Tools for a Different Trade

Michael DeSa

Founder/Managing Director of AGD Consulting and the Host of the Vets in Ag Podcast

Longview-Marshall, Texas

Emerging science shows that agricultural professions, especially those that touch the dirt, have positive mental health benefits for military veterans wresting with post-traumatic stress disorder or other combat-related injuries. After having spent seven years in the U.S. Marine Corps infantry, I settled back in Texas on a small subsistence farm after having traveled across Latin America exploring other agricultural investment opportunities. Agriculture gives me a sense of purpose I lost following active-duty service. It is more than just a commercial endeavor; it is a way of life that will not only instill a certain set of values into my four young sons, but also an opportunity to provide quality food for us in a sustainable manner. This type of practical, hands-on experience has been extremely valuable to me in my agricultural consulting practice – AGD Consulting – as well as the podcast I host – Vets In Ag.

With as much value as the dirt brings to veterans, we return just as much to the agricultural community in terms of unique skill sets, innovation and entrepreneurship. Military veterans’ keen sense of how to operate in uncertain situations without a single-set solution is especially applicable in today’s COVID environment, where supply chains have been disrupted and the future is uncertain. For me personally, military service gave me the confidence to step out on my own as an agri-preneur and provided the tools necessary to prepare for the highs and lows that often come with starting a business. Military service also taught me that a 70 percent solution now is better than a 90 percent solution in the future; a skill I continue to refine in agriculture’s fast-paced and ever-changing environment.

My military service prepared me and other veterans to triage and solve the most pressing issue first. Ag-tech startups, private equity funds and agribusinesses are currently facing a slew of problems: labor shortages, plant closures, supply chain disruptions, operating expenses, worker safety, deployment of capital, etc. Through layered and intentionally complicated training scenarios and combat-related experiences, like mass-casualty situations and complex ambushes, I and fellow veterans have a unique ability to rapidly triage complex problems, identifying the most significant issue first and working to solve it given the resources at hand. Our decisive leadership and experience can bring clarity and creative solutions to the challenges facing agribusinesses.

Military leaders hold high levels of responsibility and authority over resources, including personnel, property and budgets – even as junior ranking members. At 26 years old, in combat in Afghanistan, I was second-in-command for a 250-personnel organization, directly accountable for nearly 2,500 individual pieces of serialized gear worth more than $40 million, spread across a battlespace of 350 square kilometers and 15 partnered positions. I had to learn to lead in a way that inspired instead of required to instill trust and confidence if I ever hoped of managing this responsibility. A mass-casualty situation and an improvised explosive device (IED) blast that could have killed me and several of my Marines taught me that my decisions, both in the moment and in response to events, can have far reaching effects. I was also evaluated regularly on my performance based on a well-defined set of criteria (character, leadership, intellect, effectiveness under stress, etc.). I struggled early in my career with wanting to have the perfect plan, but these experiences taught me an action now, even if I was wrong, was better than a better action later. It was something I actively improved the more I practiced and was critiqued on it. This level of responsibility and regular evaluation early in life has cemented in many military veterans’ key leadership and operational principles that are attractive to agribusinesses.

Veterans of combat theaters, particularly those with a counterinsurgency mission, understand both the challenges and benefits of putting a local/partnered face on a solution. In Afghanistan, I was part of a team that worked to enable the local security forces to take ownership of their protection, which is why we put them in a position to spearhead their own offensive operations. The local security forces understood the regional dynamics better than we ever could and, therefore, intuitively knew how to respond in different cultural situations.

This same practiced nuance of understanding regional dynamics is a skill set veterans bring to the agricultural sector. When I work with accelerators, venture capital groups and private equity firms to evaluate investment opportunities, I ensure their portfolio companies understand and have experience with the local nuances of where they plan to operate. Agriculture is very regional, so just because an operator has experience in that asset class in one region does not mean it transfers to a different region. Ag-tech startups need to understand the “deployment region” capital providers have experience operating within. A California-based, tech-focused venture capital firm interested in ag-tech may not understand the agronomic considerations and seasonality timelines of agriculture in the Midwest.

Author Michael DeSa at two points in his life: during an operation in southern Helmand Province, Afghanistan, left, and stacking hay on his family farm in Argentina several years later, right. (Credit: Michael DeSa)

As a business owner, evaluating management teams can be challenging – how do you put measurable, objective parameters around subjective soft skills like integrity, execution ability, unit cohesion and grit? Military veterans, especially those who served in an instructional capacity, are particularly skilled at evaluating leadership abilities and team functionality. During my last two years in the Marine Corps, I served as an instructor at the Infantry Officers Course, one of the most rigorous schools in the service, where our primary goal was to train, educate and evaluate new infantry officers. We placed them in stressful, uncertain situations and formally evaluated how well they accomplished a series of tasks. Individual character and leadership talent are regularly revealed when an individual is stressed, then forced to act. For investment funds and agricultural accelerators looking for their next investment opportunity, watch how a team and its leader respond in today’s environment; it will tell you volumes about who they are and how likely they are to succeed. Ask yourself:

  • Do they have a cool, calming presence?
  • What do they do when the situation makes their plan irrelevant, and they are forced to react?
  • Do their actions in a COVID world demonstrate their resolve and grit?
  • Do they put their subordinates before themselves?
  • Is the leader and the team “coachable”?
  • Do they understand small team dynamics – close trust, shared workload, pull together during adversity?

The challenges of operating in agriculture and against a conventional military enemy share many commonalities – unpredictable, influenced by a variety of factors, interconnected, dynamic, etc. Veterans offer a set of skills, learned through rigorous training and refined in combat, that are more applicable today than ever before to agribusinesses, startups, investors and accelerators. The agribusiness sector should prioritize hiring and investing in veterans – and their unparalleled training and experience – as they navigate the complex and disrupted theater that is agriculture in the 21st century.

More about Michael DeSa

Michael is the Founder/Manager for AGD Consulting. He focuses on project origination, due diligence, and market analysis in emerging and OECD markets as well as business/product development and market access for precision ag technology start-ups and corporates. His technical background, 10+ years of leadership and project management experience with the U.S. Marine Corps, and extensive travels and investment experience throughout emerging markets make him uniquely qualified to strategically counsel companies and investors throughout the region. Michael’s sector knowledge extends to row and permanent crops such as wheat, avocados and cotton; mid-sized agribusiness; and early stage agtech companies, accelerators, and private equity groups. Michael has tactical-level farming experience with a wide variety of domestic and international row and permanent crops, hydroponic greenhouse produce, bees, and animal proteins. He co-owns a mixed agricultural farm outside Mendoza, Argentina and in northeast Texas. Michael holds a BS in Agricultural Engineering from Texas A&M.

He also hosts a podcast called Vets In Ag where they explore the stories and insights from the military veteran and supporter communities who are leading the way for vets in agribusiness, agtech, and agri-preneurship.

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