AgLaunch – Tennessee Farmer Network and Model Farms Programs

Hardin, Lauderdale and McNairy Counties

Agriculture and forestry in Tennessee is a $66 billion industry accounting for over 10 percent of the State’s economy, 347,000 employees including 66,000 farmers, and 1,000 companies. The economic sector has room for growth through innovation that incorporates the use of new technologies, tools and methods that increase efficiencies, diversify product offerings and develop new tools and practices. These approaches will increase farm profits, produce abundant and safe food, and reduce the environmental footprint of agricultural production.

Tennessee and the surrounding mid-south region is emerging as a model for creating opportunities for farmers, stimulating rural businesses, improving soil health, and scaling food systems. This innovation is especially important in Tennessee’s rural and distressed counties. Agriculture can transform the economy and create new opportunities for landowners and farmers who have traditionally made their living in the sector and for new entrants with novel ideas.

Through the creation of the Farmer Network, AgLaunch and its partners have spurred economic growth in rural and distressed counties in Tennessee. Through field trials, farmers have access to the most innovative and cutting-edge technology in the world. Additionally, farmers are able to participate in the development of the companies by having an equity stake in them.

In 2012, AgLaunch was created in response to then Governor Haslam’s Rural Challenge 10 Year Strategic Plan developed by the Tennessee Department of Agriculture (TDA), the Tennessee Farm Bureau, and the University of Tennessee - Institute of Agriculture with the focus of creating innovative approaches for farmers and new agribusinesses across the state. Recommended innovation strategies would address: (1) early stage capital, (2) an agricultural technology incubator network, and (3) entrepreneur development and business acceleration. The proposed initiative was designed to enhance educational outreach and impacts, create rural jobs and new investment opportunities, and leverage private sector investment.  

In 2014, TDA leaders began work with the Memphis Bioworks Foundation to coordinate the model entrepreneur development program, attract venture capital funding, and bring together the necessary ecosystem for participants to grow rural agritech enterprises. Between January of 2014 and May of 2015, TDA and USDA Rural Development funded strategic planning to make AgLaunch a reality and included the formation of an entrepreneur Farmer Network and coordination with regional universities to commercialize homegrown research. In 2015, the partners were joined by the Delta Regional Authority (DRA) and the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development (TNECD) in funding the initial stages of state-wide services to complement the efforts of Launch Tennessee’s statewide entrepreneurship organization. In 2016, expansion of AgLaunch was included in Rural Development Task Force recommendations that positioned the effort for additional funding. In 2018, AgLaunch became a standalone nonprofit organization that is led by a diverse team and is supported by a broad group of public and private partners.

AgLaunch Programs

AgLaunch envisions a transformed regional agriculture and food economy centered around farmers, innovation, and prosperity. The organization’s focus is to attract, start, grow and support new agriculture companies and initiatives to revitalize communities and create new pathways by supporting business development, mentoring young talent, and finding new approaches to farming. Today, AgLaunch works across the mid-south region to support agritech companies, build new value-chains and collaborate with an innovative group of farmers through the Farmer Network and Model Farm programs. The organization’s multiple services are delivered through inter-related areas:

Create Ventures - AgLaunch assists in creating new ventures that include technology businesses based around protectable intellectual property focused on solving problems in agriculture and new value-added process ventures connecting farmers with end-users.

Grow Companies - AgLaunch provides a range of programs to assist technology-based startup companies and create new value-chains. In addition to helping companies introduce new crops or create new processing opportunities, the organization also delivers on-site entrepreneurship curriculum and consulting services.

Connect Farms and Technology - AgLaunch operates through collaboration and partnerships that support major components of the program’s innovation platform. The organization leverages the programs and capabilities of university and farm organization partners to field test new ideas and build toward adoption.

Cultivate New Talent - AgLaunch operates a national mentorship network that supports new startups and builds a pipeline of talent.

Provide Capital and Funding - AgLaunch assists in creating a funding pathway for agritech startups, new ag-related value chains and impact driven nonprofit initiatives. The organization has the experience, networks, and track record to help participants find the best sources of funding.

Tennessee Farmer Network

In 2017, the AgLaunch Farmer Network was created; the network provides connectivity among farmers, researchers and ag-related companies to support the use of resources and emerging best practices. The ultimate goal of the program is to advance the use of technologies that can quickly and reliably help farmers make solid decisions that use less water, less land, and fewer inputs that are vital to the future of farm and food sustainability.

West Tennessee was selected to launch the state-wide network that connects entrepreneurial farmers with an entry point to test new technology, provides support for new initiatives and creates investment opportunities. Farmer members receive access to new ideas and opportunities to invest in new enterprises.

The Farmer Network consists of 16 farmer-members representing 19 counties across Tennessee. The network includes pork producers, cattle farmers, dairy farmers, row-crop farmers, an equine farm, vegetable growers, and even a wine-maker. Members have an opportunity to screen, review, and select which agtech startups they would like to host for field trials. As part of the Farmer Network, producers are eligible for a 100% reimbursement on the hard-costs associated with pre-commercial technologies through the Tennessee Ag Enhancement Program administered by TDA.

Field trials offer farmers an opportunity to be on the cutting edge of agtech and assess and influence the future of agriculture. Technologies are as diverse as the farmers in the network and include

  • Irrigation sensors, monitors, and control
  • Livestock management software and hardwar
  •  Soil test for microbial conten
  • Farm task and labor management solutions
  • Drone spraying
  • Autonomous tractors
  • Malt barley & grain sorghum trials
  • IOT and telemetry for grain bins & pivots

Model Farms Program

In February of 2018, TDA Agricultural Enterprise Grant funding was awarded to AgLaunch to create a network of model farms for innovation and research. The goal of this program is to establish 5 to 6 model farms across the state to create a new investment platform for agricultural start-ups. Based upon the experience and relationships built by AgLaunch leaders, Model Farms were selected to provide live demonstrations of innovative technologies and serve as the base to attract agriculture industry investments in designated growth clusters. Since their formation, these new agri-businesses have adopted best practices in farm production and conservation, delivered education and outreach to other farmers, and created new markets for their products.

The initial three Model Farms selected to participate are located in the distressed counties of Hardin, Lauderdale and McNairy. Throughout 2018, AgLaunch worked with these farmers to demonstrate the use of new technologies and viable economic investments for other farmers. In their roles as models, each farmer completed field trials, translated critical knowledge about the latest instruments, processes, equipment, and their benefits to other farmers, and provided how-to instruction to other farm operations. Each Model Farm also hosted three field days and site visits for other farmers and suggested service areas and marketing and outreach strategies to reach other producers.  

Economic and Community Impact

For four years, AgLaunch has grown to support farmers across the state. The AgLaunch non-profit continues to expand its vision and focus on growing regional economies based around agricultural innovation. Notable program results include:

Tennessee Farmers Network Membership 16 members
2018 Tennessee Model Farms Piloted (Hardin, Lauderdale, McNairy Distressed Counties) 3
2019 Tennessee Model Farms Added  4
2018 TDA Cost Share and Grant Participants 11
2019 TDA Cost Share and Grant Participants 16+
Entrepreneur Classes Completed /Participants (four AgLaunch accelerator cohorts, Knoxville boot camp, Delta I-Fund cohort)  6 Cohorts/24 Participants
Workshops/Technical Assistance Sessions (Center for Profitable Agriculture sessions for Value-Added Producer Grants and farm business planning) 4
Agritech Companies Accelerated 24
Acres in Field Trail Network 115
Value-added Products Supported 6
Venture Capital Raised (Innova Memphis Ag Innovation Fund IV backed by 8 Farm Credit banks, other venture capital partners include Ag Ventures Alliance, a farmer co-op in Iowa) $31 million
Acres in the Field-Trial Network 115,000

Project Funding

USDA Rural Development Rural Business Development Grant and Community Foundation of Greater Memphis Match (Farmer Network strategic planning and technical support) $133,000
Delta Regional Authority SEDAP Grant and AgLaunch Match (Farmer Network strategic planning and West TN technical support) $75,000
TDA Agriculture Enterprise Grant (Tennessee Model Farms Network program costs)   $125,000
2018 TDA Agricultural Enhancement Program Grant (Farmer Network Cost-Share Program) $150,000
2019 TDA Agricultural Enhancement Program Grant (Farmer Network Cost-Share Program) $250,000
2018 Agriculture Enterprise Fund Grant (Model Farm Program) $75,000
2019 TDA Agricultural Enhancement Program/Agriculture Enterprise Grants (Model Farm Program) $75,000
Wells Fargo NREL IN2 Grant (Digital Acre at Agricenter International) $50,000
USDA Value-Added Producer Grant (Growing Acre Farms, Savannah, TN) $50,000
Farmer Network and Model Farms Total Project Funding (Includes state, federal and local funding) $983,000

Project Leaders and Partners

AgLaunch – President/ Executive Director – Project Contact
Tennessee Department of Agriculture
Tennessee Farm Bureau
University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture
University of Tennessee Extension – Center for Profitable Agriculture
University of Tennessee Martin – College of Agriculture and Applied Sciences
Memphis BioWorks Foundation
Tennessee State University
Middle Tennessee State University – School of Agriculture
Northwest Tennessee Entrepreneur Center
The Community Foundation of Greater Memphis
Life Sciences of Tennessee
Farm Credit – Mid America
Global Action Challenge
USDA Rural Development – Tennessee Office
Delta Regional Authority
Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development

For more project information visit AgLaunch.

Tennessee Department of Agriculture – Agriculture Enterprise Fund

The Agriculture Enterprise Fund (AEF) is an incentive program that supports job creation and economic development by facilitating agricultural development. The AEF awards grants to starting or expanding agricultural, food and forestry businesses, farmers, nonprofits, local governments, and other entities in Tennessee. Successful grant recipients must demonstrate a strong potential for impact on local farm income, access to markets, increased capacity or agricultural innovation. The AEF is administered by the Department of Agriculture in conjunction with the Department of Economic and Community Development.

Tennessee Department of Agriculture – Agricultural Enhancement Program

The Tennessee Agricultural Enhancement Program (TAEP) provides cost share dollars to agricultural producers for the purpose of making long-term investments in Tennessee farms and communities. Participation allows producers to maximize farm profits, adapt to changing market situations, improve operation safety, increase farm efficiency, and make positive economic impact in their communities.


Delta Regional Authority - Tennessee Program

The Delta Regional Authority is a Federal-State partnership whose mission it is to improve the quality of life for the residents of the Mississippi River Delta region. The DRA serves 252 counties and parishes in parts of eight states in the Lower Mississippi River Delta. The main investment tool used by the DRA is the States’ Economic Development Assistance Program (SEDAP), which provides direct investment into projects that address the DRA’s funding priorities. Through DRA funding, TNECD is able to award grants each year for economic and community development projects in the 21 counties in West Tennessee.

For more information visit  TNECD Community and Rural Development.