By Tim Linden
For Sammy Duda, sponsoring the efforts of the Western Growers Center for Innovation & Technology is a simple equation that boils down to strength in numbers.
“How do you tackle these issues except with collaboration?” he asked.
He noted that the larger issues facing production agriculture—labor and water shortages and the need to automate—are huge issues that require lots of capital, talented people and trial and error strategies. “I’m spring boarding off of what (then-Western Growers Chairman) Bruce Taylor said: We need to tackle these issues in a collaborative way.”
The President of Duda Farm Fresh Foods in Salinas, Calif., said the typical strategy for produce industry companies is to go it alone, which allows each company to create its own advantage over competitors. But he said using cutting edge and experimental technology is an expensive proposition that requires a group approach. “We just don’t know what the solutions look like,” he said, also indicating that how expensive they are going to be is also an unknown.
Duda was among the leaders in joining WGCIT as a sponsor, with Sammy Duda articulating another compelling reason for the company’s participation. “I believe attracting top talent to our industry is another important reason to be involved. What’s going to attract very smart and sophisticated people to our industry? How do we attract the best and brightest?” he asked.
He said adding the technology piece helps in recruitment. “It makes us attractive to a broader audience.”
He noted that farming isn’t an easy life and spending a career in the field isn’t for everyone. Using technology in the industry, Duda said allows recruiters to approach STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Math) Program participants with a story to tell. While WGCIT is still in its early stages, Duda believes the center has helped attract a lot of very smart people who are putting their brainpower to use to try and solve the industry’s most vexing problem.
More than half a dozen years into the effort, Duda said the industry probably did have some unrealistic expectations of how quickly solutions would be found. But many innovative companies have advanced their ideas, and some have taken them to the commercial level. “We’ve engaged with several different companies over the years,” he said. “Some have worked; some didn’t pan out so well.”
But Duda sees it as a very worthwhile endeavor and WGCIT firms are discovering better ways to farm and compete in the ag space. “We are currently working with GeoVisual and using granular data they are generating to improve our harvesting and timing of the crops,” he said.
Duda said the collaborative approach also allows for many startups to engage with different grower-shippers with eventual solutions helping everyone. “We have a desire to engage with these companies, but there is a limit to what any one company can do. We have limited time and resources.”
He believes both sides of the equation—industry experts and technology experts—have evolved during these past years. Startups are more focused on specifically solving industry issues. And ag companies are honing in better on what they want. Duda, he said, is operating on a “what do we need to know” basis. “It’s a learning process. We need to find and align with the right people.”
The Duda President gives a lot of credit to the Western Growers and WGCIT staffs. He noted that both WGCIT Director Dennis Donohue and WG Vice President of Innovation Walt Duflock have put a tremendous amount of vision, effort and passion to make the center work and drive innovation.
And Duda said this is a critical effort. “California is a difficult place to do business. We have a lot of inherent advantages that exist no place else in the world, but we have to integrate innovation and technology into our world so we can continue to compete!”