Agtech innovations have come a long way to drive efficiencies and ease work challenges. However, widespread adoption continues to be hampered by trust and cost hurdles, even as farmers face greater pressure to incorporate automation into their practices to remain competitive. This is sparking new conversations between growers and start-ups on how to foster better connections.
Many of these discussions took place last week at the robotics and automation conference known as FIRA USA. Walt Duflock, Vice President of Innovation at the Western Growers Association, explained why the pursuit of new Agtech solutions is so important. For one, the number of domestic workers is declining, aging nationwide from 10 million to 3 million workers over the past seven decades, according to Duflock.
“The family farms have reduced the number of their farm workers,” he said. “These family businesses have in many cases been regulated and taken out of business at great cost.”
A 2018 study found that regulatory costs for Central Coast lettuce growers had increased from $190 per acre to $977 in just a few years. Duflock believes that number is even higher today.
“I like to say farmers wake up on January 1st with a bad hangover and $1,000 a acre down the drain,” he said.
Farmers had to find reliable but costly ways to fill the labor shortage. In 2005, they hired just 48,000 H-2A migrant workers – by 2021 they plan to have 300,000. However, accommodating more H-2A workers brings with it new housing and transportation costs. For some crops, labor can account for half of the operating cost.
This has prompted many farmers to switch to machine-harvested crops. According to President and CEO Stuart Woolf, Woolf Farming and Processing has transitioned to tree nuts and tomatoes as a strategic plan. This allowed the company to invest in new post-harvest and processing technologies such as: B. Units for sorting and classifying at a speed and quality that human labor cannot match.
Taylor Farms California has also had success with post-harvest technology and is now looking to integrate it with agricultural production technology to create more reliable and cost-effective harvesting, said President Mark Borman. He described the challenge of being able to grow high-quality crops but not being able to meet a six-week surge in labor demand during harvest.
The “Holy Grail” for Woolf was automatic weed control. At the conference, he welcomed several startups that presented promising solutions, but admitted that technology has been a hurdle in his daily life and he struggles to decide when is the best time to invest in new agtech. He stressed to the startup executives in the audience that breeders need to get a return on their investment.
“I think it’s strategic to be an early adopter, but if you come in too early and you’re constantly working with the gear and it doesn’t deliver on the promise, you go back pretty quickly,” he said. “When do you dip your toe?”
Once an organization has adopted a new technology, the first step in implementing it and adapting the workplace to it can present other hurdles, Borman explained. Taylor Farms responded by developing a training center, with the manufacturer helping to develop the curriculum and training videos.
“So when we started there were all the starting issues you would expect. But we got through them a lot quicker,” he said. “That made the first step a lot easier.”
Without the pressure of harvest, the hands-on workshops made the technology accessible and sparked more interest from workers—as well as some key users that Borman hadn’t anticipated.
Woolf added that having a team from the manufacturer on site can help the technology succeed and provide more confidence that it will stay in the field months later. As a practice, he encourages his operations managers to take risks with new ideas, but first to convince him that the technology is worth the investment.
Farmers need reliability, with a plan B if equipment needs repairs, such as B. a second device as a backup, said Borman. He urged developers to enable integration of data with other products so harvest and post-harvest technologies can work together and each mechanization process helps make the next better. Taylor Farms has been more successful at adopting new technologies since they hired specialists to integrate products across applications.
Woolf shared how manufacturers presented him with great ideas that didn’t translate into his operations. He also slammed companies with expensive technology for focusing on a narrow market.
“We need the smaller guys,” he said, adding that his company sometimes buys more expensive equipment — like a $500,000 tomato harvester — and takes it to the small suppliers who contract with his processing plants. “It is strategic for us to bring this technology into our own supply chain.”
Borman described the fee-for-service business model for some products as promising and said that breeders should no longer protect their technologies as such industry secrets are difficult to protect nowadays.
“Initially, we focused on hiding some of our technology,” he said. “That led to being offended that no one was trying to steal it.”
A separate panel discussed the need to build trust with producers. Dennis Utt, who runs a farming business as the owner of Crown Harvesting Inc., argued that he trusts machines more than people because the equipment is optimized to be efficient and reduce human error.
Gary Thompson shared that sentiment. His family has run a commercial spraying business for 40 years, but has struggled to find workers willing to work slow, seasonal nighttime jobs. They developed an autonomous field sprayer for their service and later marketed it to farmers under GUSS Automation – their years of work in the field immediately built trust with customers. He explained how the autonomous vehicle drove all night at just two miles an hour, while a worker could take a nap and make up for lost time by driving faster and doing a bad job — and the farmer would never know. He acknowledged that automation might sound sexy, but it’s not always the solution.
Martha Zwonitzer, director of agronomy at Grimmway Farms, added that automation can handle the easier jobs, while manpower and mechanization tackle the more demanding fields or crops.
“We keep going back to the drawing board to figure out what’s the best solution for a particular piece of land,” said Zwonitzer, who emphasized that any new technology must contribute to the company’s sustainability goals and not compromise the quality of their food.
The machine needs to do a better job because “the second it screws up,” the grower kicks it off the farm and remains skeptical of any new technology that comes their way, Thompson explained. He urged agtech reps to “just be honest with growers” and not promise anything, since honest talks breed trust — warts and all.
Benjamin Smith, director of business development at equipment maker Kubota North America, uses “trust but verify” to show growers what the machine has done because “data doesn’t lie”.
It is also crucial to make the technology accessible and intuitive. Monarch Tractor CEO Praveen Penmetsa said his autonomous electric tractor only requires an hour or two of training. Farmers, he added, are looking for immediate benefits — in hours, not days or months.
Zwonitzer enjoyed Western Growers’ approach of reusing technical components in various startup products, a kind of “Agtech Lego blocks”. She worried about having to buy a new device every time she wanted to reach the next level of technology.
Thompson found that some small growers were using GUSS in more innovative ways than he ever imagined. A farmer saved time by following the sprayer around the field with a grooming trailer to refuel on the fly, and saved multiple trips to the facility doing his own spraying work. He doubled his acreage.
“Many [small] Farmers are more inclined towards this technology than the big companies just because we have to compete,” said Dennis Utt. “On the other hand, many farmers do not want to switch. They use the old pocket planner that their grandfather used.”
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