January 7, 2019

AgTechx Events Sparking Technology-Led Disruption in Farming Regions

It is no secret that automation, big data and blockchain are disrupting traditional farming models. What may be unclear, however, is how this digitization of ag can be relevant to the specific crops you grow or how new technologies can be used to solve problems faced in the regions you farm.

Last year, Western Growers launched AgTechx to bring technology to farmers in an effort to address issues in their own backyards. The first AgTechx premiered in the Imperial Valley on February 8, where nearly 200 farmers, researchers, technologists and agtech startups participated in R&D tours, fireside chats and panel discussions to dissect the labor and water issues in the desert region and discuss specific technologies being invented to help solve those challenges.

Since then, AgTechx has traveled to Reedley, CA, to highlight progress around robotics and automation; to Coalinga, CA, to cultivate discussion on improving connectivity on the farm; and to Delano, CA, to delve into new technology that can aid the implementation of California’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act and minimum wage increase. To date, AgTechx events have educated more than 650 people.

In 2018, AgTechx was comprised of three portions:

•  R&D Tours: Exclusive morning field tours where start-up companies and research and development specialists from tech giants such as Microsoft and Yamaha visited with Western Growers members to learn, first hand, what problems farmers are facing and what types of technologies can be developed to relieve those difficulties.

•  Junior AgSharks: Local junior high, high school and community college students acted as “AgSharks” for the afternoon, where they heard pitches from start-up companies and teamed with venture capitalists to judge the startups and select a winner.

•  Education Session: In-depth panels and fireside chats about cutting-edge technologies and regional growing issues took place, encouraging discussion on how to bring forth new innovations that can address farmers’ most pressing concerns. A networking component was also built in, where start-up companies housed in the Western Growers Center for Innovation & Technology (WGCIT) provided 90-second pitches about their invention and attendees could later touch base with any desired startup during the exhibition showcase.

This year’s AgTechx plans to bring much more.

“We are going to focus on becoming more outcome-orientated,” said Dennis Donohue, lead of the WGCIT. “With that in mind, we are going to continue to collaborate and reflect the changes that are going on in the agtech world itself, but we are now going to plant more strategic flags to find solutions for our members as quickly as possible.”

AgTechx events in 2019 will focus on bridging the information gap between Silicon Valley and rural America. New strategic initiatives such as building an “AgTechx Community” to foster future collaboration and discussion, as well as hosting stand-alone R&D days will play a significant role in identifying which technologies are most beneficial in key production areas. For example, a stand-alone AgTechx R&D day would entail a group of engineers visiting vineyards in the Central Valley to work with farmers to see what their automation needs are and discuss what features in a machine can be built to resolve those needs.

“In a world that is becoming increasingly technical, there is a going to be a massive amount of information coming at our members in an accelerated speed. AgTechx is going to distill and translate that information and bring it directly to growers in their backyard,” said Donohue. Expect to see changes in the next AgTechx, which will be held in Sacramento at Bayer on February 7, 2019.

In addition to enhancements to AgTechx, WG plans to integrate the “outcome-orientated” focus throughout all technology initiatives this coming year:

•  Grower Trial Network: A Grower Trial Network will be introduced this year, where a select group of WG members will be trialing and evaluating innovations coming out of the WGCIT. Members will be providing feedback to the start-ups, so entrepreneurs can fine tune their product and bring it from development to market as quickly and effectively as possible.

•  Crop-Collaborative Initiative: Keeping in mind that an automated solution that works for one crop will not necessarily work for another, WG will launch a cross-collaborative initiative to accelerate automation for all crops. The initiative will include activities such as the following:

     Global Collaboration: Convening game-changing innovators from around the world to share labor-saving technologies.

     Robotics Collaborative: Working with the robotics community to learn about inventions that can potentially emulate the human function.

     Road Show: Traveling to multiple key production areas within a couple of weeks to discuss automation needs and new labor-saving technologies.

•  AgTech Innovation Directory: WG has soft-launched an interactive directory that acts a marketplace for agtech startups. By visiting www.agtechpages.com, users are able to see details about each startup including years in business, number of WG members using and acres deployed. Also, WG members are able to filter through desired startups by commodities served, issues addresses and solutions offered.

•  Expand Global Reach: The Center will continue to host delegates from foreign countries and formalize partnerships abroad in an effort to expand our global network. Additionally, WG will learn about technologies these partners developed to overcome labor, food safety and water obstacles in their respective countries and translate those into findings that will benefit WG members.

“Our center is now in its third year, and we are more committed than ever to helping our members battle ongoing challenges such as labor shortages, water scarcity and kill-step validation,” said Hank Giclas, WG senior vice president, strategic planning, science & technology. “We are now working more strategically in a ‘ready, aim, fire’ fashion to ensure that the issues our members are facing are being solved with the right technology.”