26 Oct 2017
Can Farming Save the Planet?
Private equity group invests in organic practices as a solution for climate changeby Constantine von Hoffman
Photos by Marc Romanelli
Climate change rightfully scares a lot of people. The changes already occurring—from the die-off of coral reefs and shrinking polar ice to increasing global temperatures—are almost too much to take in. Conventional wisdom would tell us that any solution must match the magnitude and complexity of the problem.
Don Wiviott (MBA 1984) begs to differ. For him, the solution is both simple and doable.
The solution Wiviott envisions is to convert typically high-production, conventional, GMO-based farms to certified organic practices. This not only produces healthier food, he says, but also means the soil can capture a significant amount of carbon dioxide, which is the major cause of global warming. That is the focus of Sustainable Farm Partners (SFP), a combination farming operation and private equity group, operating in Iowa, with Wiviott as cofounder and partner.
According to a report from the University of California Berkeley, “Current carbon sequestration in US cropland soils is only 8.4 million metric tons CO2 Eq. per year, compared to an annual potential of 100 million.” Practices like organic farming increase overall soil health, according to the report.
SFP raises funds from individuals, foundations, and endowments to achieve its goals. The huge demand for organic goods such as corn, oats, and alfalfa, and the higher prices they command than traditionally grown crops, creates a dramatic increase in financial returns. The SFP team and its operators, who have decades of experience in both organic and conventional farming, directly manage the farmland they convert. The organization uses a profit-sharing model, giving all participants––partners, operators, and management alike––a stake in the profitability of each crop, and maximizes a collective interest in the health of the soil.
“If you restore soil and agriculture and don’t use chemical fertilizers to grow crops, and you change your tilling practices, if you did this with one in five farms around the world, you would capture enough carbon dioxide to offset the current excess,” says Wiviott, noting that SFP can document up to 30 tons per hectare of carbon dioxide capture at its farms.
In addition to capturing carbon dioxide, organic farming cuts down on demand for artificial, petroleum-based fertilizers. “This is the only thing I’ve ever seen where you actually reverse the process and you capture carbon; and it’s a natural consequence of growing grains, growing row crops,” he observes.
Wiviott and SFP have come up with a win-win, market-based way of getting farmers to go organic. The model affords investors the opportunity to support large farms in the process of shifting to organic practices. SFP provides the land and contributes to paying expenses; operators provide the labor, equipment, and fuel. The program is designed to deliver a stable income to investors in the fastest-growing segment of the food industry––organic foods. According to the Organic Trade Association, total organic product sales in 2015 were $43.3 billion, an increase of 11 percent from the previous year’s record level and far ahead of the overall food market’s growth rate of 3 percent.
“We’re a little bit like the Uber of farming, in that farmers have the knowledge base and the skills as well as all of the equipment necessary to do this, but aren’t able to buy additional land,” says Wiviott. “We’re the first scalable version of this model, meaning that because it’s bigtime American agriculture we can do a series of these $100 million funds. Each fund is the equivalent carbon offset as if we had built an $86 million wind farm.”
Wiviott has been focused on helping the environment for a long time. He received his undergraduate degree in environmental studies from Dartmouth and then founded an environmental business. “I think I wrote to Harvard and said, ‘It would be helpful if I actually knew what I was doing; you guys should let me in.’
“Having never had a math or a business course before, the first year was interesting, but I clearly had a lot to learn and HBS delivered,” he adds.
Once he graduated, Wiviott says he “did what HBS graduates do” and promptly dove into the world of finance. He became one of the people brought in after leveraged buyouts to save failing companies. During Wiviott’s time as COO for one of those companies, Quality Trailer Products, he doubled the annual sales to $50 million in less than three years.
Following that experience, he ran his own company building environmentally sustainable live/work projects in New Mexico. “They were high density, they were affordable, and we recycled the water from them,” Wiviott explains. “It just made sense. I mean, my life felt better once I got back to the green side.”
Wiviott then tried to make the leap to public service, running for New Mexico’s Third Congressional District seat in 2008. “We were winning until 9:30 at night,” he says wryly.
Following that defeat, he started working with microbiologists on formulating a way in which to clean up water, specifically wastewater from oil wells. The people with whom he was working had come up with a process to take 90 percent of the oil out of the wastewater from an oil well, which can use millions of gallons of water.
“While I was working on this, the lead scientist turned to me and said, ‘This is going to be great, but I don’t want to work on it. I have an answer for climate change.’ I was stunned and didn’t really believe him. But it turns out, he did know.”
Wiviott was particularly puzzled as to why, if the solution was so simple, no one else was already doing it. He spent two years looking at the carbon markets and how to sell the carbon capture to farmers, but couldn’t figure out a way to make it work. The reason: There wasn’t a profit motive.
“But then I met these organic farmers, and the bottom line is that we sell the crops for twice as much, the margins are better, and the carbon capture just happens as a natural consequence,” he says. “Our yields are comparable to conventional crop yields. We can prove it. These guys have done this for seven to eight years.”
Wiviott and his partners plan on doing a series of partnerships and funds, and are hoping to launch a bond offering that would allow smaller investors to participate. If the funding gets big enough, SFP plans to expand from its current focus of farms in Iowa to others across the Midwest.
“There are people who want us to be an online platform,” he says, noting the popularity of crowdfunding and other web-based finance models, “but right now [we’re relying on] traditional sources of capital. It’s family offices and it’s funding partners that are looking for a stable yield.”
Greener pastures, in every sense of the word.
Class of MBA 1984, Section G