With the help of corporate sponsors, new agriculture technology companies are making strides to improve efficiency for growers. California Ag Start, a nonprofit incubator for startup companies in the food and agricultural technology sector, is helping to process these sponsors and support innovations throughout the industry.
“We have access to our corporate sponsors who are also in the Ag Technology space, and we can access some of their science and other professionals as mentors to these startup companies,” said John Selep, President of AgTech Innovation Alliance—the 501(c)3 non-profit behind Ag Start.
One of the ways Ag Start is helping to improve efficiency in the field comes from a company using hyperspectral imagery to check nutrients in soils. “They can actually do almost a continuous scan as a plow is going through the field and develop a continuous map of the nutrient profile within that soil,” Selep explained.
Typically, when a grower tests their soil, they pick two to three spots to sample from and will not receive data on it for a couple of days. According to Selep, hyperspectral scanning will not only help eliminate that wait time, but will provide a much more detailed analysis of the entire field.
“You’d be much more precise about where you put nutrients. Just enough in the places it’s needed as opposed to blanketing the field and pouring on gallons of fertilizer,” Selep said.
With So Many Electric Cars, Why Not Electric Tractors?
By Patrick Cavanaugh, Editor
There are many different models of electric cars—they are even mainstream in most U.S. cities and other countries—and now farmers may soon have electric tractors to use in specialty crops in California.
Bakur Kvezereli is president and CEO of Ztractor, the first autonomous electric tractor for specialty crops. Kvezereli, who is based in Palo Alto, explained why the tractor is being developed in California.
“First, California is our market. Second, we teamed up with some great engineers, who graduated from Stanford, and my school, which was MIT. We were friends, and we wanted to look into this technology looking to replace the 25 or 30 HP diesel motor as well as the 30-gallon diesel,” he said.
“And we started as an electric tractor company in September 2017. And in two months, we realized that to achieve an electric tractor, you have to find a solution for making it autonomous,” Kvezereli explained.
“We now have three models in our manufacturing pipeline. One 24 horsepower will be available to the farmers this year. The next model will be a bigger tractor, 45 horsepower, which will be available 2020, and a 125 horsepower will be available in 2021.”
“Our basic tractor will have all the usual features found in most other tractors. The premium model line will have more features, especially on the software and hardware area. The zTractors will have no emissions and no hydraulics—just strong torque power.”
A four-hour charge will provide 6 to 10 hours of work in the field. “It requires only level two charging similar to car charging. “We are exploring a better battery, however currently it is the nickel ion technology,” Kvezereli said
“Horsepower is where we estimate the metrics for a tractor. What we think farmers care about is torque. In electric, to achieve higher torque is much easier than to achieve it with diesel power, and electric technology in general is very reliable for many types of tasks,” said Kvezereli.
The electric tractors keep the same three-point hitch as well as a PTO, both electrically operated.
“We build everything based on the requirements for the PTO and three-point hitch, and I think that’s what makes the Ztractor different from any other robotics companies that will provide a better tractor. It’s a general purpose and can replace a regular traditional tractor,” he said.
The main farming operations will be strawberry vineyards and vegetable operations. The tasks will include soil preparation and crop management. Harvest tasks are not yet available.
The prices for the tractors, calculated at $1,000 per horsepower, are similar to traditional tractors.
Digital technology is making huge leaps in agriculture. California Ag Today recently spoke with Kirk Haney, CEO of Radicle Growth, a venture capitalist fund concentrated on developing new, innovative companies focused on food, agriculture, health, and sustainability. Agriculture and construction are considered the least digitized industries in the world.
“Everything is digital, everything is being managed, measured, and it is going to happen in agriculture in the same way not only as digital is coming but it brings competition with data sharing,” Haney said.
According to him, if you do not start capturing your data and then sharing it in a way that is going to make you more competitive, your business is going to struggle.
“In terms of the incredible entrepreneurship that we are seeing, the speed at which technology is changing, processing power, chips, the power of iPhones—we are talking about the power of cloud computing and [in] another two years, the power of cloud computing will be in the palm of your hand … on the 5G network,” he said.
The cloud computing will change the way that farmers run their operations. The data stored on these devices will only help farmers increase their precision and improve their farming practices.
Truly, ag is the last frontier, and Haney believes that satellites will soon be used to detect bugs in fields.
“New camera vision technologies can actually, through thermal infrared, spot early pest detection to check out and treat whatever you need to do,” Haney said.
UC Offers Drone Workshop for Mapping, Research, and Land Management
By Pam Kan-Rice, UC Ag & Natural Resources
People who are interested in using drones for real-world mapping are invited to attend a three-day intensive drone workshop in the Monterey Bay area. The third annual DroneCamp will be offered from June 18 to 20 by UC Agriculture and Natural Resources’ Informatics and GIS Program. No experience with drone technology is needed to participate.
Drone mapping involves taking high-resolution photos with drones and stitching them together with software to make extremely accurate, orthorectified maps. More difficult than videography, it is widely used in agriculture, construction, archeology, surveying, facilities management, and other fields. DroneCamp will cover all the topics someone needs to make maps with drones, including:
Technology—the different types of drone and sensor hardware, costs and applications
Drone science—principles of photogrammetry and remote sensing
Safety and regulations—learn to fly safely and legally, including tips on getting your FAA Part 107 Remote Pilot Certificate
Mission planning—flight planning tools and principles for specific mission objectives
Flight operations—hands-on practice with both manual and programmed flights
Data processing—processing drone data into orthomosaics and 3D digital surface models; assessing quality control
Data analysis—techniques for analyzing drone data in GIS and remote sensing software
Visualization—create 3D models of your data
Latest trends—hear about new and upcoming developments in drone technology, data processing, and regulations
On the first day, DroneCamp instructors will discuss drone platforms, sensor technologies, and regulations. On the following two days, participants will receive hands-on instruction on flying safely, using automated flight software, emergency procedures, managing data, and turning images into maps using Pix4D mapper and ArcGIS Pro.
Registration is $900 for the general public and $500 for University of California students and employees. Registration includes instruction, materials, flight practice and lunches. Scholarships are available.
This year, DroneCamp is being held in conjunction with the Monterey Bay DART (Drones Automation & Robotics Technology), which is holding an industry symposium on Friday, June 21. DroneCamp participants get a $50 discount to attend the symposium.
Voice Search Idea Studied at United Fresh BrandStorm Event
By Mikenzi Meyers, Associate editor
Mary Coppola, Vice President of Marketing Communications at United Fresh Produce Assocation, is not just focused on selling brands of produce but improving marketing within the industry as a whole.
When it comes to promoting a brand, Coppola knows that people are more drawn to those they have background information on.
“We’ve certainly seen that when there is a brand association and there is a strong story shared with the consumer—that there are a trust, loyalty, and a desire to seek out that brand—in return, [that] means that the consumer is buying more of that product,” she explained.
Producers looking to create this kind of a connection should note that less is more, and consistently sending the same message is the best way to get consumers on board.
The marketing industry is also trying to capitalize on the consumer’s connection with technology. Coppola described new research into voice-activated search engines, called voice optimization.
“Consumers are, more and more, using a voice search to ask about products, what’s in season, and where they can buy such product,” she said. “There’s an opportunity for producers to start talking about their products, and their brands to be able to be the ones to answer those questions.”
Every year, United Fresh holds an event called BrandStorm that brings together produce marketers to update them on the latest trends and set the stage for the rest of their marketing activities throughout the year. They also hold a convention expo for professionals in the retail industry in order to educate them and give them the tools they need to help producers sell their products.
With an abundance of new technology and marketing research, the ultimate goal still remains the same.
“As an industry, I think we would all share the same sentiment: that we want consumers to eat more produce,” Coppola said.
Bowles Farming is Major Innovator in Merced County
By Mikenzi Meyers, Associate Editor
As every industry continues to be pressured by increasing technologies and the expectation to innovate, it is without question that agriculture is no different. With 160 years of experience growing various crops, Bowles Farming Co. in Merced County is not only a leader within the industry but strives to stand on the forefront of innovation.
Danny Royer, Vice President of Technology at Bowles, gave insight to California Ag Today recently as to how his company is using technology to make irrigation more efficient.
“There’s a lot that goes into the irrigation before it even gets to the farm,” he explained. “Our canal company that delivers our water is working on automating their system to meet our automation needs.”
Royer is utilizing water control and data gathering technology through innovative companies such as WaterBit and WiseConn to better regulate how Bowles Farming Co. resources are used.
He is in charge of the technology behind growing various crops, including tomatoes, cotton, wheat, watermelon, and other organic commodities. He said that the key to solving issues is by sharing data within the operation.
“Data is what’s going to provide the solution, but we have to create systems that give the people [the data] who have the competencies to solve the problem,” he explained.
One way Bowles Farming Co. is able to achieve this is by using Google Hangouts on the farm, which enables them to communicate with different sectors of the operation single-handedly.
“We’ve got to be a little more transparent and open about sharing our information with people that are coming from the tech sector trying to help us.”
Royer concluded, “the most important thing when we talk about tech and ag is talking about the impact on the operation … people’s jobs are going to change, how people function is going to change, and if you rule tech out, it’s going to be resisted.”
In a recent interview with California Ag Today, Dan Reighn, director of grower/shipper sales for iTrade, discussed how being a part of the system is helping the grower, shipper, supplier, and customers with iTrade’s efficiency by streamlining the process.
Cloud-based solution is key to the success of its speed. This will allow the information to flow quicker through all the channels by effectively being more beneficial to the grower, supplier, shipper, and inevitably the customer.
“The grower, shipper, and the supplier earn a lot of benefits when they are on our network every day transacting with 40 or 50 of their customers using an easy-to-use system, and we are able to handle that transaction for them rather than a purchase order being emailed or faxed or phone call,” Reighn explained.
iTrade is an efficient way to transact with buyers. It is a cloud-based software solution. There are carriers on the network to assist as well as field mobile systems that a grower can use at the source of picking. From that point, inventory can be done from the field to storage to assist the distribution.
“There are users in South America, Mexico, U.S. and Canada that are using our software on rugged mobile devices in the field,” Reighn said. “These customers are able to print off a PTI label, apply it to a case in the field as well as an electronic harvest tag. This also allows the supplier to know exactly what pallets, how much is in the field, when it is going to be received to the cooler, and when they can get that load off to Walmart or Safeway or Kroger.”
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.
Calif. Lt. Governor Newsom Says Ag is at a Hinge-Moment in History
By Patrick Cavanaugh, Farm News Director
In an exclusive interview with Gavin Newsom, Lieutenant Governor of California, during the recent Forbes AgTech Summit in Salinas, Newsom declared, “It’s interesting about California—outside of Hollywood—no two more iconic industries exist than Silicon Valley’s technology, and the agricultural industry.
“It seems self-evident to everybody here that we have a unique opportunity to collaborate,” Newsom said about the event which joined the Silicon Valley high tech industry with the state’s farming industry to create digital solutions for agriculture. “We have the unique opportunity based on proximity and based on history. It is also a cultural opportunity as it relates to relationships that have been formed over the course of generations to begin to build bridges and connect some dots.”
Newsom said he believes in bottom-up inspiration, not top-down. “I don’t think you can sell down your vision from Sacramento. It’s about regions rising together and creating conditions for just these type of collaborations,” he said.
Newsom particularly appreciated comments about innovation. “I wrote a book, [“Citizenville”] and I’m not here to promote that book,” said Newsom, “but the whole idea was about platform thinking. The concept is the federal government, state government, and even local government cannot prescribe a federal, state or local pill for every problem,” he said.
“The point is,” he continued, “if we’re going to solve the big problems of the day, we have to create an environment—a platform—to engage folks like yourselves to deliver the applications, literally and figuratively, to solve big problems. It’s self-evident to anyone who lives here in California, that we’ve got some big problems.”
“We have regulatory challenges in this state, and I say this as a business person with many businesses. I have a sense of kindred connection in spirit to the entrepreneurial ways that are here today,” he commented. Owner of three wineries, several restaurants and hotels, Newsom stated, “I am in the Ag business, of sorts. My point is, we could do a lot better to make a point that [agriculture] matters and we care,” he said.
“At the same time,” he added, “Silicon Valley is center-tip of the spear—all the innovation and discovery, and the change in the way we live, work and play,” Newsom said.
“We’re here on a hinge-moment in history where we are going from something old to something new, a world of mobile, local, and social; and cloud and crowd. It’s a moment of anxiety for a lot of people, a moment of merger—the detonation of globalization and technology coming together. Again, there’s a lot of anxiety,” he noted.
Newsom suggested this is an opportune time to try to connect dots and address challenges, not just on the regulatory side and on the economic development side in this state, but also on the self-evident issues of water scarcity in this state. “You may have different opinions about climate change, global warming or violent disruption,” said Newsom, “but, as a guy who told me the other day up in Dutch Flat, Placer County, ‘I don’t care about all you folks from San Francisco talking about climate change, but something just ain’t right.’ Which is another way of describing a connection that things have changed,” Newsom explained.
Newsom said that kind of predictive nature, in terms of how we construct a water system for a world that no longer exists, and for a population that is twice the size; self-evidently, we have to do things differently. “We’ve got to be more creative and we’ve got to be more strategic,” he noted.
“It’s a long way of saying we are grateful for the work [California farmers] are doing. The goal for us in California is to make these conversations sustainable. ‘Not just situational and not just one annual conversation, but these are dialogs that must continue every day in this state,” Newsom said.
“I’m one of those people who believes in the combination of nature and technology, bringing cross-disciplines together,” Newsom said. “Cross-pollinating, literally and figuratively, ideas and people—values. “I think we have an incredible opportunity here in California, not just to survive in the agricultural industry but to truly thrive in a growing, competitive environment.”
Hot and tired from a three-hour drive inside a trailer behind a pickup truck, the 600-pound English Charolais calf was content to lay on the grass behind a south Houston building while a team of technicians worked on its hind legs.
When the calf known as Hero heard its name called, the 15-month-old gingerly got up, unsteadily rocked a bit, then waddled away, tail wagging, eyes wide and tongue licking. It headed across a patch of concrete toward an appetizing snack of green shrubbery a few yards away.
Hero became what may be the nation’s only double-amputee calf with prosthetics on Wednesday when fitted for a new pair of high-tech devices attached to its back legs.
“I’m so proud,” Hero’s caretaker, Kitty Martin, exclaimed. “Look at you!”
It’s the latest step in a year-long effort that has taken Martin and the animal from Virginia, where she rescued it last year from an Augusta County farm where it succumbed to frostbite that claimed its hooves, to Texas.
Animal surgeons at Texas A&M University treated Hero for several months and affixed the initial prosthetics that the calf now had outgrown.
“This is our first cow,” Erin O’Brien, an orthotist and prosthetist for Hanger Inc., an Austin-based national firm that makes prosthetic limbs. She was among a team of about eight people working on the project for about two weeks.
“We did a lot of study of photos and video of cows just regular walking to see what it looks like and see if we can mimic that biomechanically,” O’Brien said. “It’s unusual, yes, but an opportunity.”
Surgeons at Texas A&M accepted Martin’s initial pleas for help, removing about two inches of bone to enable them to create a pad of tissue that would allow for prosthetics.
“Until I worked on him, I hadn’t ever done it before. And I’d not heard of (prosthetics) before in a bovine,” said Ashlee Watts, an equine orthopedic surgeon at the school.
Martin figures she has spent nearly $40,000 to save the calf.
“I don’t know how to explain it,” she said. “I’m an animal rescuer. And he had everything against him.”
Hero’s hooves are custom made of urethane and titanium, the connecting components are titanium and carbon fiber and the sockets that attach to his legs are carbon fiber and acrylic resin.
Martin and O’Brien declined to discuss the cost, but estimated that similar devices for humans go for between $4,000 and $8,000 apiece.
Hero’s sockets are painted with black and white cow spots. “Holstein legs,” O’Brien laughed.
“We like to customize legs to the person’s personality,” she said.
Martin, 53, a former veterinary technician and retired truck driver originally from Dalhart, in the Texas Panhandle, is moving with her husband from Greenville, Virginia, to Cameron in Central Texas.
She’s hoping Hero, who could grow to 1,500 pounds, can be a therapy animal for wounded veterans and special needs children.
“It makes my day,” Martin said. “He’s got a very bright future right now.”