Math is hard, but strawberries are delicious. So let’s mix fruit with numbers. According to the American Farm Bureau Federation, just one acre of farmland can produce 50,000 pounds of strawberries. That’s enough to fill about 25,000 quart-sized containers. At some markets in Texas, each one of those containers could fetch $9. Math: Nine bucks multiplied by 25,000 equals $225,000. That’s a lot of cabbage. A farmer or rancher could build a million-dollar berry business by turning just five acres of dirt into strawberry fields.
But for many small and midsized farmers and ranchers, getting money for new projects, such as converting fields from one use to another, is even harder than math. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that almost all American farms—96 percent—are still owned and operated by families, and the vast majority bring in less than $250,000 annually. That’s not enough revenue for some lenders to justify taking a risk on loans that could help the farms grow bigger.
Chris Rawley spotted an opportunity in this situation. He cofounded Harvest Returns, a Fort Worth–based company that operates like a crowdfunding site, connecting individual farmers and ranchers to individual investors interested in supporting specific projects. Rawley, a Dallas native who graduated from Texas A&M in 1992, spent nearly thirty years as a naval officer, including deployments to areas of the world where food can be scarce. “I’d been to a lot of small markets in these developing countries,” Rawley says. “I saw people there who were much more in touch with agriculture than we are here in the United States. I thought, ‘There’s something here to this. I wonder if there’s a way to make money connecting people to agriculture.’”
In 2014, Rawley moved to rural Parker County, just west of Fort Worth, to work in real estate development. On daily drives that took him past messy mesquite shrubs and shaggy oak trees and a patchwork quilt of ranches and farms, Rawley wondered whether he could buy his own farm. But he soon discovered that would be too expensive. According to the USDA, the average acre of American farmland is worth $3,800, and the average American farm is 446 acres. So you’d need about $1.7 million to buy an average farm. And that amount doesn’t cover what you’d need to outlay for barns, tractors, and whatever else it takes to turn dirt into dough. Rawley was priced out of any investment that big.
When he looked at alternatives, such as buying a small stake in a ranch, he found some investments offered at places like the crowdfunding site Kickstarter, but most of these were for tiny projects or plots of land promising little in the way of a potential return on his money. So Rawley decided to go a different route. In 2016, enabled by newly adopted Securities and Exchange Commission rules allowing companies to raise up to $1.07 million directly from individual investors through crowdfunding, Rawley planted the seeds for his agricultural financing platform.
After a year of tech development and regulatory compliance work, Rawley launched Harvest Returns with a partner—fellow A&M graduate Austin Maness, who also served in the military, including tours of duty as an Army officer in Iraq and Afghanistan. The company was among the first in the nation to enter the farm-funding business online, preceded a year earlier by California-based Barnraiser and then soon joined by others, including Delaware-based FarmTogether and Arkansas-based AcreTrader.
Rawley says that, as of this summer, Harvest Returns has connected about $30 million of investor money with fifty different farming, ranching, and other “agribusiness” projects—about 10 percent of which are in Texas. A cattle ranch in California that practices “regenerative agriculture”—a new form of sustainable farming—raised $425,000. About the same amount of money fueled the startup of a hydroponic produce farm called Dragon City that operates inside a Dallas warehouse. Other Harvest Returns investments have backed a salmon farm in New York state, where the fish swim and spawn in massive indoor tanks.
Financing requests come so often that Rawley finds himself saying “I’m out” more regularly than the monied panelists on Shark Tank. Much like the big banks, he’s having to turn away many small-scale operators. “Only 4 percent of the farmers or businesses that come to us end up raising money with us,” he says. Hobby farmers who only grow a few small crops—the kind of farmers who might sell squash by the side of a rural road in the summer and fall—are the easiest for him to eliminate because he wants deals looking to raise several hundred thousand dollars at minimum.
Rawley explains that investments smaller than that could still be profitable, but might not generate big enough returns to satisfy both the farmer and multiple investors, as well as Harvest Returns itself. He also often looks for farmers who promise to do good for the planet. “The bias in the deals we do is toward sustainability,” he says. “There is an appeal for some urban investors to support . . . the people that grow our food because they’re part of the most important industry on Earth.”
The way Rawley sees it, investment platforms like his can help at least some small farms and ranches better survive against their larger competitors. Many could use that help. In 2017, the same year Harvest Returns launched, the USDA found that the number of “large crop farms,” which have more than 2,000 acres, had nearly doubled between 1987 and 2012. In those same years, the number of midsize crop farms—those with between 200 and 999 acres—fell by nearly half, and the number of small farms declined by 34 percent.
A large ranch may only want to sell to commercial buyers who can handle a massive volume of meat, such as a wholesaler or a grocery store chain. But a small one, such as Georgia-based Bailey Meats, which raised money through Harvest Returns in 2022, can sell directly to consumers—making the kind of connection with customers that a big beef seller can’t. Even more nuanced business niches can be carved out too, Rawley says, such as the data analytics that Dallas-based Precision Livestock Technologies started offering to operators of large cattle feedlots three years ago.
Precision uses solar-powered cameras to monitor cattle and continually analyze both the images and other data, including weather forecasts, to predict the amount of feed that a herd might need on any given day. The company has used Harvest Returns for two separate funding rounds, raising $600,000 two years ago and another $200,000 in 2022. Precision CEO Andrew McKenzie, a native of the Park Cities section of Dallas, says his startup, which has also raised about $2 million from other investors, used Harvest Returns because the platform allows offerings to be limited only to accredited investors, which the SEC defines as someone with a net worth above $1 million and an individual annual income of more than $200,000. “That was appealing to us because that way you have fewer investors writing larger checks, and also you’ll be dealing with investors who are more likely to be aware of the risks involved in investing in a startup,” McKenzie says.
It helped also that the Harvest Returns investors were knowledgeable about agriculture and the complicated task of feeding tens of thousands of head of cattle. “The people on the Harvest Returns platform are, if not directly involved in agriculture, then certainly have a demonstrated interest in it,” he says. For Precision, this simplified the process of explaining to would-be funders how its data analytics can modernize feedlots.
Last year an outfit called Texas Legacy Vines was drawn to Harvest Returns for similar reasons. The venture asked investors to pony up for a 320-acre vineyard in the High Plains of the Panhandle, between Lubbock and Midland. Mason Moreland, an environmental consultant who serves as managing partner for Texas Legacy Vines, says the vineyards will produce grapes in bulk to sell to winemakers in Texas who will then crush and ferment those grapes before bottling and selling the resulting wine. The vineyards are sparsely staffed. Machines, including narrow tractors made especially for squeezing through rows of vines, do the pruning and harvesting.
The vineyards cost about $7 million to get up and running. Texas Legacy Vines raised about $12 million on its own for the two vineyards and offered two separate investments of just more than $1 million on Harvest Returns. The vines planted with money raised through Harvest Returns will have a lifespan of 25 years or possibly more, and the annual payouts to investors can begin as soon as the first crop is ready for harvest, which McKenzie says could come as soon as this fall.
That relatively long wait for cash returns is one of the reasons ag investing can be risky. Cattle and crops need time to grow, and any number of factors—weather among them—can disrupt that process before rewards can be reaped. “In farming, the operational risks are severe,” says Bill Schriber, who heads Schriber Alternative Investments in Houston and has previously directed alternative investments for Merrill Lynch and Citigroup. “You have to have real confidence in the operator because this is a long-term investment that can take five years or seven or fifteen to mature. And in the meantime, agriculture investments are not like a stock. You can’t just sell and take your losses if you decide you’ve made a mistake.”
Rawley says the due diligence his company does on its deal may mitigate some of those risks and, in the past three years, its investors overall have seen an average return of 12 percent. Harvest Returns, of course, gets its own bite of the apple. The company charges no asset management fees, and doesn’t do commissions, but it does charge listing fees to the farms, ranches, and other businesses whose investments are featured on its site. And it does collect a percentage of profits from every deal that’s fully funded. That percentage varies by deal, with the maximum set at 20 percent.
In addition to cash from Harvest Returns, Rawley says he’s received plenty of advice from the farmers who have raised money with his platform. “I never thought I’d be in this business,” he says, “but I have to admit that after meeting all these farmers I’ve gotten a little more into gardening and gotten a little better at it.”
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