July 14, 2021

Collaboration Focus of WGCIT

By Tim Linden

When the Western Growers Center for Innovation & Technology was launched in 2015, the concept had already been proven in several other industries: bring technology innovators together with industry users to create new solutions to age-old problems. But the fruit and vegetable industry did not have its own incubator until WGCIT was hatched.

Today, WGCIT has 50+ residents working with many of the association’s members, and others in the ag space, to formulate solutions to real problems. Several years ago, WG Board Member and WGCIT Sponsor Vic Smith of JV Smith Companies told Western Grower & Shipper that technology geniuses are great, but they often find an answer and then look for a problem that it solves. WGCIT endeavors to get the horse before the cart.

Here are a few examples of collaborations that are working in bringing solutions to problems by combining technology experts with produce-industry subject matter experts.

Grace Mohan of HeavyConnect noted that the company started in 2014 and believes it recently has progressed beyond the “start-up phase” to that new world where a pat definition is elusive. “We no longer see ourselves as a startup. We have products and are selling them to customers.”

But she said working with industry members during their development stage was crucial. She rattled off a number of companies that helped the firm develop its software, which is designed to make documentation compliance easy for a grower shipper. Mohan explained that in today’s environment a successful grower has to be more than just an accomplished farmer. She also has to have a detailed paper trail…and it’s better and more efficient if that paper trail isn’t on paper. In fact, HeavyConnect has digitized the paper trail. “We help the grower take what he is doing in the field to the office without losing any of the data.

The list of documents necessary to run a farming business are almost endless and are specific to what you are growing and where you are growing it. For example, HeavyConnect worked with Braga Farms in Soledad to develop the right documents for organic certification.

Mohan said mobile devices and apps are utilized in the field by supervisors, foremen and workers who typically use a drop-down menu to document specific procedures, such as a pre-harvest checklist. That information is sent to the office and the proper documentation can then be created.

Mohan said another application that is now ready-for-purchase as it has already gone through extensive testing, is its time-keeping solution. This application interfaces with a grower’s payroll software automatically handling payroll activities. But it also creates time and productivity reports and keeps track of worker training protocols.

She said food safety is another area in which documentation is critical and HeavyConnect has a solution after much testing with WG members.

Concentric Power is another company that has gone through the start-up phase and is now in full sales mode with other customers who are benefiting for the collaboration with early users with customers that were not early adopters. Director of Project Development Amy Tomlinson listed Taylor Farms, Rava Ranches and Church Bros. as three companies that were instrumental in the early development state.

With their help, Concentric Power developed an intelligent “Microgrid Controller” that is able to integrate and optimize several power sources to take a facility off-grid for extended periods of time.

Taylor Farms’ Gonzales processing facility had existing wind and solar components, but they functioned independently of each other. The goal of the microgrid and cogen project that Concentric Power built was to integrate these existing distributed energy resources (DERs) and add firm power to form a microgrid system that could effectively take the facility off grid.

At its True Leaf Farms processing facility, Church Brothers was looking for energy resilience, independence, and cost benefits. The answer was to build an onsite microgrid that consolidated existing services to take advantage of primary, firm power. The project also included provisions for growth as demand increases over time.

Concentric Power recently broke ground on a new facility at Tasteful Selections in the Bakersfield to again help solve the firm’s energy needs. The two companies collaborated to identify the need and work together to solve the problem with the aid of advanced energy technology.

iFoodDecisionSciences, which recently acquired HarvestMark, also acquired an ongoing relationship with Divine Flavor, a grower-owned distribution company based in Nogales, Arizona, with many ranches in Mexico. iFoodDecisionSciences develops data management software solutions for supply chain players. It has digitized food safety processes and combined the results with traceability efforts making reporting of food safety a practice-based rather than an audit-based activity, according to Minos Athanassiadis, who handles marketing for that company.

Working with grower-shippers, the company developed case level traceability and Athanassiadis said with this acquisition, iFoods is now the market leader in that space. They are now trying to go one-step further and bring traceability down to the consumer level with a QR code on each clamshell.

Athanassiadis said that iFoods is working to develop software that can link QR scans from the consumer container with the case code data already available. Through data analysis, the firm is working on connecting the location of the QR scan to the case code and transfer the food safety traceability data that is on the case to the clamshell scan.

Michael DuPuis, public relations manager for Divine Flavor, said traceability along the entire supply chain from food to fork is a goal of the company. He said the case labeling work that Divine Flavor initially did with HarvestMark “is a cool project” that has paid dividends.

He added that taking the traceability piece down to the consumer level is a goal of the company that could be in reach with the new-found popularity of QR codes. “The use of QR codes skyrocketed during the pandemic,” he said, alluding to the many uses such as by restaurants to eliminate paper menus. Consumers have become very familiar with scanning a QR menu to reveal data. “If you can take that same principle down to the last mile in a produce shipment that would be great.”

Theoretically, a consumer could scan a QR code on a clamshell of grapes and be presented with a host of information identifying the source of that product on a very granular level.

It is through collaboration between tech specialists and subject matter experts in the produce industry that companies in the Western Growers Center for Innovation & Technology are tackling and solving some of the industry’s thorniest concerns.