Using market data to encourage organic farming


SILVER SPRING, MD. SEPT.29, 2013: Kelle James, founder and CEO of Mercaris, an online trading platform for organic commodities in Silver Spring, MD. on Sept. 29, 2013 .( Photo by Jeffrey MacMillan ) (Jeffrey MacMillan/Jeffrey MacMillan)

Entrepreneur Kellee James considers herself a “financial environmentalist,”someone who aspires to create more transparent markets for organic crops.

For James, buying organic food, walking to work and reducing her use of energy wasn’t enough to help the environment. To effect larger scale-change, she decided to create an online reference filled with market trends and prices for non-genetically modified commodities — information not regularly catalogued by the Agriculture Department or financial databases such as Bloomberg — so farmers and investors could track prices, buy and produce more natural crops.

In September, James unveiled Mercaris, a subscription-based market data service for agricultural commodities. Starting at $80 a month (or more, depending on the number of crops you want tracked), subscribers can follow the corn, wheat and soybean markets, clicking through price charts, trade statistics and other data points.

Mercaris tracks the corn, wheat and organic soybean markets, logging prices both for crops intended for human consumption and for animal feed. Since its launch, the site has attracted about a dozen users, including Whole Foods Market. The rest are mostly farmers, grain elevator and mill operators and co-ops. On Monday, Mercaris started its auction platform, allowing users to trade organic and non-genetically modified crops, and taking a percentage fee of each transaction.

Compiling the data is a challenge, James said. For now, Mercaris depends on about 40 farmers, grain elevator and mill operators who log on to the site every Friday, uploading the prices and quantity of crops they purchased that week. Mercaris’ software collects the data and spits out a weighted average price for each crop — contributors are given free subscriptions.

“The purpose is to help people run better businesses and make money in organic farming,” James said, noting that providing more information about the markets could encourage farmers to participate. “If you’re a farmer, it [affects] your crop decisions ... If you’re a food manufacturer, it’s keeping an eye on your costs, and getting your price signal about future costs.”

Based in Silver Spring, Mercaris’ three-person team is funded by early stage investors — so far, the start-up has raised about $800,000, mostly on the West Coast and in New York.

Mercaris is James’s second environmental market experiment. Until 2009, she worked as an economist for the Chicago Climate Exchange, a platform letting businesses trade carbon and clean-energy credits. She left to serve as a White House fellow in 2009 and intended to return to the company after a year, but the exchange was acquired by Atlanta-based Intercontinental Exchange. Mercaris co-founder and Chief Technology Officer Chris Duesing also worked at the Chicago Climate Exchange.

James said she hopes the platform primarily helps the farmers and operators who deal directly with crops, but eventually the niche database could be a resource for industry research and investment banks specializing in agricultural commodities. Mercaris has already had preliminary discussions with agricultural policy makers about how this data could help in designing crop insurance, James said. She’s also working on tracking coffee, among other crops.

Just as carbon exchanges allow trading platforms to generate revenue while cleaning up the environment, “it’s worth discovering the process” for organic production, she said.

Mohana Ravindranath covers IT and small business for the Washington Post and its weekly Capital Business publication.
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