To find solutions to business issues and more, nearly 1,000 people from 26 countries gathered in Fresno October 18-22 for the FIRA – World Ag Robotics Forum in the United States. ‘The Verde Innovation Network for Entrepreneurship or The VINE.’
The event was launched by California Secretary of Food and Agriculture Karen Ross and moved to an agenda filled with group discussions, flash talks and presentations where representatives of automation companies, academics and farmers had the opportunity to share their challenges, concerns, and hopes for the future of independent farming. The event culminated at CSU Fresno, with over a dozen companies giving field demonstrations.
Although farmers are the target market for most equipment, the benefits of automation can spread to society, according to Glenda Hummuston, University of California vice president for Agriculture and Natural Resources.
“Technology can help us grow, harvest and distribute food more efficiently so that it can become affordable and available to those who are food insecure,” Hummuston said. “If we do this right, it is good for the whole community.
Here are some of the topics and takeaways from this groundbreaking multi-day event.
Gaining Use on the Farm – Focus on end-user needs and usability
The main question from the speakers was why more farmers are not integrating automation on their farms. Automation solutions exist and are being developed to assist farmers in nearly all aspects of farm management – from planting, harvesting and weeding to addressing ongoing labor shortages. Despite this, agriculture automation companies – large and small – still face resistance from farmers to adopting new technologies.
Steve Fenimore, a collaborative weed management specialist at the University of California, Gaby Yotsey tested a robot farm in an exhibition area in the USA.
Agriculture and the global food supply are threatened by a range of issues, including the effects of drought and climate.
Part of the problem is that companies are paying more attention to their products than to the needs of the farms, said Jeff Morrison of Grimmway Farms. “Farmers want technology that fills a specific need,” he said. Anna Haldiwang, founder of InsightTRAC, agreed. “Don’t marry your producer, be married to your customer.”
Chuck Baresich, President of Haggerty AgRobotics, emphasized the importance of creating simple, easy-to-use automation solutions. “For a manufacturer, the first thing I tell them is not to overcomplicate things,” he said. “Make sure your robot can drive straight, start with that.”
The committees also addressed the technical, commercial and regulatory challenges of agricultural automation. The market for tech startups ag is much smaller than Silicon Valley, and we don’t yet know the best path to establishing a successful business, noted Rob Trice of Better Food Ventures and The Mixing Bowl during a session on robotic product development with key industry leaders, including Walt Dufloc, Vice President of Innovation, Western Growers. However, committee members identified three things that startups must do:
- Get prototypes in the field as quickly as possible to capture performance data and get feedback, including from farm workers, that might come up with multiple uses for the product.
- Be transparent about development to build partnerships with investors and farmers. Partners understand that startups are a work in progress.
- Be prepared to evolve and change your technology or business to meet customer needs. I love the customer, not the technology.
“If your technology requires the Internet and we don’t have broadband access in a rural area, we can’t use it,” Aubrey Bettencourt (in red) of The Almond Alliance warned AG tech developers.
AgTech, Employment and Farm Workers – Finding Win-Win Opportunities Labor issues also emerged as a constant theme during the event. One of the main forces driving the need for automation in agriculture is the persistent shortage of labour. Simply put, farmers do not have enough labor to sustain their operations and are turning to agricultural technology, robotics and automation to fill the gap. At the same time, with the spread of robotics and automation in the agricultural industry, farm workers and agricultural labor organizations are rightly concerned about the impact that the adoption of automation will have on agricultural jobs, particularly farm labor jobs.
Hernan Hernandez of the California Peasant Foundation acknowledges workers’ concerns but also sees opportunity. “Suddenly, you go from 100 individuals who will be able to harvest this season to 10 individuals who will be harvested with a machine,” he said. “But the way we look is also when we talk to and engage farm workers, and we look at the data, there’s also opportunity. We know a lot of farm workers want opportunities to enhance their skills.”
We must find ways to actually help our farm workers get the training they need to take advantage of this technology, which will give them a better quality of life.
Gabe Yotsi, right, asked committee members about the future of agricultural work. From left, Chris Thiessen of Borough, Dennis Donahue of the Western Farmers Federation, Sandra Sanchez, UCSD Vice President for Workforce and Economic Development; Elizabeth Mosqueda, agriculture teacher at Madeira Community College; Joanie Woolfel of the Far West Equipment Dealers Association.
This sense of optimism about the future of farmers, who directed a panel on the future of agricultural work, was shared by Gabi Yutsey, chief innovation officer at UCLA at ANR. “California as a whole is beginning to recognize the importance of creating the next generation of farm workers,” he notes, “and schools and industry alike have noticed.” In fact, California community colleges have begun work on related new programs that translate directly into jobs, and the federal government has allocated $10 million that goes directly to agricultural education and workforce development programs in Central Valley.
The gathering also served as a platform for launching new technology initiatives. Youtsey in cooperation with our partners UC Davis Institute for Artificial Intelligence for Food SystemsAnnounced 2023 Farm Robots Challenge In FIRA USA 22! We are looking forward to co-hosting this event!
It is clear that automation and robotics will play an increasingly important role in agriculture. Not only in addressing the obvious labor shortage in agriculture but by creating new value creation opportunities related to resource efficiency, crop health, diseases, harvest and more.
“Our mission at The VINE is to advance collaboration between industry, academia and government,” Youtsey said. “Robots are moving very fast, and there’s a new set of players coming into the space. UCSD Collaborative Extension Consultants can bring startups and farmers together in new and innovative ways as they develop and advance these solutions in commercialization faster.”
Conference sponsors include FIRA, Western Growers, University of California, Merced, California State University, Fresno, and the Fresno-Merced Future of Food (F3) Initiative.
Industry sponsors include Bluewhite, Carbon Robotics, CNH Industrial, Far West Equipment Dealers Association, Grimmway Farms, and Keithly-Williams Seeds Inc. and Robotics Plus, VARTA AG, and Sonsray Machinery, LLC.
for more information:
California University of Agriculture and Natural Resources
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