January 6, 2015

We are on the Upward Slope of Technological Progress

I have some good news to share with you that does not involve politics, legislation, immigration reform, labor unions or government overregulation, but does support this organization’s mission — to increase the profitability of our members.  Western Growers is taking initiative to shape the future of our industry by exploring partnership opportunities in the high tech industry.  Our aim is to advance technology innovation in the fresh produce industry among all commodities and throughout all regions of California and Arizona thereby improving our ability to produce more food in more efficient ways.

By 2050, there will be about 9 billion people to feed.  The middle class will increase from 1.5 billion people to 4.5 billion and they will demand better food choices — more fresh produce is one of those choices.  Global production must increase by 70 percent to meet this demand.  The only way we will produce enough food will be through advanced technology development which will serve to diminish the environmental impacts of farming and reduce our reliance on increasingly unstable human labor.

We are entering the “Precision Ag Era,” when growers will be better able to identify challenges and implement real time solutions to reduce waste, improve yields, protect resources and feed more people.  Technology is the key.

One such opportunity that may help advance our technology capabilities in farming is supporting start-up companies and new ideas.  This is done through incubators and accelerators.  Accelerators speed up the development of a good idea or start-up for new products and services in precision ag.  These will be transformative tech solutions that will develop through an incubator program that provides resources, mentors, and expertise to help idea-generators to launch, find investors, grow quickly and deploy new products or services that develop into thriving enterprises.

Western Growers recently participated in one such program with SVG Partners in San Jose.  This accelerator and incubator program is highly selective and has just identified the first 10 startups, (companies from California and also across the country and around the world) that will have access to mentors and opportunities to collaborate with industry executives, R&D staff and venture capitalists.  Program sponsors include ag companies like Taylor, Mann, Dole, Chiquita, JV Smith and others from outside ag like Verizon, IBM and Forbes.  For eight weeks, these select companies will have access to the best expertise and resources of top ag and tech companies enabling them to quickly deploy their new technologies.  They are also eligible to receive up to $5 million in funding.

Among the startups selected to participate in the program is a Massachusetts company working on automation (bots) and a new growing system to replace farm labor; a California company converting and recycling food waste into soil nutrients (in the form of liquid fertilizer) that is looking to do field trials and then build a commercial-scale plant; and a Fresno company developing some highly customizable, low-cost software and tablet apps to collect and analyze data for all aspects of food production like inspections and soil monitoring (no more pen and paper records).  Many seek interaction with farms and growers, handlers and shippers to refine their inventions and field-test them.  Your involvement will be a key component of this incubator process.

This is an exciting endeavor and an exciting time for our industry.  A new age of agriculture is taking shape; one of opportunity and endless possibility.