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February 14, 2023

Walt Duflock: FIRA USA — If World Ag Expo and World Agri-Tech had a Baby

(Before I start, I have to once again invite everyone to see one of the coolest event promo videos ever — thank you to my WG colleague Cory Lunde for his great editing work in putting this video together! If you are looking for something to get you fired up about AgTech automation — and who isn’t? — watch this video! And it goes without saying, but I have to say it — there will be rodeo clowns involved at FIRA USA 2023!)

Back to back weeks in Toulouse, France and Tulare, USA have convinced me that the format we are adopting for FIRA USA is the best event format for the most important activity at a specialty crops automation event — starting and advancing conversations between growers and AgTech companies. It may sound obvious, but a lot of events focus on other things for various reasons (sponsor dollars, organization agendas, and trying to attract a larger audience chief among them). When we launched FIRA USA last year in Fresno, we wanted to take the best aspects of two shows, focus the effort on one specific group of crops, and try and find an audience of AgTech companies and growers. The goal was to bring the specialty crop AgTech automation community together for some great content, some great demos, and start a bunch of great conversations. We found a willing audience on both sides — startups enjoyed being part of a focused event where most of the attendees were looking for their type of solution, and growers were also interested in attending a show that focused on one type of solution.

When you think of Tulare and the World Ag Expo, you think about an event for all ag products — dairy, livestock, Midwest crops, and specialty crops are all well represented and you better pack comfortable shoes if you want to see all of them because you will be putting some miles on to get across all the exhibitors in 3 days. Back from a one-year COVID hiatus in 2021, World Ag Expo re-appeared in 2022 and quickly got back to most of it’s former glory. The 2022 crowd was great, not quite at full capacity, but everyone was glad to have the event back and a chance to re-connect with people you didn’t get a chance to see much of in person for a couple of years. The old adage (and 80s song lyrics from Cinderella) is true — sometimes you really don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone (or was it Joni Mitchell) — and Tulare proved it in 2022. World Ag Expo in 2023 is next week and should have a bigger crowd and more companies in attendance. It turns out seeing ag equipment live is one of the best ways to create curiosity and questions from an audience. Tulare does this really well — that is the essence of what we hoped to capture for specialty crops for FIRA USA.

 

World Agri-Tech in San Francisco is an entirely different affair. You’re paying $500/night for a lot of nights in San Francisco at the Marriott Marquis — for Tulare it’s only a special event like World Ag Expo that can convince people they should pay $500 for a Courtyard in greater Tulare that’s not even that close to the event venue. Tulare is about the outdoors, walking for miles over a long day, learning about the latest equipment offerings, and getting some great BBQ and peach cobbler. World Agri-Tech has really high-end food and a lot of presentations that have you sitting theater style listening to some of the brightest AgTech and investor minds talking about what’s here now but more about what could (should? must?) happen for later. Tulare is $20/ticket — World Agri-Tech is $2,500 — and nobody should wonder why farmers don’t go to World Agri-Tech. At $2,500 a ticket and $500/night, the average farmer shakes that off faster than they shake off a trip to the mall. At World Ag Expo, exhibitors talk with and to farmers. At World Agri-Tech, presenters talk about farmers, and not always in a nice way.

So those are two of the flagship ag shows that have very different audiences, locations, and objectives. You get forward looking conversations over Michelin quality food in the urban environs of San Francisco with some really smart and uber-educated elites (you don’t have to ask them about where they went to school — they’ll let you know) that some of us call “Davos for agriculture” (but that was before Davos took a bit of a hit — a re-brand might be in order). You can also get the latest and greatest AgTech toys all in one place with people who built them and can answer almost any question you have with an increasing number of launch events to really show off the latest stuff — is it Disneyland for Farmers or CES for agriculture? You decide — but it’s pretty darn cool to have that much AgTech in one place, and even though John Deere keeps announcing cool toys at the real CES in Vegas, I think the notion of having one central launch event in February in Tulare is good for ag and good to get some media attention.

So with FIRA USA, we said (with our partners GOFAR and UC ANR) three things (and we added a fourth later):

1.     Focus on specialty crops — dairy tech and livestock tech and corn and soy tech are cool (and they are — who doesn’t like a 400 HP shiny tractor with awesome just as shiny attachments and what cattle rancher can look at virtual fences and not smile after putting up miles of fence line for grazing rotations as a lad — raising my hand), but let’s just do the fruits, nuts, and vegetable crowd and see how many people will come to our little soiree (we actually didn’t call it that, but the GOFAR team is French and we like to collaborate …)

2.    Bring the content — we wanted the great content of World Agri-Tech with the brightest minds, but we wanted it focused on just specialty crops. Let’s go deep on automation solutions for some of the key areas where the labor challenges (both availability and increasing cost) are most acute — planting, spraying, weeding, thinning, and harvesting. Most importantly, focus on the grower’s needs and their problems and the economics needed to solve them. Cool robots are only really cool when they solve the problem and they do it at economics that are interesting to the grower. The best weeding robot in the world won’t have any buyers if they’re charging $1,000/acre (it has to be far lower — likely $200–250/acre — which will go up as labor costs increase but that’s close to market rate with a slight trend towards $250/acre). Similarly, the best harvest robot in the world won’t sell unless there’s a clear path for the harvest happening at somewhere near the cost of a human crew picking the same food. So the content should come with a grower seal of approval (or not) because what the growers in the audience value most is real world testimonials from growers that have used and purchased the product or service. Think of it as World Agri-Tech level content with the growers as a constant reality check.

3.    All about the robots — after talking with and surveying hundreds (probably thousands at this point) startups and growers, one thing was apparent before FIRA 2022 and is still true. One of the most common events that moved a sales process forward towards a closed sale is a real live in person conversation while they are able to see the robot live in either an expo or (even better) a demo setting. Whether it was at World Ag Expo or an AgTech X event at a community college like Hartnell or Imperial Valley College, the chance to look a startup team in the eye and talk about their cool robot while they see it in action is one of the best sales advancement techniques ever. So we wanted to make a lot of these conversations possible and we wanted to do it at scale in multiple formats. We did this by creating two days of exhibitor opportunities and one day of in-field demonstrations. This took the best of World Ag Expo with a specialty crop focus and allowed growers to see it all in one place for three days at FIRA USA in Fresno in October of 2022.

4.    Bring the event to the farmers — we explicitly decided that FIRA USA would not be in any place like San Francisco. That was fine and on brand for World Agri-Tech — not for FIRA USA. Our first event was in Fresno, and the second event this year will be in Salinas. These are agriculture towns and communities, and that makes a statement that we want growers to attend. Tickets are not $2,500 and growers get talked to and with, not at and about. Growers and robots are the center of attention for one obvious reason — nothing happens for startups until growers see the solution, believe in the solution, and buy the solution. Everything else is noise. The plan is to put FIRA USA in different places with a Fresno/Salinas vibe, not a San Francisco vibe (and it’s not just SF — we wouldn’t hold it in downtown Los Angeles either!) As I said at the spring 2022 press event in Fresno announcing FIRA USA, “I know World Agri-Tech and it’s a great event, but let me clear. FIRA USA is not World Agri-Tech!” (Fresno area press seemed to enjoy that quote.) But we do like the same type of great content, and we like it delivered where farmers will see it.

So FIRA USA 2022 went very well and with our GOFAR friends we plan on 2023 being even better. We learned a lot about some format changes with World FIRA in Toulouse this week. The GOFAR team changed the format from an inside event format with panels and presentations to focus on outdoor formats, and the event went well with the new changes. Lessons learned in Toulouse are going to help us make FIRA USA 2023 even better.

1.     Everything in one place — in 2022 we had two days of presentation content and exhibitor area at the Fresno Convention Center, and one day for in field demos and it took some logistics work to make it happen. We had 10 buses going all over Fresno for roughly 4 hours of demos. With the Salinas location at the rodeo grounds that leverages the Sherwood Community Center, the two formats are now all in one place and it’s an easy walk between theater style presentations, the exhibitor area, and the demo area. We want less movement time and more easy time for growers and innovators to see each other and the robots.

2.    Robot extravaganza — on Day 1, our big kick off event will be a 3-hour live robot extravaganza suitable for all ages. For 3 hours in the stadium, a rodeo-style announcer will interview startups and growers that use their products for the good, the bad, and the ugly of AgTech adoption — why don’t field trials always go well, why does it take growers so long to buy, and what does a good customer integration look like will all be prominent topics. Fans in the audience will have a chance to see all of the robots, the founders that invented them, and the growers that are using them. Along the way, they will also hear from some of the schools that are training the next generation of AgTech workers and some of the researchers that are putting the future tech products together in the labs. Lots of video, lots of sounds, lots of reality checks from growers — and lots of kids in the audience. We will be working with FFA and 4-H programs to get as many K-12 kids in the extravaganza audience as possible. This will be a fast-paced event with lots of content — we are really excited to launch this new format in Salinas. Rumor has it there will be rodeo clowns engaging with the robots and an audience participation voting system that will produce a winner that will receive … a big belt buckle like the ones the bull riding champions get at actual rodeos!

3.    Get the kids engaged — it’s not just the extravaganza. We want kids to be there — so anyone wearing an FFA coat (the blue corduroy jackets) or a 4-H uniform gets into FIRA USA for free! We want these kids to see the robots, to ask questions, and to get excited about the possibility of a career in ag or AgTech. Students were a big part of World FIRA and they will be a big part of FIRA USA 2023 — can’t wait to see all the blue coat FFA students and green 4-H hats in Salinas in September figuring out which robots will be more fun to work with for their first AgTech job!

4.    More face time with the robots — just like World FIRA, FIRA USA will build in as much time to interact with the robots as possible. So we will have parts of all 3 days where the robots are being demoed and the exhibit area will be outdoors as well and very close to the live demonstration area. Our goal is to have 6 or more hours per day of robot time available. There will be live demos and exhibits on all 3 days.

So those are the highlights as we wrap up World FIRA, head to Tulare, and begin planning for FIRA USA. FIRA USA is the perfect mix of Tulare and World Ag Expo with San Francisco and World AgriFood. It’s focused on specialty crop automation. It has world class content for 3 days on just that segment of agriculture, developed by growers and with grower feedback. It has great AgTech demos and exhibitors for 3 days — you can watch panels, see exhibitors, and watch demos all without leaving the grounds. This year we make it even better with the Robot Extravaganza, which provides the whole event in a 3-hour format for everyone to attend on day 1. As I said in the title, FIRA USA is exactly what you would get if World Ag Expo and World AgriFood had a baby — it’s a pretty good looking infant and we’ll see if it can avoid those pesky “Terrible 2s” as it approaches it’s second year and how it likes walking. 

This blog was original published on the Medium site of WG’s VP of Innovation Walt Duflock.