industry. With the help of the team at Tridge, I want to provide a platform for agri-food’s brightest minds to share their thoughts and document their insights. I aim to unlock hard-to-find industry insights from experts and key decision-makers that hopefully provoke thought and stimulate conversation about the way we produce, trade, and consume food, promoting open innovation and collaboration.

In your opinion, what are some of the most promising trends or technologies in agtech right now that have the potential to transform the industry or improve sustainability?

This is a really tough question. I think it will take multiple angles and startups to truly transform the industry toward a more sustainable future. Not any one agtech startup can solve this alone.

First and foremost, we need a change in the narrative around sustainability. It can't just be whatever produces the least amount of carbon on a spreadsheet. We need to remember what nature is truly all about. It's about vast and intertwined ecosystems. These ecosystems are typically able to self-regulate within their environments when not thrown out of homeostasis. Getting to a sustainable world won't be a linear problem and solution equation; it will take embracing the complexities that exist within nature and finding solutions that work for it.

I've been following a few startups that are applying financial principles to place value on the environment as part of the land capital movement. I think this approach is very clever, as it forces us to rethink the value of land. Ultimately, we need to make land, especially unproductive natural land, an interesting asset class for investors and companies. We can incentivize land protection.

Furthermore, I think an entirely overlooked and under-regulated food industry is the commercial ocean fishing industry. Please watch the Netflix documentary Seaspiracy. It highlights the injustices that are happening to our oceans. The ocean is the largest carbon sink on our planet, yet scientists predict that 90% of the earth’s coral reefs will die by 2050. According to the documentary, per acre, marine plants can store up to 20 times more carbon than land-based forests. This is absolutely significant in the greater scheme of sustainability. However, somehow, sea fishing and its destruction get so little spotlight compared to commercial agriculture.

As for traditional agriculture, I love to see companies that are helping farmers do more with what they have. Farmers carry so much risk; environmental, financial, economical. As Mark Twain stated, "The farmer is the only man in our economy who buys everything at retail, sells everything at wholesale, and pays the freight both ways." As Mr. Twain states, the system is highly unjust toward the people who feed the world. 

Agtechs that support farmers by mitigating risk, or providing clever ways to access tractors, or help solve claims, or offer financing solutions, or make their land-use more efficient, offer new technologies to reduce emissions, improve soil health, or create paths to new sales outlets - have my vote. All of these elements contribute to a more sustainable food future. As mentioned earlier, we can't look at sustainability through the strict lens of reducing carbon emissions. We need to broaden our scope to improve food systems of the future.

The last point I want to make is that of data empowerment. As stated with the fishing example, people think the agriculture industry, especially cows, are one of the key food industries to blame when it comes to excess carbon emissions. However, we can also discover that ocean deforestation is occurring at a faster rate than land deforestation, risking our largest carbon sink on planet earth. Doesn't the ocean problem seem larger than the land problem? How do we know what is reality? Certain topics or notions get hyped in the media, and we can lose sight of data and facts. 

Policy that affects farmers in a major way gets put into place based on notions that exist in mainstream media, yet it seems the side effect of these policies is often overlooked. What happens if we regulate farmers on the rationale of carbon neutrality to a point of commercial inviability? Do they go out of business? Does the government bail them out? Or do we then risk our food security? People take our food for granted, yet the decisions we make today will have an effect on what we eat tomorrow.

I really encourage our viewers to empower themselves with data and leverage platforms such as Tridge to make educated decisions. We can't take hearsay for fact, and especially in such an opaque industry as agriculture, we need to find solutions to provide us with the data that empowers better decision-making.

Given your unique perspective and experiences, what advice would you offer to individuals or entrepreneurs looking to make a meaningful impact in the agricultural and agtech space?

Embrace your community. In the end, we need to address sustainability from a systemic perspective. We need to tackle the big picture. It will take startups, policymakers, corporations, and everyday farmers to make the changes that we need. You aren't just on your own founder road; you should be doing this for the greater good. I spoke to an angel investor once, who had done research on the effect of ego on founders and startup performance. Ego is good to excel, but don't let it consume you. Remain humble. Listen more than you speak. Help yourself to help others. Empower others. Come to the table.

Looking ahead, what are your aspirations for Agri-Insider, and how do you see it contributing to the broader conversation around food production, trade, and consumption?

Looking ahead, my aspirations for Agri-Insider are deeply rooted in its mission to be a beacon of knowledge and insight within the agri-food industry. I envision the podcast continuing to provide a platform for the diverse voices in this industry. I hope to give the world a view into how global and multicultural this industry is, while also showcasing the hard work that goes into providing the world with food.

You can have a career in agri-food in so many different ways. I wrote this in my LinkedIn bio: “From tractor seat to business suite: I take any challenge and conquer it.” I truly live by this spirit within the agri-food industry, and I hope to inspire young adults out there to pursue a career in agriculture no matter what that looks like. For example, you can be a farmer working with plants and animals, or you can be a consultant working with businesses to improve their profit margins. I hope the podcast will inspire young listeners to consider a career in agriculture.

As Agri-Insider grows, I hope it becomes a trusted source of information that not only informs but also inspires change. By showcasing success stories, sharing best practices, and addressing critical issues, the podcast can motivate individuals, startups, policymakers, and companies to take meaningful action.

Ultimately, I see Agri-Insider playing a pivotal role in shaping the future of the agri-food industry. It will contribute to a more transparent, collaborative, and sustainable food ecosystem, one conversation at a time.

Agri-Insider is your agri-food for thought podcast unlocking exclusive industry insights from top key decision makers at the world's leading companies in agriculture and technology. Listen to the latest episodes via the links below.

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