Date: Aug 05, 2014
August 2014-Western Grower Ag Legal Network

Production agriculture today is not the kind of farming our grandfathers would recognize.  The era of high tech has come and the number of new technologies and services is astounding.  Silicon Valley is knocking at the farm gate with some new innovative approaches that present new and exciting opportunities as well as challenges, while growers and shippers work to improve productivity, efficiency and the bottom line.

Mobile, rugged computers and smart phones are ubiquitous in the business.  But what if you could pull up a map on that mobile device that would show you how much fertilizer should be applied in a precision application to a specific area of the field — all in real time — and then deliver that precise application using your company drone hovering inches above the crop canopy?  What if a piece of equipment is ready to break down and when it does, it transmits data back to the dealer who will be able to access the onboard diagnostic system and instantly fix the problem or email you the part so you could 3D print it and install it  at a fraction of the previous cost?  What if each tree in your orchard had a sensor that could send you data on its health and vigor along with recommendations for moisture, nutrients or pest control?

Today, we already use smart phones to monitor and control crop irrigation systems from any location.  Moisture sensors in the ground transmit information and provide precise control of water and other inputs.  Satellites are also being used for water efficiency.  Western Growers has been working with NASA to develop dashboards for growers to access the wealth of data available through these technologies.  We’ve also assisted members in reducing costs with solar energy, which is being adopted by more-and-more growers.

From nanotechnology that can detect pathogens, contaminants, nutrients and environmental characteristics to automated crop thinning and harvesting through robotics using sophisticated sensors and algorithms, farmers have new tools in an age when innovation is accelerating.  While much of the new technology has been geared to the commodity crop industry, the specialty crop industry is taking an interest.  The Steinbeck Innovation Center in Salinas with its Smart Farm and newly announced THRIVE program is one example.  Another is the burgeoning biotechnology activity and manufacturing cluster in Sacramento where venture capital investment is being attracted to agriculture.  So what are the drawbacks?

It’s expensive for early adopters and can be intimidating.  There is a tsunami of data and information generated by these new technologies and who owns, controls, secures, sells and shares the information is critical.  When you are wholly focused on operating a business for this season’s crop and making a living, it’s hard to stay abreast of new innovations and opportunities, especially when there are dozens of promising technology products and services out there and more being introduced and pitched all the time.  It is not easy to see their utility right away.  Which ones do you choose?  How do these new technologies integrate with the technology investments you have already made or with other future offerings?  Which ones will provide a return on your investment?  Which ones will solve the real problems you may be having?  And most important, which ones are the game changers?

It seems like the high tech industry is sometimes coming to ag with its own solutions to issues and problems it perceives we have; a solution in search of a problem, in other words.  Technology has been a huge success with commodity crops because many of these data-gathering gadgets and packages can be assembled on a big combine and bring information to you in real time as the crop is harvested.  It is not the same when you are hand-harvesting and dealing with multiple types of crops and short seasons.

Technology and innovation have always been cornerstones in the specialty crop sector and are coming now with a whole new velocity presenting myriad opportunities and challenges.  We need a focused effort on matching solutions with problems.  Perhaps first engaging the industry to identify the problems facing it, and then designing solutions to solve those problems is a good approach.  The industry must direct, determine and invent the kind of technological devices that fit the design in a sensible and proactive way that makes technology work for us.

Working together in cooperation can bring new innovative solutions to market faster for use by all industry.  We know the landscape and I think it is our job to put all these great minds together, roll up our sleeves and focus on the key issues that affect everyone.  Then we can figure out the best way to apply new technology that will lighten the load, and increase efficiency, sustainability and profitability.

WG Staff Contact

Tom Nassif
Former President and CEO

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