Female tech-enabled farmer

Carl Casale is not alone among agricultural fund managers in tracing his journey to private equity back to a childhood spent on a family farm. Perhaps more unique is that the property Casale worked as a child in Oregon was managed mainly by a woman – his grandmother Jenny.

Casale, a senior partner at venture capital investor Ospraie Ag Science, tells Agri Investor the strong female archetype he was introduced to as a child is among the factors motivating him to make space in his investment strategy for women’s growing interest in agriculture.

He highlights USDA statistics revealing that women are already among decision-makers on more than half of US agricultural operations and enrollment trends suggesting female participation in some of the most innovative corners of ag is likely to continue growing.

Casale says consumption of information and go-to-market strategies are among areas of investment strategy that stand to be most directly shaped by increased female  participation in ag.

“It’s a generational and fundamental shift in terms of who the customer is and how they are going to be interacted with. That’s where we have to start thinking through opportunities that are presented to us that can begin to address this,” says Casale, who held positions with Monsanto and CHS before joining Ospraie in 2018, according to his LinkedIn profile. “Whoever gets on the front side of this, it can be a very, very attractive investment.”

‘Brains over brawn’

In an August essay, Casale described some the current interest in ag among women as being driven in part by demographic trends stretching back to the 1980s farm crisis, which forced many young men to leave family farms for employment and contributed to the current average age among US producers being 57.5 years old.

“As we move from what was historically a physical, labor-intensive, human-driven, machine world to one that is much more automated… that can benefit from the diverse population”

Dwight Anderson, Ospraie

Casale also referenced enrollment trends at the Agricultural College at Oregon State University, Casale’s alma mater, where women account for two thirds of students, and other data suggesting widespread interest in ag among female students elsewhere.

Casale added that two of the past three interns on his farm have been women and Ospraie plans to hire a female intern with interest in agtech next summer.

“We fundamentally believe in meritocracy and the way you make that work is, you have a much bigger pool of candidates from which to solicit ideas and proposals,” he says. “We just have to fill the pipe. We have to convince people that’s this is a great place to have a career, and it is.”

Ospraie founder Dwight Anderson tells Agri Investor that while Casale has been the driving force behind the greater emphasis on women in ag, the initiative stems from observations of demographic trends that drive global ag markets everywhere. He highlights that while women provide 40 percent of the global agricultural workforce and 60 percent of women in Sub-Saharan Africa are engaged in food production, women account for less than 15 percent of global landowners.

“We’ve discussed, inside the firm, how that trend occurred and what we can do to try and support a change in that,” Anderson says. “As we move from what was historically a physical, labor-intensive, human-driven, machine world to one that is much more automated and has a dramatically greater range of demands and needs that are less actual physical labor in the field and more about how we can try and transition agriculture and the technology, that can benefit from the diverse population that is the US in all aspects, including male/female.”

“They don’t have to go move anything. They just have to understand how to program an irrigation controller and monitor the water probes in the field”

Carl Casale, Ospraie

Widespread labor shortages facing many corners of the agricultural economy, says Casale, could further accelerate the uptake of women into new roles within agriculture. A key aspect of increasing female participation in ag, he added, is technology’s  influence on the job’s physical demands.

“They don’t have to go move anything. They just have to understand how to program an irrigation controller and monitor the water probes in the field,” he says, using his childhood experience hauling irrigation equipment as a gauge of progress since. “It’s brains over brawn now and that’s where this industry is going, very, very quickly.”

Searching for Pioneers

Anderson says one of Ospraie Ag Science’s first investments was into a female-founded enterprise – the 2018 investment into pesticides producer Marrone Bio Innovations, a company founded by a female scientist and merged with Bioceres Crop Solutions in 2022. Casale himself was among early investors in Trace Genommics, an Ames, Iowa-headquartered soil analysis company that has at least two founders are women.

Casale highlights the example of Stephanie Gamez, currently director of research and development for St. Louis-headquartered Agragene, a biological crop pest control company backed by Ospraie that most recently secured $2 million in a 2022 round. He explained that Gamez is a molecular geneticist who relocated from San Diego when Agragene changed its headquarters to St. Louis and has recently given birth.

Such examples of women attaining powerful positions within agriculture, he says, can inspire students considering an agricultural career.

“Not everybody wants to be on the bleeding edge or be the pioneer. They want to know that there is a support group,” Casale says. “That’s the mass we need to generate here to accelerate this.”

Anderson estimated less than 10 percent of start-up founders that have approached Ospraie for funding have been founded by women. He has instructed his team to encourage participation among more female-led and founded companies, he says, despite continued prevalence of men among management and ownership.

“It’s something that we actively consider and try and pursue to support, within the mandate, of course, that the investments need to be economic in all aspects first,” he says.

“It’s sort of like if I say: ‘Please take a look around for the color blue’, you’ll see blue more or report it more. We’re trying to be thoughtful, conscious, engaged and proactive in actually trying to take a look so we can increase our funnel of incoming and inbound beyond what we have.”