The team at Working Trees is all about using trees as a silent, unassuming solution to some of the world’s most pressing problems. Founded at Stanford by John Foye and Aakash Ahamed, Working Trees provides an easy way to measure and sell the carbon stored in trees planted on pastures, using data collected through smartphone and satellite imagery. The business also works directly with landowners to make the transition to silvopasture—land that integrates trees and forage with grazing livestock– as simple as possible, all while working with corporations looking to offset their environmental footprint by offering carbon credits for purchase.
Through Working Trees, Foye is an Alpine Social Ventures (ASV) fellow and part of the program’s 2022 inaugural class. ASV aims to support the next generation of social-impact leaders by providing capital and insights to help them successfully launch their businesses. Built upon practices learned through Alpine Investors’ CEO-In-Training (CIT) program, ASV leverages Alpine’s playbooks and practices derived from over 20 years of private equity investing. With additional support of the ASV program, Foye, Ahamed and the Working Trees team are set on reversing detrimental environmental and social issues through their climate tech startup.
Foye and Ahamed met in Stanford’s climate ventures class, which teaches developing solutions to climate change’s most pressing problems, in December 2020. Foye and Ahamed—who both had prior experience starting businesses in solar windows and in the water industry, respectively — instantly shared a strong rapport through mutual passions for addressing climate change and catalyzing rural economic development. After hundreds of conversations with farmers, ranchers, scientists at the U.S Department of Agriculture (USDA), and consultants at non-governmental organizations and universities, the two figured they had pulled enough threads and were close to untangling a solution.
They learned that, broadly speaking, using agroforestry (combining trees and shrubs with pasture or crops) as a natural climate solution hadn’t been adopted at a prolific scale yet it had real potential for a lasting impact. There were barriers in the industry, such as expensive labor for manual measurement of carbon storage and the payoff timing in planting trees, yet Foye and Ahamed were confident they were well positioned to find solutions using new technology. Industry trends also supported their vision—carbon markets are growing, yet there’s a supply constraint as more and more businesses look to offset their footprints.
Putting Working Trees to Work
Working Trees has two primary customers for its business model—landowners and corporations. From the farmer or landowner’s perspective, Working Trees analyzes a farm’s current operations and, as needed, connects them with a technical service provider who can provide regionally-specific advice. Then, Working Trees finds private and government funding sources to cover the upfront cost of implementing silvopasture. Finally, it monitors ongoing carbon storage, translating to a steady annual stream of revenue once its established.
On the corporation side of things, Working Trees aggregates the carbon storage from farmers and fulfills offset contracts of these buyers. Across the world, many corporations want to get to “net zero” or carbon neutral through its business practices, since adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere adds to a natural greenhouse effect and causes global temperatures to rise. These environmentally-conscious corporations measure their carbon, revise practices as necessary to become more efficient, but typically have some amount of carbon leftover to offset. At that point, they pay businesses like Working Trees to “pull” greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere for them through offset programs or projects. Those transactions make up the carbon market, and Working Trees focuses on being the facilitator within it to make the experience as easy as possible for both sides.
Besides its customers, there are two key components to Working Tree’s business model that makes its mission possible. First, it has a phone application-based technology that empowers farmers to collect data themselves. This is important because without this technology, Working Trees would have to send out foresters to manually measure individual trees with a tape measure. That’s how most carbon markets work today– and it’s expensive and you typically need 1000 acres or more to participate. So, in practice, only the extremely large, wealthy landowners participate in carbon markets, whereas Working Tree’s phone app makes participation possible even if a farmer has just one acre.
However, just producing carbon credits using the app doesn’t solve the supply issue. A big reason why farmers or ranchers don’t plant trees for carbon projects is because it costs money up front yet all the benefits surface in the future. So, as a solution, Working Trees lines up guaranteed offtake from these corporate buyers of carbon credits, who are willing to pre-pay landowners for these credits. It’s taking the model of power purchase agreements that worked with rooftop solar but applying it to carbon projects on farmland.
In addition to support through the ASV program, Working Trees has been awarded grants as part of USDA’s Climate Smart Commodities program and funding through other third-party partners.
“The reason why we applied to Alpine is because it seemed like the ASV structure was genuinely mission aligned and impact first—and everything we’ve experienced has confirmed that,” says Foye. “Seeing other organizations or smart individuals get behind our mission in a big meaningful way, either through a partnership, or in helping us with operations like team building, has been impactful and validating,” says Foye.
Planting the Seeds of Success for a Long-Term Impact
Using the financial and professional support from ASV and others, Foye and Ahamed have brought on four additional team members who focus on carbon work, institutional landowner outreach and on landowner engagement. Working Trees worked with Alpine Operations Group, which supports Alpine’s portfolio with in-house experts and grows our Alpine community through our leadership programs, to create strong job descriptions to grow its team.
“On the on the team side, we are incredibly mission driven,” says Ahamed. “We’ve been able to assemble a rockstar team because the team wants to work on what we’re working on.”
Working with livestock producers and the livestock supply chain, Ahamed and Foye share that the potential impact of Working Trees is industry-leading in the climate tech space– even if your average person on the street may not know what “silvopasture” means. The Working Trees team wants to raise awareness around this particular approach’s impact in both building an economic engine and wonderful company at Working Trees, but also in stimulating the broader movement of incorporating trees on the pasture as a way to store carbon, improve animal welfare, and increase rural profitability. As both Foye and Ahmed’s careers have sat at the intersection between science, economics, climate and rural livelihoods, Working Trees combines their career and passions.
“We get out of bed trying to bring the best technology and the best solutions to meet the existential challenges of our time. And if there’s a way that we can do that while empowering farmers, ranchers and land managers to improve their bottom lines, then that gets us super excited,” says Foye.
We get out of bed trying to bring the best technology and the best solutions to meet the existential challenges of our time.
Looking ahead, Working Trees has ambitious goals about improving its technology to not only improve how carbon is measured in agroforestry, but also in making the carbon markets more transparent to all actors and parties and to build better trust in those transactions. Right now, Working Trees take photos of all measurements so they can be viewed by corporate buyers, but also by farmers who wants to track their progress over time. Its impacts like these that surmount toward an overall global impact that Foye, Ahamed and the rest of the Working Trees team are proud of growing.
Read more about our ASV program here.