While many established industries in the world have been “disrupted” with new ideas and technology over the last several years, one that has remained static is the agricultural and food supply industries.
However, if Indigo Ag of Charlestown has anything to do with it, they will be the driving force to turn the industry upside down with technology, new research, and environmentally friendly farming models.
In one of the most unlikeliest of places to headquarter such a change – that being on Rutherford Avenue in Charlestown thousands of miles away from the country’s bread basket – Indigo is making major headway now, and has grown significantly in both their Charlestown headquarters and in their second major office in Memphis. Boasting offices all around the world now, the company has gone from around 15 employees in Charlestown in 2015 to more than 400 here now.
At their bustling office and laboratory in Hood Park, workers operate at a frenetic pace, with some even working from conference rooms due to the need for space amongst their expansion. While Indigo has been discussed many times over the last few years in the Town regarding new buildings and expansion plans in Hood Park, few in the Town really ever got to understand what the company really does.
“Ultimately, what we’re trying to do is bring healthier foods into the system,” said Katie Czerepak, Indigo’s Chief People Officer. “We’re really excited to be part of building and changing the agriculture industry. We think we’re doing it in a different way and building a great company and culture.”
Indigo had a very humble beginning as a side project of Flagship Partners, where founder Geoffrey von Maltzen used his knowledge and study of beneficial human microbes that were being discovered and applied it to plants.
“He reasoned that if there were beneficial microbes that were being used to help humans, maybe the same thing existed in plants,” said Indigo spokesperson Allie Evarts. “It turns out that had validity.”
Indigo has several businesses that have spun off of their main function, which is finding beneficial microbes in plants, studying them, and then producing seed coatings that help crops grow stronger in a variety of conditions. As a result, they have also founded side businesses that help predict the weather, another one that operates like an Uber-system for transporting crops in trucks for hire, and yet another that eliminates the long-existing market structure in favor of direct purchases online between users and farmers.
Much of the support networks for these side business systems are in Charlestown, where they employ everything from engineers to technology experts to agricultural plant researchers.
“It’s easy when you grow up in a city or suburb and you don’t have any idea where your food comes from,” said Czerepak. “Farmers and people from rural communities understand that…Today, I see so many people wanting to know where their food comes from. The complexity of the agriculture business and supply chain is impressive, but it can be difficult to understand how to get back to the person who grew the wheat that’s in your bread. We want to make that work more transparent. What we’re trying to do is de-commodify the industry and allow for differentiation…Nobody would choose this agriculture model today. It made a lot of sense in post-World War II, but no one would choose it now. It’s an industry that hasn’t been updated in the way others have in the last several years. We’re trying to really make a difference and change the industry.”
The cornerstone of having a healthier food supply is getting to a point where farmers don’t have to choose genetically-modified seeds, or use pesticides and herbicides. Likewise, during droughts, they hope there is a way to not have to use excess water.
The key to figuring all of that out, according to Biologist and Senior Scientist Sarah Seaton, is the research that’s done at the offices in Charlestown.
She said they have farmer partners in 15 states and worldwide who can identify “survivors” in difficult conditions. What that often means is when there is a drought or a condition that kills off most of the plants, sometimes there is one odd-duck plant that seems to survive.
Indigo brings those to Charlestown to figure out why.
“We work with our partners all over the country and find plants that are miraculous survivors of some sort of stress,” she said. “We get each of them back to the lab and find out why they survived when others did not.”
What they find, after extracting DNA from the plants, is that they contain thousands of microbes in them. Some of them, she said, are potentially helpful and can be added to seed coatings.
They have isolated at least 15,000 microbes in their lab, the largest catalog in the world, and they have partners who have isolated even more.
In Charlestown, they have numerous labs where they do initial tests on plants using these microbe coatings. Some of them don’t work out, while some of them do. Those move on to the research and development phase, and eventually can move to being tested or used in the fields.
“We are looking to target a specific microbe for a specific geography to help with any sort of crop stress a grower might face,” Seaton said. “We hope a grower with a problem in West Texas with a crop can call and we can go to the shelf and say we have a microbe for that. I believe we’re collecting enough data to get there – tracking the microbes to a specific geography and a specific crop.”
That work takes space, and the research, engineering and needs of the growing company are overflowing in Hood Park. That is why Hood proposed to build a large, new building last year at the rear of its campus. As Indigo expands, they need space and they need it now.
And they want to stay in Charlestown.
“What we do requires researchers, technology experts and scientists,” said Czerepak. “One hallmark about us is we’re attracting a very diverse group of people with many different backgrounds. There is a lot of talent in the Charlestown area. We’re very attracted to this area. We’re finding the smartest minds in technology and science in the Charlestown area.”