While the world has come to a standstill outside, it has also brought a lot of us closer virtually. We’ve been looking to others for advice and asking questions about how we adapt to the changes going on around us. We knew people in our industry were facing the same challenges, so we decided to put together a virtual summit with growers and industry experts to discuss how Covid-19 is affecting their businesses and how they’re adapting. Here are 8 things we learned from the summit:
Advocating for a food systems approach for agriculture
The agriculture landscape is changing. With our aging farmer population, massive industry consolidation, the need for traceability and safety, sustainability and food waste becoming major issues, there’s an opportunity for a larger discussion on a systems approach to agriculture. “Food systems are now being talked about in a much greater way because we’re starting to see how everything is interconnected,” said Dr. Kathleen Merrigan, executive director of the Swette Center for Sustainable Food Systems at Arizona State University, and former deputy secretary of agriculture for the US in the opening talk. “There is a need for stronger domestic capacity for fruit and vegetable production. A new day has dawned for recognition that building up local and regional food systems is important.” Continued Merrigan, “[this opens up an] overdue dialogue about how we need to produce food, where, by whom. That may bring a better tomorrow.”
Digital does not mean difficult
The world has embraced technology with open arms while agriculture has fallen behind. The pandemic has highlighted ways in which technology can really aid in farm management with a reduced workforce and even for optimization in normal times. Wren Hayes, IT systems developer at Planted Detroit said it perfectly: “there is a huge opportunity for us in the farming community to lean more heavily on technology and to learn from technology because there are things that we don’t know until we look at the data to say how we can do things better or improve our practices.”
We loved hearing about the “virtual tours” that Schneider Electric offers its customers. Just like test driving a car, Schneider Electric gives companies the opportunity to see into its own operations and see exactly how their technology is used. Lisa Causarano from Schneider Electric added, “there are a lot of different solutions that exist. [Growers should] do your research, understand what types of solutions other companies in this space are looking at, and employ solutions that can connect together and can allow you a great digital advantage. This doesn’t mean you have to choose one company that offers all of these things… Being able to connect devices to have smart analytics and applications that can help you read those devices and analyze those devices, that is going to give you the most information to turn a lot of data into useful data.”
One of the things Lisa mentioned that we love is how digital is not just for big companies. There are so many solutions out there for small companies as well. And many companies like Schneider Electric and Artemis offer products that scale with you as you grow from a small to big operation.
We are essential
While other businesses have been forced to close due to shelter-in-place orders, farmers are still operating. Growers are needed to provide food security and grow high-quality food. Jeff Stigter, owner of JAMCO Growers talked about the need for growers to continue operating and to “stay optimistic” throughout the pandemic. “We are growing food. Everyone needs food. Almost every other sector has been shut down, like entertainment and schools. Everyone needs food, so we grow food… Stay optimistic and this will work itself out.
Cannabis, as an industry, is in an interesting position. It is deemed essential, but due to federal restrictions cannabis operations are excluded from aid under the CARES Act and other federal programs. Mike Marquez, from cannabis trade show Indo Expo, noted the opportunity for cannabis as an essential industry, “I think the fact that the cannabis industry was deemed essential is a big thing that we’re able to use in the future and we need to capitalize on that. You know, if we’re here and if we’re considered medicine, if we’re considered viable, just like other essential businesses, then that’s a big deal.”
Looking to the future of food safety
Food safety is not something new for our industry. Every grower knows they have to follow certain food safety protocols such as hand washing. During a pandemic, it’s important to keep doing these things and to boost efforts (more frequent washing, for example). Dr. Jennifer McEntire from The United Fresh Produce Association stressed how important it is to not wait for a pandemic or an audit to verify your food safety system, saying “you shouldn’t have to have an audit in order to show that your food is safe, your food just should be safe, you should be doing the right thing.”
If food safety is our base for good practices, what’s really exciting is how these practices will evolve coming out of Covid-19. For example, because of the shelter-in-place orders, in-person audits can’t be done. Imagine if all farms were using digital food safety record-keeping systems and we could cut down on the number of in-person audits? With technology, we could perhaps also ensure farms are compliant all the time and not just in preparation for audits. As Dr. McEntire says, “I think that there will be increased comfort with the use of technology, increased openness and also looking at the cool things that you can accomplish using technology that you couldn’t do using conventional approaches.”
Diagnosing problems virtually
One of the big questions for farmers right now is how to get the support they need when vendors can’t come onsite. At Artemis, we’re used to offering trainings and support, but for hardware companies, it’s more challenging than that. What happens if your lights go out or your climate control system goes down? For Schneider Electric, it means offering innovative solutions like their Augmented Operator Advisor, “which allows users to look at problems or complications that are going on with some of the equipment from a tablet or a phone or an iPad. [People] can look at the machine and they can identify problems,” according to Lisa Causarano.
Even as areas begin opening back up, some of this technology will become commonplace for growers. This is also something growers should vet during the bidding process for vendors. It’s easy to see shiny new technology as exciting, but if it takes days before you get in touch with the support team, that’s not going to work.
The key to branding is authenticity.
The most important starting place for brand building is authenticity, as we learned from Alison Gordon, former CEO of cannabis grower 48North. Alison gave a great talk about how to create a brand and how important it is to focus on what differentiates your company and your product. To do this, Alison prompted some questions:
“Who makes up your team? Is it all women? That’s obviously unique in our world.
Can you be local, local to a specific community, a community with a certain history?
Are there certain types of people you hire, something people can rally around?
People crave authenticity.” Agreed.
We also learned from Planted Detroit how they pivoted their business model from selling to restaurants to a direct-to-consumer model to adapt to the pandemic. Within just days, they were able to find a whole new market for their product! This is an opportunity to find creative ways of marketing your product and to come out even stronger than before. If you wanted to try a new market, this could be your chance.
What’s incredibly clear is the massive opportunity for brand to win. As Alison said, “[in our industry] there is no Coke or Pepsi.” (Yet.)
Explore the CARES Act
The CARES Act set aside funding for businesses affected by Covid-19 and you might be eligible. According to Justin Vatz, VP of Propeller Industries, “if you are interested in looking into the benefits that the CARES Act offers talk with your counsel. Those funds can be spent on payroll, rent or mortgages for your business properties and a couple of other items such as interest and utilities. The biggest thing that affects clients of ours is the PPP – Payroll Protection Program.” The CARES Act will help a lot of businesses, but it also excludes some, like those in the cannabis industry.
It’s important you speak to a professional, Justin urges. “[Businesses] have to attest that they’ve seen a significant disruption in their business because of Covid-19 there are some other eligibility requirements which will need to be discussed with your counsel – things like affiliation rules and there are some industries that are excluded. For instance, anyone in the cannabis industry isn’t eligible to participate.”
Opportunities in the supply chain
Businesses have been heavily affected by interruptions to the global supply chain. Benton McKibbon from cannabis equipment business Demeter Builds talked to us about how disruptions in the supply chain lead to rippling delays. “On the equipment side, the light company itself is actually based here in Denver but the bulbs they use are manufactured in China.” Unfortunately, because of supply chain disruptions, Benton’s “process of getting out [to a customer’s site] and doing work has been delayed.” When he’s delayed, the next person in the process is delayed and so on. This also presents an opportunity to disrupt where and how equipment is manufactured.
Homero Castillejos, subdirector divisón agricola GR also told us about the necessity of working together in the supply chain. “Another thing that we definitely have to start doing is looking for partnerships, both with vendors and with customers. We must look for partnerships where we work together.” We can’t succeed individually. Each part of the supply chain plays a necessary role for everyone to succeed.