A group of producers and agribusinesses has called for collaboration in the industry to ensure the development of effective agriculture technology (agtech). Speaking at the RoboUniverse event in San Diego last week, representatives from berry marketer Driscoll’s, vegetable producer Grimmway Farms, E&J Gallo Winery and Andrew & Williamson Fresh Produce Inc discussed the idea of “coopetition” as a means to help entrepreneurs produce the technology they need.
The call for coopetition comes as many producers remain skeptical that startups are developing the right technology, particularly when it comes to the data offerings out there, according to Nathan Dorn, founder of ag data startup Food Origins and former director of innovations at berry producer Reiter Affiliated Companies, where he still consults.
“We know that we want all this data to be out there about our trees and farms and soils, and we want it to talk to our robots that can then put on the right amount of input or perform another suitable action,” Dorn, who moderated the panel discussion, told AgFunderNews. “But we want to know how all these different technologies will talk together, and there is still some skepticism about that being possible. Currently, data companies need machinery companies like John Deere to be collaborative to make them work.”
Coopetition between stakeholders would aim to give entrepreneurs the tools and advice they need to be successful in delivering farmers solutions to their problems. And it could also involve a financial contribution from industry stakeholders. The idea also advances the work of various organizations that are trying to get farmers more involved in the development of agtech, whether directly through investment pathways or through advice on accelerator programs, argued Dorn. (Think Western Growers’ Center of Innovation and Technology, the Thrive Accelerator, AgTech Insight, and Farm491, to name a few.)
Driscoll’s, which sponsored the agricultural track of the RoboUniverse event, is positioning itself to, potentially, lead the way, especially when it comes to berry production. It has recently started looking more closely at the role it can play in the development of agtech, according to László Csuti, vice president, global business planning & analysis. “It’s definitely high up on our list,” he told AgFunderNews.
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The berry brand is about to embark on a long-range strategic planning process over the next couple of months which will crystallize the company’s approach and role in developing agtech alongside its grower network.
“It’s a mistake for the industry to rely on venture capital funding of technology,” said Csuti. “I don’t think that’s going to get us to the place we need, at the rate and timing that we need these technologies. But when it comes to potential strategic sponsors of agtech startups, unlike in other industries, there is only a short list of ag companies at the size and scale that can afford to put money towards it on their own. Agriculture is very fragmented, so it’s important that growers and industry start collaborating at a higher level than we have before. And that might sometimes touch on competitive areas.”
“What the right form is and how we do it is still open for discussion,” he added. “But sometimes you just need to have sufficient dialogues to help find a way of collaborating. That was the great thing about this event; it brought a number of ag players together to talk about a certain topic that normally we don’t talk to each other about.”
Specialty crop production was particularly in focus at the event and in the need for coopetition. Dorn put this down to the industry’s much larger labor force and relative complexity compared to other agricultural sectors like broad acre row crop farming.
The main challenge for specialty crop producers today is labor, argued both Dorn and Csuti.
“Labor is changing faster for our companies than innovation is accommodating it around the world; it’s becoming less available, less skilled and less productive,” said Dorn. “Genetics is on an upward trend, and is improving the situation, but we need solutions to help us work faster and cheaper. We’re stressed. But this, in turn, this makes the hurdle for innovation much lower.”
There are two sides to the labor problem. On the one side, farmers are getting older, and there are fewer of them. “They are taking on more data and innovation than ever before, but that’s a labor of time and mindshare, which is super challenged,” said Dorn. “It’s underrated how much effort goes into taking on a new technology and learning something again.”
Then on the other side, there’s the shortage of unskilled labor.
“For a berry company, labor is the primary challenge, and it’s not just in California,” said Csuti. “Our production base is international, and there are many places where labor was and is cheap and plentiful, but it’s only a matter of time until new generations grow up and no longer want to pick berries for the minimum wage. We need to think about this ahead of time and not just respond to a crisis.”
Other pressures include water, the quality of land available for farming, and the pressures coming from consumers for traceability, according to Dorn and Csuti. And it’s these pressures that producers want agriculture technology to ease.
What do you think? Do grower communities and agribusinesses need to play a larger role in the development of agtech? Get in touch on [email protected].