The Dawn of the Farmpreneur
A 4th-Generation Morris Farmer Embraces the Intersection of Agriculture & Technology
As I pulled into the South Farms parking lot, an assemblage of black wooden structures standing in the middle of the driveway immediately grabbed my attention. The roughly 25 uniformly shaped rectangular objects each stood just over a yard tall and resembled a collection of enormous, lowercase letter Ns planted firmly in the stone gravel. They were reminiscent of a modern art installation.
I couldn't take my eyes off them, as I walked toward the front entrance; my curiosity piqued. It took Ben Paletsky's deep-voiced greeting to jolt me back into the present moment. "Welcome, don't mind the mess," he said with a grin. "We're trying to re-create Stonehenge – just another typical day here at South Farms."
It turns out the objects were table legs for several custom-built pine tables under assembly for their successful event space, The White Barn at South Farms. Instead of staining the tables, Paletsky's team chose to utilize an ancient Japanese wood-burning technique, shou sugi ban. Charring the wood preserves it and creates a beautiful, artistic finish. It's just one example of the creativity and experimentation happening on this bucolic farm.
Sam Paletsky, Ben's grandfather, purchased the 150-acre homestead in the early 1950s, where he operated a successful dairy and cattle farm for several decades. When Ben's father passed away in 2009, he was faced with a binary decision: keep it or sell it. He chose to keep it. By 2011, he completed a partnership with neighboring Dorset Farm and created the present day's South Farms, a venture aimed at reinventing Connecticut agriculture.
Paletsky believes the future of farming is in AgTech (Agricultural Technology). "We want to create the future tools of farming," he says. "Farmers are stuck doing a lot of jobs that don't add value to their enterprise. If we can replace some of those tasks with productivity innovations, we'll enable farmers to focus on building their business."
Industry data appears to back up Paletsky's claim. According to AgFunder, an agricultural investment marketplace, nearly 500 AgTech companies attracted $4.6 billion in investments in 2015 – that's almost double the $2.36 billion from the prior year. It's clear that the investment community recognizes fertile opportunities for innovation in the agriculture value chain.
Paletsky may be AgTech's perfect poster child. Having grown up on a working farm, he has that "make it happen" entrepreneurial spirit implanted in his DNA. His undergraduate and master's engineering management degrees from UMass and Tufts landed him in the Cambridge, Massachusetts, tech industry, where he gained first-hand experience working with technology startups and driving innovation in a faced-paced industry.
With a blend of critical skills and experiences in hand, Paletsky started his South Farms journey by embracing design thinking and innovation to solve problems and generate new revenue. One of the first questions he challenged himself with was, "How can we design a farm centered around ethical grazing and best rotational practices, where two people can manage a herd of 50 cattle?"
The answers eventually led to a successful grass-fed beef operation branded as Galloway Beef. What makes Galloway Beef work economically is the behind-the-scenes innovations employed by Paletsky's team. They installed underground water systems that operate on auto feeders that automatically turn on when water levels get low. They installed thousands of feet of remote-controlled electric fencing, which allows one person to move an entire herd to different parts of the farm in less time.
Today, South Farms raises both beef and pork, has innovated in the production of hay products, and is home to commercial hops producer, Pioneer Hops of Connecticut. "There's more agricultural production taking place on the farm now than 30 years ago," Paletsky notes. There's even more coming down the pike.
Paletsky's vision is to create a full-service AgTech center that caters to food and agricultural entrepreneurs' need to incubate and accelerate early-stage ventures. South Farms certainly has the land and buildings to accommodate a host of ideas and technologies. "My role is to connect, build networks, help gauge the quality of their idea, and provide the space to test and develop the product concept," says Paletsky. He is actively scouting for AgTech entrepreneurs with compelling ideas who are interested in collaborating at South Farms.
Plans are also underway for building a full-scale, rentable commercial kitchen to support Connecticut's early-stage food businesses. The venue will allow entrepreneurs to incubate new food products, produce product for test marketing, and, if viable, help bring those products into commercial production.
As we stood in the cleared-out barn that will be the kitchen's future home, Paletsky concluded, "If South Farms can enable businesses to scale a very successful product, we want to be there to support them."
It's evident that Paletsky's motivation is driven by the challenge of it all. While he's an astute businessman, he clearly loves the creativity and problem solving associated with the vision. "Every day, there is a completely new, unforeseen challenge we take on, for better or for worse." He's one who clearly embodies the saying, "the joy in learning is doing."
Paletsky thinks big and articulates a compelling vision, and it's hard to doubt him. He exudes a humbleness and gregariousness that immediately invites camaraderie. It's a dynamic combination of strengths that will no doubt facilitate South Farms' success. "We're trying to build something the community will be proud of," Paletsky says as he surveys the expansive fields of South Farms. "We can redefine what Connecticut agriculture really means. We can enable important things to happen here."
For more information about South Farms' products, to learn about their White Barn event facility, or to inquire about collaborative business opportunities, visit their website.
21 Higbie Rd., Morris