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January 26, 2021

Walt Duflock on Leading Innovation in 2021

In October 2020, Walt Duflock was selected to lead Western Growers’ (WG) innovation efforts. He will be focused on accelerating agtech for WG member companies, expanding the footprint of the WG Center for Innovation & Technology, and so much more.

Q. What are your priorities this first year?

A. Innovation in two directions: labor and food safety. We need to identify ways to bolster and accelerate harvest automation as well as improve the current food safety situation through more innovation.

Q. What do you think is the biggest challenge facing agtech? For both the specialty crop industry and startups.

A. For our industry, I’ve always framed it as a three-headed monster: labor, water and food safety. However, between increasing regulations and lack of availability, labor has jumped to #1 with a pretty good-sized bullet. In fact, one of our members recently estimated that the cost of hourly labor is supposed to increase 70% over the next five years. With harvest labor comprising 30-50% of costs for the specialty crop industry, that 70% is a massive number and is getting bigger quickly.

For startups, they’re solving for labor, but every crop needs its own robot. Take Uber for instance; Uber wrote one app and everyone was able to use it. But if you build an apple robot, only the apple growers can use it because it is currently too complex to apply one automated harvest machine across multiple crop types. Since robots are limited in scope, startups need creativity around funding.

Q. As an active blogger and storyteller, what topic do you think WG members should pay attention to but aren’t?

A. WG’s Innovation Team and the steps we are taking toward improving harvest automation. In February 2021, we plan to officially announce and roll out our Global Harvest Automation Initiative in Tulare, Calif. Here’s a sneak peek:

1. Harvest Automation Cohort: WG will select and help a small group of high-potential harvest automation startups to scale faster. Startups will be selected on their potential impact as measured by the amount of harvest labor replaced with automation.

2. Top Harvest Automation Roadmap: Every year, we’ll publish a list of top harvest automation startups by crop type (on the vine, in the trees or on land) and in-market progress/traction (companies getting started, in market and ready for prime time).

3. Sentinel Project: We are in the midst of developing a reference architecture that will help future harvest automation startups develop and scale equipment platforms faster; more specifically, we’re aimed at fundamentally changing the course and speed of the current 5-10 development timeframe at a $250,000 price point, to now building a robot in 3-5 years at a $100,000 or less price point.

Q. What attracted you to Western Growers?

A. I was looking to move to either one of two places: an agtech startup to go and build something or Western Growers to help other folks build something. I just returned from back-to-back road trips where I participated in scope meetings with WG members across California and Arizona to learn more about their innovation needs. I can say with 100% conviction that the BIGGEST impact I can have on the ag industry right now is in this role as VP of Innovation. Working for our members and helping startups is what gets me up every morning with no alarm clock ever needed.

Q. What are you most looking forward to in your role?

A. In the near future, I hope to achieve two things:

1. Developing the best set of metrics on how much harvest labor our members (and the specialty crop industry!) save with the startups we support and work with.

2. To provide partners and stakeholders with startup investment opportunities that deliver high returns.

• • •

Name: Walt Duflock

Title: Vice President, Innovation

Location: Los Gatos, Calif.

Résumé Highlights: Tech at LexisNexis. Internet at eBay. Startups as a whole.

Family: 5 children with my wife of 27 years, Lisa

Favorite Activity for Fun: Family. Golf. NBA.

Best Advice for Startups: Solve real problems and have a plan and have a backup plan.

Favorite Book: “The Lean Startup” by Eric Ries

Best App: Clash Royale (from the creators of Clash of Clans)

Dream Job Growing Up: Tech!

Personal Mantra: I am pro-startup.

Ag Roots: I grew up on a cattle and hay ranch in Imperial Valley. Today, I’m part of a 5th generation family farm in Monterey County that tends to wine grapes, specialty crops and cattle.


Stephanie Metzinger interviewed Walt Duflock for this profile.