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Ag Innovation Showcase
Ag Innovation Showcase

What You Missed at the 2017 Ag Innovation Showcase

October 27, 2017

Editor’s Note: Rohit Shukla is CEO of the Larta Institute, the LA-based incubation organization and organizer of agtech’s longest running conference the Ag Innovation Showcase.

Here Shukla fills us in on what people missed at this year’s showcase.

 The prevailing theme at the 9th Annual Ag Innovation Showcase (AIS) presented by the Larta Institute and hosted by Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis in September was collaboration.

From lab to farm, we are seeing thematic collaboration between large industry players and nimble, opportunistic technology entrepreneurs. The interaction between them, how they deploy their own assets and incorporate external assets will reveal more about where agriculture is heading.

Bayer on Collaboration in Light of Consolidation

The Showcase’s keynote speaker, Adrian Percy, chief scientist of R&D for Bayer Crop Science, emphasized the importance of collaboration during his address. He noted that “Bayer has always collaborated, particularly with universities across the world,” while acknowledging that “recently we have found a new intense need to collaborate, particularly in this age of accelerated science and technology.”

Percy went on to describe the ways in which their partnerships have accelerated advances in their research surrounding pollinators, specifically bees, and the ways in which they are able to detoxify insecticides, emphasizing that “one company should not have to do all of these things, but should work with others to move forward. Collaboration depends on not being controlling, but encouraging peer-to-peer collaboration.”

His perspective took on particular significance given Bayer’s announced merger with Monsanto.  It brings into sharp relief the question as to what the merger may bring, and how Bayer, DowDuPont and Syngenta would approach the many smaller companies developing key solutions to the many challenges created in traditional agriculture.

Right on the heels of the Showcase, Bayer and Showcase alumnus Gingko Bioworks, announced the formation of a new company focused on beneficial microbes.

To underscore what seems to be a trend, a number of companies at the Showcase announced new products, funding and partnerships at the event.  Benson Hill Biosystems, an alumnus of the Showcase, unveiled a new genomic tool to expand CRISPR usage and to enable companies of all sizes to enhance crop performance.

Also, Motorleaf highlighted results of a pilot with one of the nation’s largest crop producers. These announcements emphasized the reality that the newest and most innovative players in the ag industry are active participants in creative agricultural “commons.”

Keeping Farmers at the Heart of Innovation

The insertion of technologies from outside traditional agriculture also promises to disrupt the long value chain of agriculture. We are beginning to make sense of the feast of data being harvested at the farm. Agriculture is both attractive to, and increasingly dependent on, so-called “big data” solutions and the collection, calibration, and deployment of data is now a compelling narrative affecting the supply chain from crop to consumer.

AIS 2017 sought to explore and present developments in machine learning that may quickly advance farming toward more prescriptive and predictive outcomes.  While artificial intelligence is all the rage, the combination of data inputs and new automation technologies has the potential to change the face and profile of farming and food production generally

From robots, drones and satellites above, as was described in a special content session by the ARPA-E Transportation Energy Resources from Renewable Agriculture (TERRA) program, to the invisible workings and modifications of genomes, AIS provided a farm-centric context for machine learning advancements, making sense of data flows while preparing to revolutionize the future of food.

Many of the innovations – in agricultural biotechnology (beneficial microbes, inoculants, biomimicry etc.), data tools, automation and prescriptive principles we explored at AIS – are being aggressively adopted by family farmers and next-generation farmers. This younger, tech-savvy generation is aggressively pursuing opportunities to learn fast and consists of technophiles ready to take their learning to the next level.

The event highlighted two such farmers: Jennifer Wagner-Lahr, in her dual roles as senior director of Innovation & Commercialization at AURI and a family farmer of diversified crops and livestock; and Garret Reikhoff, a fifth-generation farmer in his mid-thirties from GR farms. Wagner-Lahr was able to bring both a rich understanding of how ag innovation can be directly realized and also the challenges faced in adopting solutions for modern small farming.

Along with inheriting and integrating the hard work and expertise of his family before him into his ag practices, Reikhoff spoke of adopting the latest technology into his repertoire: GPS auto-guidance of most machines and implements, yield monitoring, extensive soil sampling leading to variable-rate seeding and fertilizer and the use of sensor-based technology to vary the applied rate of nutrients in crop production.

A Technologically Limitless Future?

At the rate technology and practices are advancing today in the ag space, the future seems technologically limitless. But the caution we highlighted at Showcase is that the future of farming isn’t going take place in a lab. We reminded ourselves at the close that it does come down to the soil, and the farmers themselves, who are central in this environment.  Moving forward both across the industry and with AIS in particular, we need to keep in mind the farmer and the consumer, the filter through which we must understand whether these innovations are worthwhile.

We are looking forward to celebrating AIS’ 10th anniversary in 2018!

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