In 2015, the serial tech and biopharmaceutical entrepreneur, David Perry, sat down with a startup that had shown promise treating grain seeds with microbes designed to naturally enrich the soil they’re germinated in, reducing the need for inputs like fertilizers, pesticides and water. If that’s all you want to focus on, Perry told the company’s founder, great—but count me out. “If you want to use this as a cornerstone for changing agriculture,” he says his counterproposal went, “Now, I think that’s interesting. To his credit, he said yes.” And Perry became Indigo Agriculture’s CEO.
In the five years since, “interesting” has meant rolling out that microbially treated grain—which promises to help both the environment and farmers’ bottom lines—deploying new technologies that allow farmers to monitor and analyze their soil conditions, developing software that can analyze vast amounts of agronomic data, and finding ways to help farmers sell their crops outside the commodity market. “As long as farmers are only paid for volume, and not for quality or sustainability,” he says, “then it’s going to be difficult to align agricultural practices with consumer preferences.”
But what elevates Perry to hero status in our book is another, more recent bold move: paying farmers to adopt regenerative agriculture practices, something no government or advocacy group has been able to do. Last year, he announced the Terraton Initiative, the goal of which is to help farmers sequester 1 trillion tons of carbon di-oxide in the soil, essentially recapturing all of the CO2 added to the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution began. The initiative is based on the premise, increasingly embraced by scientists, that regenerative farming practices like minimal tilling and cover cropping harness plants’ ability to take carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and trap it underground beneath their roots.
Once the Indigo Carbon marketplace is in full operation, as early as the end of 2020, through soil sampling, data modeling, satellite technology and software, Indigo will measure and certify changes in soil carbon and allow farmers to earn an estimated $15 per ton of carbon dioxide they’ve locked into their soil. Farmers holding a total of 18 million acres of land have already expressed interest. “In the next five years, we want to have scaled to the point where we’re pulling a billion tons of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere annually,” Perry says. No small goal indeed.