Among the mix of registered dietitians conveying the accurate message, California Ag Today concluded our conversation about Facts Not Fear with Teresa Thorn, executive director of the Alliance for Food and Farming, located in Watsonville.
The Alliance hosted the second Facts Not Fear produce safety media tour, in conjunction with Markon Cooperative, for registered dieticians, health and nutrition writers, and bloggers last month in the Salinas Valley. Impacting the customer with the proper information is key.
“We have a mix of writers and bloggers who again have that bullhorn to consumers,” Thorn said.
Social media was also used in conveying the message.
“They’re posting, and we’ve read it and retweeted a lot of their stuff so you can go to our social channels and see some of it,” she explained.
Speaking to growers was very important, and asking industry professionals to attend was vital to cultivating relationships.
“They loved being out in the field. We were always the last ones to get on the bus because they had so many questions,” Thorn said.
The group also does a roundtable discussion where they bring in scientists, shafts, regulators, farmers, and farming companies into the room at Markon’s Produce Expo.
“Building that network was really important,” Thorn said.
The Western Growers Association’s WG Center for Innovation and Technology in Salinas is turning three years old. Dennis Donahue, mayor of Salinas from 2006 to 2012 and currently the consulting director at the center, spoke to California Ag Today recently about the anniversary.
This center houses more than 50 ag-tech startup companies and is a hub for new developments in ag-tech with services ranging from infield robotics to renewable energy.
“The reality is you have to be making progress on all these things all the time,” Donahue said.
The agriculture industry as a whole is facing many problems, including water supply, labor supply, water quality, and crop protection. And that’s why it’s so crucial for these startups to keep coming up with these new innovative solutions.
“Labor is a challenge because it’s getting tougher,” Donahue said. “The cost issues are—the supply issues are—intensifying, so that puts a lot of pressure on the automation piece and proof of concept, particularly in the field.”
“How do you get something crop off the ground, out of an orchard or clipped from a vineyard? That’s going to occupy a lot of time, cost efficiency, and technology. Those things are at best with some focus at three- to five-year play, and our problems may come a little sooner,” Donahue explained.
“California agriculture and the folks we deal with in the Western Growers network are bound and determined to address these problems. We often get a real dose of realism. ‘Look, here are the issues. Here are some of the things that haven’t been working well, and we need to work better, and we need to work faster.’ But, there’s no quittin’ the dog. You know, I think the industry is fully engaged, understands the challenges, and we’ve got a pretty good group of people determined to meet them on both the ag and technology side.”
“Facts Not Fear” Produce Safety Media Tour Helps Bloggers Learn About Ag
By Mikenzi Meyers, Associate Editor
Closing the gap between the consumer and the farm is a continuous work in progress. Teresa Thorne, Executive Director of the Alliance for Food and Farming, is dedicated to making this happen. She helped put on the second “Facts Not Fear” Produce Safety Media Tour for registered dietitians, health and nutrition writers, and bloggers recently in the Salinas Valley, which directly focused on consumer concerns.
The “Fact Not Fear” tour allowed media influencers to see farming practices first hand, in hopes that they would share the information learned with the consumers that follow them.
“We look at them to kind of be the consumer eyes and ears and really learn more about how we produce food,” Thorne explained.
Thorne also noted that one of the main topics brought up during the round table discussion was the great “organic versus conventional farming” debate. “The farmers that were there did a great job of talking about the fact that there’s actually more similarities than differences,” she said.
In a consumer-driven industry, educating people has never been more crucial.
“For them to come out and see firsthand what we do, and then share that back with those consumers and be able to address their concerns directly, it’s just really important for us.”
“Facts Not Fear” Educates Participants on Vegetable Production
News Release Edited By Patrick Cavanaugh
The Alliance for Food and Farming, in conjunction with Markon Cooperative, hosted its second “Facts Not Fear” Produce Safety Media tour last week in the Salinas Valley.
“Our goal is for … [registered dieticians], health and nutrition writers and bloggers to see firsthand the care and commitment farmers have for producing safe and wholesome foods. We believe we met that goal. But, what we learn from our tour guests continues to be just as valuable,” said Teresa Thorne, Executive Director of the Alliance for Food and Farming, based in Watsonville.
In addition to farm and facility tours, the AFF and Markon facilitated a round table meeting where tour guests were joined by farmers and farming companies, scientists, regulators and chefs for a free-flowing discussion that encompassed food safety, farming practices, food waste, pesticide use, food safety regulations, new technologies, health and nutrition, and consumer outreach.
The RDs, bloggers, and writers attending the tour reported they enjoyed the chance to tour the farms one day and then discuss what they saw with these experts. They also appreciated the opportunity to share their information needs and concerns directly during the round table discussion.
And, what were some of our key takeaways from guests? Consumers want transparent and honest communication regarding food safety and food production practices. The RDs, bloggers, and writers share The Alliance for Food and Farming’s concerns about produce safety misinformation and appreciate and need access to scientists and experts that can assist them when addressing consumer questions and correcting misconceptions.
“And, they were very impressed with the technological advancements they saw in the harvesting and processing of produce,” said Thorne.
“While the importance of seeing the fields and harvest and touring processing facilities cannot be underscored enough, meeting and connecting with the people growing our food, directly sharing concerns with farmers and scientists in a group and one-on-one setting and the expansion of their produce industry network is of equal importance for our guests,” Thorne explained.
“Our sincere thanks to everyone who allowed us to visit their farms, watch the harvest, view their processing facilities as well as joined us for the round table discussion,” Thorne said. “And, our thanks and appreciation to our tour partner, Markon Cooperative, for making this tour possible as well as our tour sponsors Cal-Giant Berry Farms, the California Strawberry Commission and the Produce Marketing Association.”
Thorne also praised the 2017 and 2018 tour alumni.
“We will keep the conversation going and look forward to learning more from the attendees as we all work toward our shared goal of increasing daily consumption of organic and conventional fruits and veggies,” she said.
The host, The Markon Cooperative, supplies the food service industry fresh fruits and vegetables.
Pick Justice’s Jesse Rojas and Gerawan Employees Will Never Give Up
By Laurie Greene, Founding Editor
For nearly five full years, Gerawan Farming Inc. employees have fought a legal battle for the State of California to count their votes cast in the November 2013 election to decertify the United Farm Workers (UFW) as their bargaining representative. According to Jesse Rojas, a farm worker rights activist and spokesperson for Pick Justice, “Anything the UFW does, the California Agricultural Labor Relations Board (ALRB) is right next to them; and anything the ALRB does, the UFW is right next to them. They are one single entity for the most part; they are a partnership.”
Rojas said the ALRB and UFW filed an appeal to the state Supreme Court this week of the Fifth District Court of Appeal decision to count the votes. “We would not be surprised if the state Supreme Court accepts the appeal because Governor Brown appointees and friendly judges would always be likely to take the case,” said Rojas.
“This is where the UFW and the ALRB have failed to mention to the public the fact that we are just asking for the votes to be counted,” Rojas explained. “We are not saying, ‘Certify the results.’ We are not saying, ‘Once you open them and count them, let that be the final choice.’”
“We are saying, ‘You can still litigate it,’” Rojas continued. “‘You can still appeal it. You can still destroy [the ballots] if you want but count them. So why are you so afraid to simply count them?’”
‘This is the perfect question for the UFW, the ALRB, and our California legislators: Why are you so afraid? Employees deserve to know what the choice was, even if you choose to destroy [the ballots] afterward,” Rojas said.
Rojas explained how Governor Brown appointed people to the ALRB who are UFW sympathizers or people who have worked for the UFW.
“It is not only corrupt, it is also very sad and unfair to see over the last years how many companies and jobs have been lost. How many employees and families have been affected? I am not talking just about Gerawan Farming Inc. workers. We can go on and on in McFarland, Delano, Bakersfield, Salinas and Santa Maria for similar examples of how the ALRB has failed to protect farm workers.”
“Launching Pick Justice was great because it started with thousands of Gerawan farm employees who have been very courageous and have not given up,” Rojas explained. “Pick Justice expanded when other workers started reaching out to us from different companies, perhaps dealing with different issues. For example, we have a lot of workers from the Monterey and Salinas area that have been under a UFW contract for decades, but the UFW fails to protect them.”
“The UFW neglects its members by not reporting certain things to them, by segregating those employees who are unhappy with [the UFW] as well as keeping them away from information or meetings,” Rojas said. “Also, by being on the side of the employer—whatever the employer wants to force upon the workers, even if it’s not in their best interests—and forcing it down their throats.”
“After I reached out to Silvia Lopez, we started to meet over the following months. Many of the workers reached out to me. I have spoken to them on my phone. I’ve gone to their houses. I know their spouses. I know their children. I’ve eaten with them, and that’s where I became even more passionate. I said, ‘Look, you guys are the face of this. Your courage is what makes this effort great over so many years; you just don’t give up. You know what you want, and you know what is right.’ ”
“All I have to do,” Rojas continued, “is help you with communication media using techniques that I know, which is so simple. Social media, digital marketing, things that I grew up with and that I’m very good at. Pick Justice is not about me; it’s about them. If they weren’t still fighting, if they weren’t as strong and courageous as they are, we would not have Pick Justice today.”
“In this fight, we’ve gone up against almost all odds. We are going against the state government. We are going against a three- to four-decade-old system, with views, opinions, and decades-long teachings of the UFW and its leaders—its idols, per se—who have parks, schools, and streets named after them.”
“We’ve been attacked, and we continue to be attacked. But we know what we’re doing is right, and we have the numbers. If I didn’t have thousands of workers standing behind me, I wouldn’t be able to do this.”
Rojas said the Gerawan farm workers absolutely knew if they kept fighting, they would be vindicated.
“They did not give up; they are so motivated. And now, we’re in a waiting game for the most of accounting, but the stakes are high.”
“Think about Silvia Lopez,” he said. “You don’t think she’s going to be attacked by the UFW after attending Ivanka Trump’s recent Central Valley event? You don’t think I’m going to be attacked? I’ll give you an example. When Silvia met Tim Donnelly, a 2014 gubernatorial candidate who cared about her story, the UFW circulated a flyer of that picture and called her a racist towards all employees. Why? Because she’s searching for help for farm workers.”
“The UFW is weak; they represent less than one percent of the farm workers. California has an estimated average of 800,000 farm workers in the state—could be more, could be less,” Rojas said. “Current UFW membership fluctuates around 5,000 active members—less than one percent of farm workers. So for them to continue to be quoted as ‘the champions for farm workers and for Latino workers’ is absolutely wrong.”
“Specifically, their words and their actions do not go with one another,” he continued, “including their stance on immigration. If people simply looked up some of the legislation opposed by the UFW, they would see that the UFW is actually not for immigration. It is ironic and hypocritical to keep quoting and portraying the current UFW leadership as pro-employee and pro-Latino.”
“I know I will never give up and I know that thousands of workers behind me will never give up.”
Turkeys come from several areas of the state, and while California is ranked No. 7 in turkey production, we do supply most of the western United States.
The famous Mrs. Cubbison’s dressing comes from Sophie Cubbison, a California entrepreneur who was born in 1890 in the San Marcos area of San Diego County. A longer fascinating story made short: In May 1920, she graduated from California Polytechnical University with a degree in Home Economics. In 1948, she added seasoning to broken pieces of the popular Melba toast to make stuffing. A factory in Commerce, California churns it out this time of year.
Farmers and farmworkers in California produce almonds, raisins, walnuts, prunes, pistachios, figs and dates, apricots, pumpkins, pecans and pomegranates. . . right on up the food line.
These are all part of the American Thanksgiving feast.
Celery from the Oxnard and Ventura area, and the rest of the ingredients for the stuffing mix, plus carrots, lots of crisp lettuce and fresh spinach from Salinas — all these greens waiting for you, already washed and bagged in the produce department. The green beans in your casserole come from California growers.
You’ve got oranges and kiwi fruit, table grapes, strawberries, raspberries freshly harvested from the Salinas and the San Joaquin Valleys. You’ve got sweet potatoes from Merced County — this is their pinnacle season. You’ve got all kinds, colors and sizes of potatoes and tomatoes, plus parsley, onions and garlic. . . all grown in California.
Practically all the fruits, vegetables and nuts make America’s Thanksgiving celebrations festive, and nearly all of them come from California.
And don’t forget about the great variety of California winegrapes cultivated by California growers and then crafted with great care into great California vintage.
Wait! We grow firm, juicy apples and those small round watermelons that are a great snack or accent to a flavorful dessert fruit salad. And besides poultry, we even have California lamb, beef, rice or pasta—if you want to go that way.
Of course, you’ve got Martinelli’s sparkling apple or grape cider from Watsonville, near the Monterey Bay area. Local growers provide the tree-ripened fruit to the award-winning company, which is still family-owned and is run by the founder’s grandson and great-grandson.
At more than 140 years old, Martinelli’s is merely one century younger than our nation. In fact, the company received a first place award at the California State Fair in 1890.
By the way, do you know that little pop-up turkey timer that indicates when the turkey has reached the correct internal temperature? Food public relations genius Leo Pearlstein¹, along with a turkey producer from Turlock, invented that gizmo. Pearlstein, who handled the promotions for the California Turkey Advisory Board, was contemplating the enduring Thanksgiving conundrum—how long to cook the turkey and how to figure out when it is done?
Pearlstein said he and the turkey rancher were sitting in Pearlstein’s test kitchen mulling over ways consumers could determine when the turkey was done. They noticed the fire sprinkler system overhead. When the kitchen gets too hot, the fire sprinkler turns on. A metal alloy in the sprinkler is activated or melted when subjected to the high temperature of a fire in the room (185 degrees Fahrenheit). They applied that concept to the pop-up timer.
Officially, the National Turkey Federation advises consumers also use a conventional meat thermometer to verify that the cooked turkey’s internal temperature reaches:
165 degrees F to 170 degrees F in the breast or
175 degrees F to 180 degrees F in the thigh and
165 degrees F in the center of the stuffing.
Except for cranberries, it is really a California Thanksgiving.
¹Leo Pearlstein is founder and president of Lee & Associates, Inc., a full-service public relations and advertising firm, which he opened in 1950.According to the company website, he currently runs the company with his partners, two of his sons, Howard and Frank Pearlstein. He is also founder and director of Western Research Kitchens, the food and beverage division of his agency. He is considered a pioneer food consultant and his agency was recently named as one of the top agencies in the country that specializes in food and beverage clients.
For more food safety guidelines, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) provides this portal.
John Hartnett on Forbes AgTech and Urban Appreciation for Agriculture
By Patrick Cavanaugh, Editor
Forbes AgTech Summit
John Hartnett, founder and CEO of Los Gatos-based SVG Partners LLC, a Silicon Valley area investment and advisory firm, has played a pivotal role in the organization of the Forbes AgTech Summitin Salinas every summer. Hartnett said before partnering with Forbes, “we ran the first one here in Salinas and another one in Monterey. Two hundred people attended the Monterey Innovation Summit.”
“Then we partnered with Forbes and it brought us to a whole new level. Partnering with Forbes for the past two of four major AgTech Summits,”has been great,” Hartnett said. “Last year we had 400 people. This year, we had 700 people. Increased attendance has put Salinas on the map of being the center of AgTech.
“I bring leaders from technology and agriculture together,” Hartnell said. “It is a great event for Silicon Valley entrepreneurs to be onstage and get recognition in front of investors, customers and key business people they will work with.”
“Having Forbes and the Ag industry from across the country here in the heart of Salinas is phenomenal. We’ve executed this overall plan well. We are delighted with the outcomes.”
The next Forbes AgTech Summit will convene again in Salinas on June 28-29, 2017.
Beyond AgTech, Harnett said helping urban American populations understand the rural Ag community is one of the agricultural industry’s biggest challenges. “The first thing you need to do is bring people around the table. I’m a consumer of food. I am the end user of what’s going on, but many people just don’t understand the supply chain.”
“They understand some of the water challenges at a high level because these issues are in everybody’s face today. This is part of the education process and it starts by bringing people and key groups together.”
“What we’re doing, in small part, is focusing on technological leaders and companies from Palo Alto and San Francisco that are coming, probably for the first time, to Salinas. They are absolutely impressed and blown away by what is actually here. And, instead of driving past farms, they are going into the farms.”
Add California Strawberries to Your Labor Day Event
By Laurie Greene, Editor
Many people will be out and about with an extra day off on Labor Day, trying to get that last swallow of summer. They’ll crowd beaches, lakes, parks and backyard BBQs. What better way to celebrate the achievements of American workers than to add fresh-picked California strawberries to the menu?
“Any holiday can be celebrated with strawberries as they are available year-round,” said Carolyn O’Donnell, communications director of the California Strawberry Commissionin Watsonville. “Strawberries are one of the most popular fruits around. They are sweet but low in sugar, and they are quite nutritious. People are often surprised to find out that having just eight medium strawberries gives you more vitamin C than eating an orange,” she said.
“Grown year-round, right now strawberries are coming mostly from the Salinas-Watsonville area on the Central Coast and also in the Santa Maria area,” noted O’Donnell. “As we get more into the fall there will be less coming from the northern sections and more from the Ventura County area to the south. Eventually strawberries will come out of Orange County and Northern San Diego County. The crop will roll back up the coast again with the New Year. By next April or May, strawberries will be coming mostly from the Watsonville area again,” O’Donnell explained.
O’Donnell said that strawberry growers are very dedicated to growing the best possible product they can for their customers. “Their strawberries are actually often a crop of opportunity. A number of our farmers started as field workers and were able to work their way up to owning a farm because you can produce a lot of fruit and make a good living on a small amount of land.”
O’Donnell said supplies should be plentiful in the grocery store. “We probably have more fruit this time of year than usual probably because rain this past winter delayed harvest, which was good news. Now we’re just working our way along. Folks in the Watsonville areas are also beginning to start preparing their other pieces of fallow ground so that they can plant around Thanksgiving and produce next year’s crop,” she said.
Photos: Courtesy of California Strawberry Commission
Julie Borlaug Honors her Famous Grandfather, Norman Borlaug, in Advancing Science in Agriculture
Editor’s Note: Julie Borlaug spoke recently at the 2016 Forbes AgTech Summit in Salinas, and shared with us the legacy of her Grandfather, Norman Ernest Borlaug, a man who used technology to ward off starvation and the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, the Medal of Freedom, the Congressional Gold Medal, as well as the importance of advanced technology in Agriculture.
Julie Borlaug, associate director for external relations, Norman Borlaug Institute for International Agriculture at Texas A&M University, introduced the Institute’s mission, “We design and implement development and training programs. We take the legacy of my grandfather and we carry it out through the land-grant mission of teaching, research and extension. We’re primarily funded by organizations like USAID and USDA, so we truly are a development agency.”
Here is more of what she shared:
We all know why we care about agriculture and a lot of why we care is pretty much some of the same reasons my grandfather was up against during the green revolution. My grandfather was the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, the Medal of Freedom, the Congressional Gold Medal and now a statue in the National Statuary Hall at the U.S. Capitol. However, when I speak about my grandfather I like to humanize him a little and make people realize he was a normal person and that anyone can, if they’re dedicated, change the world.
Growing up with him, we didn’t really know what he did. We just knew he flew through Dallas on his way to Mexico or Africa or India. In third grade, I took him to show and tell, and he was upstaged by a hamster. I think it was good for him.
When he got the Congressional Gold Medal I got to sit with him on stage and he had two minutes to talk. The entire Congress was shut down. At 10 minutes, Nancy Pelosi‘s staff [was] poking me from behind saying, “You’ve got to stop him.” I leaned forward to President Bush and I said, “They want him to stop. You’re the President.” He said, “This isn’t my thing, this is the Congressional.” Right at that point, I think we were about 18 minutes in, my grandfather said, “Poverty and hunger are fertile seeds for isms, and terrorism is one of them.” At that point Bush leaned back and said, “Don’t stop him now.”
My grandfather was many things. He was a warrior against hunger, he was a teacher, but first and foremost he was a scientist. He often said, “The fear of change is the greatest obstacle to progress.” He came down on the side of innovation and was known to be bold and quick.
He was a fierce advocate for innovation and technological change, especially when it came to developing countries and small-scale farmers. His most potent view of science was that man’s most advanced knowledge and technology should be used in the battle against hunger and poverty.
Like my grandfather’s green revolution, we have a huge challenge in front of us: How to feed 9 billion people. This is going to require new economic, political policies, new rounds of innovation, of technological advancements, but most importantly in agriculture, it will require a new way of agriculture to address things.
We have to change our thinking, we have to have new partners and we can’t be the traditional Ag and take a silo approach. We have to be interconnected, transformative, with greater transparency and we need to bring the life science technology entrepreneurs—everyone, even the medical community—to the table.
That’s one of the reasons why my grandfather’s green revolution was so successful. He realized he had to bring the government, economic infrastructure and technology together for the small-holder farmer for it truly to work, because agriculture alone cannot transform.
Like my grandfather, I strongly believe in biotechnology and innovation. I always get asked, “Can we feed 9 billion people?” My answer is yes, if we are allowed to. If my grandfather were here he’d say, “We are not going to be able to do this without science and without pushing the boundaries of innovation.”
To feed 9 billion we need to realize we have a new strain of fact-resistant humans and we have a lack of transparency, that’s all you can call them. I could call them something else, but that’s the most polite way.
We need to realize that our consumer is very different. We have mommy bloggers, we have foodies driving the conversation and the table is moving closer to the farm. We have all the misconceptions; a backyard garden is not farming.
Pretty backyard gardens with chickens running around is not going to feed the world. It takes more than that and we have a public who thinks that’s what it is. I always ask those people, if they want to go see reality, come with me to rural Kenya and let’s ask a female farmer what she needs. It’s seeds, inputs and technology.
We also have market confusion. We have vegan green beans, we have gluten-free cranberries, we have GMO-free beef. I was at an opening of Whole Foods a few years ago and there was a North Texas cattle company that was showing GMO-free beef and I had to walk over and ask what he meant. He said, “We do not genetically modify our cattle.” I said, “Well, of course you don’t. Do you mean you’re not giving feed that has been genetically modified?” He said, “No, no, no, we do that. We just don’t genetically modify our cattle.” It was great marketing.
We had GMO-free salt that sold at stores. I like that one. We have a public that believes everything on social media, especially what their 20-year-old yoga instructor says, who got a degree in nutrition online. We also have fear campaigns; look at what Greenpeace has done.
You cannot be anti-hunger and anti-innovation. If you are going to be anti-innovation, you better have a solution for us because we’re willing to accept it.
Innovation and NextGen
What’s really [fascinating] is where my grandfather would be excited about the future of Agriculture. My grandfather would be most excited about the gene revolution. We have gene-editing and synthetic biology. There are so many new solutions out there. We have a sharing economy, internet of everything, cloud biology, MachineryLink—something I’m involved in. It’s an uber platform for sharing of equipment.
In order to really get to my grandfather’s legacy, we have to remember that we are responsible for the next generation. We have to build the hunger-fighters that my grandfather built. The next generation is growing up with technology, they’re creative, they have bold ideas, they collaborate across discipline and they want change. We need to bring them to the table and support them.
When my grandfather got the Nobel Peace Prize, the Chair said, “Behind the outstanding results in the sphere of wheat research for which the dry statistics speak, we sense the presence of a dynamic, indomitable and refreshingly unconventional research scientist. We still need more of those today. It’s going to be unconventional partnerships and innovations that help us end hunger. Just remember, if we don’t allow it to happen here, if we try to ban the future of agriculture and innovation, it’s just going to happen somewhere else, and I think we want that to happen here.”
If my grandfather was here he would thank you for your dedication and he’d tell you to move faster, because there are 25,000 people who are going to die today while we’re debating future technologies. I think we need to always remember that.
Before he died he said he had a problem. This was when he was told he was going to pass away, and it was 3 days before he died. My mom and I asked what his problem was and he said it was Africa. “I never brought a green revolution to Africa.”
I quickly said, “All the hunger-fighters, everyone you’ve trained, everyone in this room is going to ensure we bring a green revolution to Africa that’s appropriate for each country and each area, and we will do that everywhere.” That is what you’re doing, but remember, your innovation and technology is only good when you take it to the farmer.
A machine that mechanically removes weeds from the rows of lettuce and other crops and thereby saves costly labor bills, is now commercially available. “The Robovator, made by F. Poulsen Engineering ApS in Denmark, works amazingly well,” said Steve Fennimore, weed specialist, UC Agricultural and Natural Resources Cooperative Extension, Salinas. Fennimore said companies in Scandinavia have had more incentive to develop labor-saving machines after having faced many major labor shortages, as well as significant restrictions on pesticide use throughout the European Union, including the use of herbicides.
Meanwhile, significant domestic demand for organic tomatoes and tomato sauce makes hand-weeding especially necessary. California fields of tomatoes and lettuce, among other crops, often have lines of workers using hoes to briskly cut away the weeds or thin the crop. “Including thinning, there are three passes of labor in organic lettuce,” said Fennimore.
“The Robovator is an intelligent machine with cameras and a computer processor onboard to direct reciprocating knives to open and close,” Fennimore began. “It can follow the pattern in the plant line and the knife mechanism moves sideways (in and out) as it goes down the row. The knives delve generally ¾ inch into the ground, open as they pass a tomato or lettuce plant and close in between to dig up the weed.”
“It worked really well in the lettuce plants,” Fennimore commented, “where you have that 18-inch spacing, double planted on a bed. Everything was going so well in the double-row bed, we told the tractor driver to kick it up a notch and see what we could do—of course, with the grower right there,” Fennimore said. “So he stepped on it and got up to five mph. It was so fast that we could not see the knives move,” he said.
“I don’t think it is totally perfected, but it is commercially good,” said Fennimore. “Of course everything can be improved, but unlike an herbicide— which is a molecule that you cannot alter— this is a machine that can be modified. You can make the knives longer or bend a shoe a little to get better performance, which is nice,” he added.
“If you get the weeds when they are small, such as nightshade, pigweed, or purslane, the machine just pops them right out of the ground, flipping them upside down so their roots are up. In Europe, especially on organic lettuce where they cannot use herbicides, producers typically send in a crew with hoes as often as once per week, and it’s an expensive labor force. Instead, growers are letting the crop grow, coming through with the machine every 7 to 10 days to kill emerging weed flushes and doing a great job,” said Fennimore.
“So far, we have used the machine on tomatoes, broccoli, lettuce and celery here,” he listed, “and we are starting to look at peppers. And I know that the Europeans have used it in cabbage, onions, and radishes. The machine has done a good job without injuring the plants. With transplanted tomatoes, the plants are much bigger than the cotyledon stage of a weed [before it reaches one inch in height]. So the knives stay open around tomato plants but then close over the weeds, which basically uproots them.”
“You always have to be aware of the safety zone,” Fennimore cautioned. “If the crop is getting bigger and has roots near the surface, the knives need to stay back and you will not get all the weeds. The problem weeds in a halo right around the plant stem are the most difficult and most expensive to get. If you force the knifes in and try to get really close, you will probably not be able to go five mph. You will have to go slower to allow the machine to kick out the weeds near the stem.”
Fennimore mentioned two Poulsen ApS machines are presently in use in California and another mechanical weeding machine made by Steketee IC (intelligent cultivator) from The Netherlands is being tested in the Salinas Valley,” Fennimore noted. Teams are attempting to determine how the machine could be improved for use here, and the machines are becoming available for growers to test.
The biggest crowd that has observed the Poulsen Robovatorwas at the UC Davis Weed Day in 2015. “We have also been going to individual farms, showing it to farmers and explaining what it does,” said Fennimore. “We brought the machine to a Ventura lettuce farm about a month ago, and a few weeks ago we had it in tomatoes,” he noted.
With tomatoes, we are looking at less than 10,000 plants per acre,” Fennimore said, “so we can go about 5 mph in the tomatoes because the knives do not have to open and close as fast. However, with lettuce, we are looking at maybe 60,000 plants per acre, so you would have to go more slowly, around 1-2 mph in lettuce.”
Even on conventional vegetable farms, hand-hoeing is often done due to the lack of adequate herbicides. “We do not have a good spectrum of coverage,” said Fennimore, “and there are unsolved weed problems that are going to be hard to untangle.”
The development cost of the original machine prototype, the most expensive phase, was $11 to 15 million, as compared to the $250 to 300 million necessary to get an herbicide to label. And since 2010, only four new active herbicide ingredients have been developed worldwide. For lettuce applications, the last new herbicide was introduced about 40 years ago.
Yet another machine in development that Fennimore recently read about is essentially a weed-punch machine with electronics by Deepfield Robotics, a Bosch start-up company in Germany. “These guys drive through the fields, the machine finds the weeds and instantly punches them dead-center into the ground,” he elaborated.
Fennimore considered using such machinery on fields of garlic, onions or spinach that are densely planted, where back and forth knives would not work well. He theorized that machinery that can distinguished the weeds from the crop might work simply by punching the weed down into the soil where it’s not going to thrive. But perfecting this prototype is going very slowly, as it must accommodate a variation of cameras, weeds and crops. Yet, Fennimore expressed optimism, “I see a lot of potential with this type of technology because it can be modified.”