The Fundamental Profession

A conversation with MIB alumnus Kit Barron on the data of farms and food
Kit Barron poses in a selfie in his garden

Kit Barron’s commitment to agriculture might be hereditary. His grandfather grew up on a popcorn farm in Iowa in the 1920s. Though he ultimately left for work elsewhere, his stories from the farm lived on, impacting Barron’s career aspirations and academic interests.

“Hearing from my grandfather about growing up on the farm always energized me, and I romanticized it a bit,” said Barron. “From a young age, I’ve been fascinated by food and where it comes from. There’s something fundamental about agriculture and humans as a species; it is the oldest profession. It’s the reason we developed cities, militaries, and settlements. Up until a couple generations ago, most of our ancestors were probably farmers in some capacity.” 

Whether or not his ideas of agriculture developed through romantic notions, now he backs up his interest with an acute business sense, grounded in numbers and figures. As Head of Data Science and Analytics at Farmer’s Business Network (FBN), Kit Barron F11 uses data science to build better tools for farmers, helping them get access to price transparency, market information, and agronomic insights. FBN seeks to upend the big oligopolies of agricultural finance, grain trading, and ag input companies. A late-stage startup nine years in, FBN has built out an online marketplace for seed, crop protection, and livestock feed, and has also expanded into the financial space, offering operating loans, farmland mortgages, equipment loans, and crop insurance.

“Our mission is to put farmers first and re-envision the global agribusiness supply chain in a way that puts the farmer in the fore,” said Barron. “Until FBN came along, there was no way to find out the fair retail price for a bag of seed.”

To do this, his team draws upon a treasure trove of public data from the USDA, FAO, and UN agencies that the business community often overlooks. For him, literacy and fluency with public data sets is the bread and butter of building powerful tools for farmers.

Since earning his MIB in 2011, Barron has been using data to promote the livelihood of people who work in food. His first job out of Fletcher provided him with an intimate understanding of our food systems. As the managing director of the CapLog Group, Barron teamed up with Fletcher alum Michael Clayton F02 to examine the economic impact of the transition to more sustainable fisheries throughout Latin America and Southeast Asia.

“At the end of the day, we’re relying on individuals in often far-flung, unmonitored communities to abide by the law, which is often developed a thousand miles away in the case of some fisheries, or even ten thousand miles away when you have a global NGO pushing a policy agenda. You have to understand what this is going to do to the bottom line of actors involved,” said Barron.

“It really gave me a deep appreciation for the food system and how complicated, efficient, and global it is, and also the importance of having a real business sense when trying to quantify and understand the impact of a policy change,” he added.

As a result, Barron’s definition of sustainability encompasses its business edge: grounding from microeconomics and building a model that generates profit. Agriculture is one of the industries where sustainability and profitability are intricately linked, and he sees that to be a sustainable farm means running a business over the long term while investing in core assets—the soil, surrounding environment, and water.

At the same time, Barron values human capital in his work. In the fall, FBN hosted its sixth annual "Farmer 2 Farmer" tradeshow in Omaha, and Barron and his coworkers embodied the organization’s core value of thrift—setting up the tables in the convention center themselves. He loves working alongside brilliant and passionate colleagues—computer scientists and statisticians, agricultural domain experts with PhDs in animal breeding and soil science. Similarly, what drew him to Fletcher was his cohort: during orientation, his peers were abundantly interesting, and they bonded through school in the 2008 financial crisis.

While at Fletcher, Barron focused his attention on food and agriculture. His appreciation for data as a tool was cultivated in Bruce Everett’s course, “Petroleum in the Global Economy.”

“Professor Everett had this mantra to turn to the data and use models to understand the world for yourself. You might read something in the newspaper or even a journal article that the Prius is better for the environment than the equivalent Toyota Corolla sedan, but don’t take their word for it, run your own model. Understand what assumptions the outcome is sensitive to,” said Barron.

“That really resonated with me and is something that has served me really well—the ability to take a problem and quantify it to inform my own position. You understand the issues much more deeply when you take that approach.” 

Kit and his wife Emily Barron F11 met in the MIB program. They live in the Bay Area with their two children and split their time between San Francisco and their small apple orchard in Sonoma Valley.

Read more about Fletcher’s MIB Degree Program.