September 19, 2023

FIRA USA in Salinas Explores the Real World Economics of Agtech

More than 2,000 growers, tech entrepreneurs and students attended the second annual FIRA USA conference in Salinas, Calif. this week, an attendance record for the country’s premiere agtech robotics event.

Making the economics of ag robots work was a repeated theme at the event – with VC money hard to come by and growers needing to watch every penny, how can entrepreneurs get enough traction on their inventions to scale up?

In response, several growers said that technology with a viable, proven track record will always get their attention.

“Oftentimes our growers are coming to us…and saying ‘You guys need to take a look at this and share it with our entire Driscoll’s family of growers,’” said Driscoll’s Andrew Wulf, Senior Director of Strawberry Product Leadership, on a panel that was moderated by Western Growers SVP, Innovation Walt Duflock.

This year, there were 58 exhibitors at the event, including 16 live demos in vegetables, vineyards, and orchards. Triangle Farms (Josh Roberts), Duda Farm Fresh (Josh Ruiz), Pacific Ag Rentals (Bart Walker), RDO Water (Ted Mills), and Hartnell (Clint Cowden) assisted in putting together the demo areas.

In addition, CDFA Secretary Karen Ross, California State Senator John Laird and Salinas Mayor Kimberly Craig all joined for presentations and a 90-minute walking tour to discuss ag and agtech as rural economic drivers and possible funding opportunities around education.

FIRA USA assists in the mandate of the Western Growers Center for Innovation and Technology in Salinas, which works to build ties between start-ups offering real-world solutions and growers. According to the Specialty Crop Automation Report published by Western Growers and Roland Berger earlier this year, 70 percent of surveyed growers invested in automation in 2022.

After debuting in Fresno last year, FIRA USA moved to Salinas as part of an initiative to allow growers throughout the state to see the cutting-edge technology on display. “We wanted to do this event where farmers farm, where food actually grows,” said Gabe Youtsey, CIO for event co-sponsor UC ANR.

In addition to panels and networking events, more than 30 robots were exhibited at the three-day event, ranging from laser weeders to autonomous tractors. The ultimate goal of these ag robots is to help growers continue to grow the nation’s food amid  the industry’s ongoing labor crunch.

In 2024, FIRA USA will be held in the Davis/Sacramento area, with free admission offered to verified growers.