The 2017 Forbes AgTech Summit drew experts from around the world interested in how technology could be used to make farming more productive.
“Coming out here three years ago it was more of a concept,” said Paul Noglows, executive producer of the Forbes summit. “We’re at the intersection of the Salinas and Silicon valleys where it has established itself as the epicenter of agtech innovation.”
The AgTech Summit has been held in Salinas for the three straight years, attracting participants from around the world interested in addressing the obstacles and presenting solutions in the agriculture and food production industries.
The summit last week had about 150 of the estimated 700 registered participants taking tours of the Taylor Farms processing plant, Grupo Flor’s cannabis cultivation facility and the grower-owned processing plant of True Leaf Farms. The tours were capped off with a series of field demos at Hartnell College’s Alisal Campus.
Plenary sessions were held to encourage discussion around topics such as, growing diversity in agtech, supporting true innovation, overcoming go-to-market challenges, how labor is shaping the farm of tomorrow, robotic technology and water wars.
Labor generated much discussion in the forum that centered around the rising cost of minimum wage, an aging workforce, automation and the question of whether its replacing labor, immigration crackdowns, and maintaining and optimizing current labor resources.
“People have a fear of just moving around,” said Javier Zamora, owner of JSM organics. “Things are really scary for them.”
Zamora’s organic farming operation is based out of Watsonville with a labor force of about 20 people.
“I pay them well so the ones I hire stay, instead of going to another farmer,” said Zamora.
But raising wages will not be economically feasible and does not solve the labor issue, he said.
Dan Steere, CEO of Abundant Robotics, said that labor concerns have been around for years and continuing to develop automation will help to address those issues.
“It is a balance between labor and technology,” said Brian Antle, harvest manager, Tanimura & Antle. “You have to look at what’s feasible and what’s needed.”
Antle said automation in planting and cutting is easy, but deciding what head of lettuce goes where based on its condition, the look and feel of the leaves, takes a process with a human touch, and “it’s not quite there yet.”
Right now it is not about labor being replaced with automation, it is finding people who have the skill and will to do things like thin lettuce or hoe weeds, Antle said.
Moderator, David Mancera, business advisor from Kitchen Table Advisors, asked about the effects of technology being created in vacuum.
Steere described it as “tech in search of a problem” and said in his experience it is the collaboration between researchers and growers that fosters good technology.
Zamora grows strawberries and other crops but said the ability to pick the berries at the right time under the right conditions, still requires skilled labor.
Two companies at the Forbes AgTech showcase are working on developing robots to fill that need.
Harvest Croo Robotics is refining its machine for harvesting strawberries and hopes to have a complete harvester ready by December.
The technology centers around a patented “picking wheel” that gathers the leaves of the plant while two cameras – one to analyze the berries to decide which are ready for picking, and another to pinpoint its location — allows for a mechanical hand to pick and deliver the produce.
Next to Harvest Croo Robotics was Soft Robotics, a gripping system that can adapt to handling objects of varying sizes, shapes and weights.
Jeff DePree, senior director, Soft Robotics, demonstrated how the gripper can pick up delicate objects along the lines of strawberries, mushrooms, peppers and tomatoes.
DePree said the grippers can be made to work with any robotics system like the Croo system.
Both technologies are on the way to providing their own solutions to particular facets of the labor issue.
But Chris Steinbruner, partner in Madison Farms said, “People have to realize it’s been happening for awhile while technology has evolved.”
The labor problem is compounded by a better economy in places like Mexico where most of the field workforce comes from.
And as the panel discussion on labor pointed out, the generation that was in the fields providing the skilled labor for harvesting crops is also giving way to a more educated generation that does not want to work in the fields.
Zamora said that education cannot be underestimated and Antle pointed out that in the future, his company will be looking for a different pool of workers with technology at the top of the list.
The bottom line to the labor question for some at the Forbes AgTech Summit was that until technology provides the solutions farmers seek, it will mean making the labor force that is still available more efficient and happy.
Source – Daily Democrat