Helping Farmers Sustainably Feed the Planet with Indigo Ag’s Chris Harbourt

December 27, 2022

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With more than 25 years in leadership positions at the intersection of science, agriculture, engineering, and business, Chris Harbourt leads Indigo’s efforts to leverage science and digital technology to measure and translate the impact of farmers’ sustainability efforts into new profitability opportunities.

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John: Welcome to another edition of the Impact Podcast. I’m John Shegerian, and I’m so excited to have you with us today, Chris Harbourt. He’s a New Jersey boy like I am. He’s the Chief Strategy Officer, also of Indigo Ag, and you can find him at. Chris, welcome to the Impact Podcast.

Chris Harbourt: John, great to be here, looking forward to talking.

John: You’re in Champaign, Illinois, today. I’m sitting in Fresno, California, one of the ag centers of the United States, if not the world. This is a very important conversation, not only with regards to the U.S. but with regards to ag around the world and the opportunities that exist therein. But before we get going and talking about what you do as Chief Strategy Officer and how you’re changing the world and making the world a better place right now, can you share a little bit about your journey leading up to becoming the Chief Strategy Officer at Indigo Ag?

Chris: Yeah, happy to John. I’ve spent a career, and really a lifetime in agriculture. I grew up in New Jersey and I actually grew up in agriculture in New Jersey. People look at me funny when I say that, but it’s for real. It’s the garden state after all.

John: It’s the garden state, people think it all looks like Newark. It’s the garden state. Come on.

Chris: Right. I moved away. I moved to Virginia Tech, did my undergraduate in agricultural engineering there, and then came out to the University of Illinois for a master’s and Ph.D. And I grew to love the Midwest. It’s the place to go for production agriculture, and I’ve had a great time here. I started off in consulting, working with all the major ag companies, the inputs companies, seed-producing companies, and massive science studies across the country, helping those companies sell their products correctly to different farmers, that sort of thing. Then I got into the software world and really started focusing on how do I build tools that help farmers utilize all this wonderful information that’s out there in getting collected. Satellite information, weather information, how do you link all that together for a business advantage for a farmer? Had a couple of companies involved with there, exited out of those and joined Indigo a few years ago as just an opportunity. I saw in Indigo hope, hope for what we might be able to do around climate change, and really just came there for the mission and have been having a great time and are standing up some programs there.

John: Now, I’m on your website, Indigo Ag, and for our listeners and viewers, it’s Indigo,, Talk a little bit about it, and set it up. What is the mission of Indigo Ag?

Chris: Yeah, so Indigo is a company obviously rooted in agriculture, but focused on three core areas, carbon credits and the emerging opportunity in agriculture globally for carbon credits. Other supply chain programs were those groups who were already buying agricultural goods, as either inputs or ingredients to their products, how those come to life. Then also microbial and the opportunity of really modifying the microbial environment around plants in a way that’s beneficial to plants, and that’s really been the three core focus areas of Indigo on bringing that to farmers, to the first traders, the groups who are aggregating the products coming off of the farm, and bringing that value to the farm. That’s at a core what Indigo’s been focused on doing.

John: It’s an ecosystem play with regards to sustainability in every element of ag?

Chris: Every element in production, and every element in terms of connecting farmers and really working with the opportunity to connect farmers, the data, the physical grain, all of those pieces together in a way that drives value to the farm gate. New customers, in a sense, coming to the farm gate.

John: Well, Chris, sustainability. I’ve had the luck and the blessing of interviewing hundreds, if not over a thousand sustainability officers or leaders over the last 15 years. When it comes to ag and what you’re doing at Indigo Ag, what does sustainability mean for you at Indigo Ag?

Chris: Yeah, I think sustainability for me is it’s a mix. We sometimes talk about environmental sustainability and economic sustainability, maybe not being aligned. In agriculture, they’re absolutely aligned, if you are able to grow a crop with a little less fertilizer, and you’re able to maintain the yield, that is both economically and environmentally sustainable, so there’s great alignment there. I think that’s the key takeaway from agriculture overall is there is a chance if you do things right with education, with getting growers set up to succeed, there’s a lot of variability, a lot of risks in agriculture and farming for a farmer. But if you can get those aligned and you can get them over that hump of change where they do things like how dad did it, and how grandpa did it before them. If you can get them to a new way of thinking, and they see that this is both environmentally sustainable, it’s better for my operation, there’s more resilience built into it, but I’m also economically benefiting from this. That’s just the win-win that I think will really cause this to become something really sticky in agriculture.

John: Help me as a general consumer, I always thought that the movement a few years back with regards to sustainable farming had to do with less pesticides, more organic farming. Is that still a trend? Or we pass that by and we move past that onto other things now as well?

Chris: Yeah, I think the organic movement is a fantastic way to really document and track and start to expose farmers to new technologies and just different ways of thinking, that are able to really help them improve their agriculture in a way, right?What we’re seeing in recent times now is with the move across the world to decarbonize supply chains and really address that. When you think of agriculture, not as just a supply of fruits and vegetables or directly consumed agricultural goods, and you start to think of it as ingredients, there’s a whole other realm of what we would call commodity crops, corn, soybean, wheat. These traded commodities where there’s an opportunity now to bring sustainability to them in a meaningful way that’s trackable through the process, it’s auditable, all those different concepts of what you saw in organic. There’s a way to apply that conceptually to the rest of agriculture, not necessarily meeting an organic standard, because that’s not necessarily important in that world. But it is a way to drive that sustainability in supply chains for companies all the way back through.

John: Net zero has become a hot buzz term in the last three or four years, Chris, and it’s getting hotter, it seems like every day as the ESG and the shift from the linear to the circular economy seems here to stay. How does carbon credits fit in with regards to people’s and organizations’ net zero goals? And then apply that to the ag industry specifically and what you’re doing at Indigo Ag?

Chris: Yeah, it’s a great question. When we think about the opportunity there for net zero, we’re actually working towards something a little more aggressive, right? Where we’re actually saying, planet positive is the approach, where net zero is great but we actually have to go into the atmosphere and grab carbon dioxide that we’ve been emitting since the dawn of fossil fuel use here, right? The last hundred few years and really start to undo that. So, it’s not only about addressing and getting to a net zero going forward for products, but it’s also looking back into the atmosphere and saying, “What can we do to address some of the sins of the past, and pull those together?” Ag has that opportunity because of what we see and I see it every day here in the central U.S. and Champaign, Illinois. I’m looking out my window right now at a corn and soybean field. It’s absolutely flat out here, so you can see for miles, there are miles of these fields, and they’re brown right now. They are not covered in a crop. So, for only a portion of the year when they’re growing a crop, it’s about 120 days out of the 365 you’ve got something green growing on the surface. Well, the rest of the year you can plant what’s called a cover crop, and a cover crop is one of the technologies there that’s producing carbon credits. The way this works, you work with a farmer to plant a cover crop, and they turn their field from being brown to green. That means photosynthesis is happening, photosynthesis is pulling carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, using the sun’s energy to convert it into plant growth, you’re removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere using plants. So it’s something that’s immediately scalable if we can convince farmers to do it at scale. On the 3 billion acres of ag across the globe, we’re able to meaningfully reduce the carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere using agriculture. And all the elements are there, the farmers are there, I call it an outdoor factory, really, it rains in a farmer’s factory. That’s the only difference, it is an industrial system.

John: That’s great.

Chris: Yeah, we can leverage that system, and produce cover crops. It’s a way of putting nutrients back in the soil, of increasing the organic matter in the soil, is ultimately the way that we store carbon in the soil. All of those have the beneficial outcome of working with the farmer to make their field more resilient. So, that’s the way it plays into the net zero claim, and even going beyond that to the planet-positive era.

John: Wait a second, so out of the 240 or so dead days, if you really are interested in doing this with a farmer who’s also interested in participating, how many days do you get to have a cover crop out of the 240? Is it one turn, two turns? Is it half of that time? How does it really work?

Chris: Yeah, it depends. I’ve got some farmer friends up in Fargo, North Dakota. They don’t have much of an opportunity. As soon as it snows, the plants are going to go dormant, and they’re done, for a portion. You get into Central Illinois, south into Kentucky areas, you can plant a cover crop actually into the standing crop, right before you harvest it. You go out with a tractor spreader, and you apply the cover crop, you spread it, and plant it into the standing crop that you haven’t quite harvested yet. It’s already sprouting as you’re harvesting, and then you terminate it by roller crimping it, right at the time you plant, so in a vast portion of the globe, you can actually turn it green for the balance of the year.

John: And that’s when you get that planet-positive situation, man.

Chris: Yeah. It gets it back, a way to think of it, John is it’s similar to the grasslands that were here for the last 10,000 years when you had the buffalo and the open prairie grass, they were green all year long. Whenever there wasn’t snow, they were photosynthesizing and taking care of carbon dioxide removal in the atmosphere.

John: If you’ve just joined us, we’ve got Chris Harbourt with us today. He’s the Chief Strategy Officer of Indigo Ag, and you can find Chris and his colleagues of all the important and great work they’re doing to make the planet more positive at, if the world now, if the organizations, if Larry Fink and BlackRock and all the other great institutional financial groups around the world are now demanding that their portfolio companies or want-to-be portfolio companies are net zero, are adhering, and actually reporting on their ESG behavior, and the shift from the linear to a circular economy, then you in theory and the important work you’re doing at Indigo Ag, it’s almost like the dotcom boom all over again. Because you have this unbelievable set of resources that the world is going to need to want to transact in. And you then have the opportunity to unleash that from ag in the United States, and ag around the world to the buyers, the net buyers that need these to continue to do business the way they want to do business and make the world a more planet positive and greener and better place. Do I get this right? Or where am I missing something in that puzzle or that chain?

Chris: No, you’re right. What we’re seeing right now is the emergence of this industry. This is going from something very nascent, where we had carbon projects in forests and other areas. We just been bringing this to agriculture in the last several years. This is the start of that opportunity, and there are a number of other ways in which you can remove carbon, and look, we’re going to need it all. When you think about the opportunities there, ag is part of this, but we need the forest programs, we need the mangrove programs, we need the direct air captures, like that group Climeworks in Iceland, that scale-up of technology. Where ag plays a key role in this is that it’s as I just described, that farmers are ready to do it now, if we get them the incentives right, the financing of it right to incent them to make the changes, they can implement it right now. So, in the next five years, agriculture can have a huge outsized impact on getting us to change this trend of increasing CO2 levels and rising temperatures while other technologies come on board. But make no mistake, we’re going to need everything. We’re going to need every creative mind out there working on this problem because the scale of it just blows your mind when you think about the amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that we’re emitting as a society globally.

John: Talk about Chris, when you launched Indigo’s carbon farming program specifically, and how has it grown and evolved since its launch?

Chris: Yeah, it’s interesting. When we started everyone was suspicious, “Can you really do this?” We’re talking about taking an invisible gas from the atmosphere, right? Sticking it into soils, and as the form of organic matter, so dead roots and other things, and microbial biomass in the soil. Can you really do that? Can you quantify it? Is it real? This question of, “Is it real?” Was the first question, we had to prove to the scientific community and to the world at large, and to farmers and to the buyers of this that this is real, this is real and achievable. We worked with a registry at the time, and we still do, Climate Action Reserve and Verra, two well-respected registries globally who are in the carbon credit world, and we follow the rule set that we put together.

John: I’m going to interrupt you, Chris. For our listeners and viewers, explain what a registry does and how they help the whole process of negotiating the new world that we live in with regard to carbon credits.

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Chris: Yeah. The registries work with a group of external experts from academia, NGOs, and others, and they put together rule sets in which you can then develop projects from Indigo’s running a very large project. And that project yields carbon credits at the end, and the registry certifies those as that is a ton of carbon equivalent that’s been worked through. And they do the audit process, there’s an external verification and validation of our techniques, along with third-party audits and all those things that you would ask for of something that’s a virtual product like that.The registry really puts that all together.

John: So, the registry puts that all together. For lack of better terms does that calm or sewage the folks out there that are always questioning the quality and transparency of the voluntary carbon markets? Is the purpose of the registry to then create quality and transparency for credible, legitimate forms of voluntary credit markets like you’re trying to create in Ingo Ag?

Chris: Exactly. That’s the key step that makes it in simple terms, transactable. That a farmer can do the work and someone can buy them, and we’re the group in the middle making sure that that happens. So, in the early days, to answer your question, back to the early days of Indigo we had to go directly to farmers and say, “We’re going to ask you to do this new thing on your farm.” And they’re like, “Change is hard. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a farmer,” change is hard for everybody. We’re going to ask them to change. They’re scratching their head going, “Are you sure you really want me to do? Okay, let’s give it a shot.” Then we go all the way to the other end to buyers and say, “We know you’ve been buying forest credits. You understand what that’s like, you know you’re trying to get to a net zero. We’ve got this new form. We can actually use agricultural soils to store carbon.” And convincing them that, “Hey, that’s real, and we can actually do that.” Then convincing the scientific community, working with the registries, doing that hard sticky part in the middle that actually made it transactable, that was the early days. We had to go from one end to the other. What we’re finding now in the more mature stage, where we’re in our new third issuance of credits, so the third crop of carbon credits is coming along. We’re working not directly with farmers, but we’re working with partners. We’re working with the trusted businesses that farmers already interact with day in and day out. A farmer is not a person, a farmer is a small business. And those small businesses have relationships with other businesses on buying seeds, fertilizer, who they’re selling their crop to, and insurance. All the different needs that a small business has, they’re already in relationships, yeah. We’re leveraging those relationships and we’re adding it all the way through to the other end, which is the buyers, now we’ve got brokers and others, and talking about figuring out how to do auctions at some point in the credits in a way that we’re not having to convince an individual company that this is something of value. It’s starting to be known as, “Hey, this is a great source of really high-quality carbon credits.”

John: Great. That’s exactly what I wanted to ask next. So, the registry at this point in your evolution at Indigo Ag, is the registry not only creating the quality and transparency of your carbon credits, are they also brokering them and selling them, introducing buyers to you as the seller? Or is that happening right now?

Chris: No, the registries are just about the oversight of the creation of the credit and the rule set. As soon as they create the carbon credits, are now a ton of CO2 equivalents from the registry. Then any buyer or a broker would register with the registry as saying, “Hey, I’m about to grab that credit and pull it over into,” and they do one of two things. They either sell it on and then it gets traded, or they retire it, and they retire it into their reporting about their ESG. So, they retire it into their reporting, and then that counts against that year’s offset of whatever other emissions they were trying to get to the net zero claims.

John: Is there going to come a day as you continue to evolve what you’re doing and perfect it? Because every new industry has all sorts of zigs and zags and fits and starts. Once your carbon credits are registered and proven using the registries that you mentioned earlier, will you then be the net seller yourself or Indigo Ag be the net seller to the net buyers, and there’ll be direct trading going on with your carbon credits?

Chris: Yeah, we’ve thought long and hard about this, and the most important thing for us to be is very aligned with the farmer. Most of the dollars in a carbon credit go back to the farmer. Right now our break with the farmer, and the partners in Indigo it’s about 25%, and the farmer is 75%. They’re getting the vast amount of the revenue coming off of these credits. I think that’s fair. They’ve got a lot of work to do, it’s hard work. We want them to get rewarded, as we then think it’s less about us and what we want to do, and it’s more about how the farmers ultimately want to position that.Do they think of it as a commodity? Or are they comfortable with knowing the price upfront? And we’re approaching that in different ways. Some farmers want the dollars upfront because they’re using it as a financing vehicle to buy seed or other things in their operation. Others are saying, “You know what? I’m making enough money off my primary crop, I want to let these ride because I know that they’re going up in price. Because there’s a scarce supply of these, and the world is looking for these offsets. I want to let it ride.” We have to think about all of those different groups and say, “Look, we’re just along with them on the ride. We’re that glue in the middle that makes sure it’s real, that makes sure that this transaction can happen. But we’re leaving that option up to that ultimate producer.

John: That’s fascinating. There’s even using back, I think this is actually an old farming term, so there’s even the opportunity with regards to carbon credits and the ag market for speculative accumulation.

Chris: It could be. Absolutely.

John: That’s fascinating. Well, I want to go into next, Chris. This sounds fascinating and amazing, and it sounds like the next huge opportunity. Literally, this sounds like as big as the dotcom boom was, and the EV boom is, this has a whole other massive opportunity. One, as we’ve discussed a little bit offline before we started taping, this is not just a U.S. opportunity for what you’re creating here, this is a worldwide opportunity. Can you talk about the potential for what you’re creating and what you’ve launched and what you’re nurturing now in its pilot and beta stages, and how big this could really be for ag around the world, Chris?

Chris: Sure. The opportunity globally is, it’s really amazing, I think, and what’s different about carbon credits and this is something to think about globally of where, where is the best opportunity for this globally? You have to have really two ingredients. You need a lot of rainfall during the primary growing period of the year, and you need relatively cool winters. Because of the winters, what ends up happening, is if it’s too hot, there’s too much biological activity and there’s too much turnover in the soil, and your net sequestration is lower. So you think of an area like Brazil as being the prime spot to go, because it’s just this breadbasket of the planet almost, and it might not be the best opportunity for carbon. There are other areas that might be better. I’ll give you an example, we’re working in a couple of different areas, we’re working in South America and Europe, but I was recently over in India. We have a joint venture in India with a seed company there that’s doing carbon crediting for rice-wheat rotation farmers in the Punjab area of India. It’s in the north, up towards Pakistan, with great people. I was up there and had just a blast and a great time. We were in this town of Jaipur, and they’re just fantastic people. I tell you, I got out of a car, and I’m like, “Boy, the air conditioning in this car isn’t working so good.” You pop open the door and it’s like 120 out and you go, “Man, that air conditioning was actually fantastic.” And I’m out there in the wheat harvest with them and they’re talking about carbon, they’re talking about changing their cycle, putting a cover crop down, and it was just inspiring to see those small growers, smallholder growers, couple acres, not very large operations, but really trying to dig in and say, “I can do this better,” and they saw the benefit. They also saw an environment at risk. Those high temperatures are a big struggle for rice production. They’re looking at some of these alternate practices that we’re talking about of ways to be a little more resilient, as they’re dealing with the front lines of climate change there too.

John: When you look at our carbon emissions on a worldwide basis, and you look at this opportunity to offset them using ag, how much of the problem that we have? You said earlier at the top of the show, this is just part of the big solution, this is just part of the answer. That’s such a wise comment, but how big of a part in this? Given the net problem on a macro basis and what this net solution could be on a global basis? How much of the problem can this really solve for us in the world?

Chris: Yeah, it’s a very difficult question to answer, but in broad brushstrokes. If you imagine that globally corporations just get super responsible and say, “Look, we’re going to go into our supply chains and we’re going to on purpose remove as much carbon as we possibly can.” That’s the first step. So, if corporations and us as consumers drive that behavior in corporations, that’s the biggest most important chunk. Now, of the portion that’s left let’s take Jet Airline travel, for example. They’re not making electric jets anytime soon, so you’re going to have to continue to burn jet fuel. And as you do, if you want to get to net zero, you’re going to have to look to another area to offset that in some way. When you look to that balance of emissions that are unavoidable in supply chains, ag can handle maybe 30% of that, and when you think of the vastness of agriculture and you say, “My god, 3 billion acres globally, and if we get all of that to convert over, we can address 30% 40% of the gap after businesses have removed everything that’s possible.” So, I think some people think we’re all in competition in this carbon credit world. What about forestry? What about direct air capture? I say, and, and, and, and you need them all, and we’re not really in competition, there aren’t enough sources here. And it just shows you globally how dependent we are on fossil fuels for energy and what that looks like in terms of the load on our atmosphere, and the enormity of the problem. It’s hard. You can talk about gigatons and these huge numbers. I personally can’t get my head around numbers that large. So, I just start to think of it in percentages and say, “Everybody’s a good actor. Yeah, we can maybe do 30% with agriculture,” and that’s significant. That’s a huge opportunity.

John: So, let’s talk about that, significant and huge opportunities. Every time there are entrepreneurs and entrepreneurs like you that have significant and huge opportunities, they go to bed at night and they’re not thinking anymore about the significant opportunity, what they’re thinking about as they lay down in the dark, is the barriers and the challenges that yet remain to be overcome to achieve that significant opportunity. What keeps you up at night, and what are still some of the big barriers and challenges to these amazing and important goals that you have at Indigo Ag?

Chris: Yeah, I think at the core of it, we’re really talking about all of these programs, carbon credit programs, they’re financing vehicles. They’re ways of moving dollars to incent a change, right? So, we’re really at a core talking about behavior change. I think of it like asking somebody to get off a couch and go on a diet. We all know we should, and we all know we should exercise more, but getting someone to change that behavior is difficult. It’s not ag, it’s not diets, it’s humans. Getting humans to change, takes a long time, and I don’t know that we’ve got a long time. When you look at the rate of change in our atmosphere, we’ve got to drive this change quicker than humans are comfortable with. I think that’s the biggest challenge I think as a society and in agriculture too, that we really face at this point; we’ve never experienced what could happen. So, no one’s like, “Oh, the last time there was a hurricane that was really bad, so I think I’m going to do something different.” You can’t say the last time there was global climate change, well, this is how I would react. You don’t know what’s coming, and hopefully, you never know because we’ve avoided it. So how do you incent a behavior change around that? I think for me, it comes back to sustainability in agriculture. I think it tells an amazing story to a farmer to say, “Look, there’s more money to be made here. Whether you’re excited about climate change or not, there’s a chance for economic gain, and there’s also a chance for you to improve your behavior, and we know we’ll make an impact on carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere so let’s give it a shot.” Once I get past that worry of can we get farmers to really make the change quick enough? It’s can we get companies to pay the right amount for the change? If we’re asking a farmer to put down a cover crop it’s not free. They have to drive a tractor through a field, take their time, they had to buy the seed, they had to take on the risk of doing it. Again, it’s a small business that’s barely making ends meet. We’re asking them to make a change, we’ve got to make sure it’s worth it for them. Those are the two things for me, I know we’ve got the science right, and scientists are doing a fantastic job improving the science, but it’s good enough today for us to assure the world that this is real. We know we got that piece, it’s can we make sure the financing is right for the farmers? And can we make sure that we can do it quickly enough to make the impact that I think it can have?

John: Chris, you know how big the opportunity is. You’ve identified the risks, and the risks are real like you’ve pointed out, it really are. Where do you think this goes with what you’re doing at Indigo Ag with your colleagues? How fast does this accelerate? When I have you back on the show two or three years from now, where are we then?

Chris: Yeah, it’s a great question. I think two or three years from now we’re at that stage where we’re turning the crank on a machine that can pump out carbon credits. So, we’ve proven there’s no technical barrier here. All the pieces are there. It’s more about partnering with the right groups globally, making sure that we can really start to scale this up. It’s a chicken or egg situation. Are the buyers ready to buy? Can we produce enough? We’re just slowly ramping ourselves up to that future. I think we’ve got some ideas in the works around catalytic finance of this and groups who are ready to put dollars to work to help this along and kickstart that chicken or egg situation, so that’s not even the thing we’re discussing anymore. That I think is what will be passed in two to three years and we’ll see just adoption scale. We’re already seeing scale increases. Our first issuance was about 19,000 tons of carbon sequestered, that’s a small number, it’s significant. It’s not one, 19,000 is a big number. A lot of farmers are involved, a lot of tech. But we now have over 5 million acres enrolled in our program. Just over the course of the two years we’ve been doing this, we’re talking about going from a few hundred thousand acres to more than 5 million.

John: How much of that in the United States?

Chris: That’s all in the United States. Our only program right now is in the U.S. we’re in the early phases of rolling out the global programs, so there’s no acres globally counted in that 5 million.

John: Wow. In November, you’re going to be completing your second payment to farmers, so that has to be very exciting as well.

Chris: Oh, that is. Anytime we can put dollars in the hands of farmers out in the country, that is a validation point that this is real. I think that really causes the snowball effect of their neighbors going, “Am I missing out? I got to go talk to those guys.” Or anybody who’s doing a carbon credit program.And that’s the exciting thing.

John: FOMO will work in your favor here. FOMO will work in your favor.

Chris: Absolutely.

John: In February, you’re also completing your second carbon credit issuance. What do you expect that to be?

Chris: We expect it to be more than double our first one. And that was just showing all kinds of efficiencies and everything else in the process and working with more farmers.

John: Chris, this has been amazing like I said, I sit in the middle of one of the biggest ag belts in America here in Fresno, California. And I’m going to definitely direct a lot of my friends and relatives by the way, to the great work you’re doing. To find Chris and all of his colleagues at Indigo Ag, go to Chris, thank you for making the world a better place. Thank you for making the world more planet positive. Thank you for joining us today on the Impact Podcast.

Chris: Thanks, John. Appreciated it.

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