Where agriculture and Silicon Valley intersect, opportunity abounds
A robot that can harvest fruit, a kite that uses infrared imagery to predict crop yields, and a mobile application that makes it easy for growers to manage their operation from field to store are just some of the technologies under development today in the budding local AgTech space.
With the state’s devastating drought now in its record-setting fourth year, farm labor shortages, increased food safety regulations, and growing consumer demand for greater transparency into the food supply chain, California’s nearly $47 billion agriculture industry is looking to technology for answers.
While “technology is not going to make it rain,” it can help address some of these vital industry concerns, says Dennis Donahue, former Salinas mayor and founder of the Steinbeck Innovation Cluster, an education and networking hub where innovators, industry leaders and Silicon Valley tech and venture capital experts come together.
Surrounded by a diverse agricultural economy made up of multinational agribusiness and a robust community of small- and medium-sized farms, local tech entrepreneurs in Santa Cruz’s growing technology sector are well positioned to innovate an industry that has been traditionally hesitant to change, until now.
“As things are changing in the industry, we are getting pressures in different places of our operation and looking at ag technology, ways where we can use less people to farm maybe even the same ground,” said Robert Wall, farming systems technician at Reiter Affiliated Companies, the largest fresh multi-berry producer in the world, at Santa Cruz County’s first AgTech Meetup on March 24.
Reiter is currently working with the developers of Agrobot, a robot strawberry harvester that can determine a strawberry’s ripeness before it is picked and packed.
This year, the company is introducing a Helikite, a helium-propelled kite-balloon, for use in crop forecasting for the first time.
“Reiter Affiliates is getting really big with AgTech,” says Walls.
“Ten years ago we didn’t have smartphones, now we are using a [mobile] application that monitors and tracks field conditions from data collected by sensors put in the field so we can predict what the soil will be doing in the next 24 hours,” says Carolyn O’Donnell, Communications Director of the California Strawberry Commission, on how the landscape has evolved for the state’s strawberry growers.
The Commission is working on automating the strawberry cap removal step in the harvesting process.
Currently, the top of the strawberry is removed by hand in the field, which raises worker and food safety concerns. The Commission has spent about $500,000 so far on developing a way to automate this step away from the field in the processing plant, and hopes to have a prototype in a processing facility this year.
For local start-up Farmbotix, the news that heavyweight agricultural producers are open to change is welcome.
“There is so much room for optimization in the agricultural industry,” says company co-founder and engineer, Anthony Sandoval. Envisioning “farm bots everywhere,” Sandoval has developed two machines, the “Farm Bot” and the “Follow Me Bot,” for use in commercial and consumer farming operations.
Designed for furrow applications in the agricultural industry, the Farm Bot has been tested for use in planting garlic, and would assist with carrying product, planting, fertilizing, weeding and possibly harvesting.
Still in very early research and development stages, Sandoval and Farmbotix co-founder Hernan Cortes, both from Watsonville, are looking for angel investment to take their projects to the next level.
“Between my full-time job and four days volunteer work teaching robotics after work, my time building these machines is very limited,” says Sandoval.
Also looking for investment is Corralitos entrepreneur Pete Biggam, developer of the mobile application Organized Organics, which aims to collect all of the world’s farming data while helping small to large growers manage all aspects of their farm from seed to store.
“I see the industry in its early stages just like the private space [exploration] industry. Right now, many companies are investing lots of their profits into R and D for their own farming companies. As more AgTech companies come about, this will allow farms to focus more on food production and growth and lower the costs of technology for them,” says Biggam.
While AgTech is still in its early days, investor Bud Colligan says the key to propelling the sector forward is creating entrepreneurial teams that have a combination of domain knowledge, technical skills, and business expertise.
“Right now, you see many teams with domain knowledge trying to develop apps overseas or on a contract basis,” says Colligan, a longtime Silicon Valley venture capitalist and founder of South Swell Ventures, a private investment firm working in the tri-county area. “This is not a recipe for success. All the elements of a successful start-up need to be there, with fast iteration capability,” which means local lean teams working together close to their customers.
For local tech entrepreneurs, those potential customers are just a field away.
PHOTO: ROBOT FIELDS Farmbotix tests a prototype at a garlic field in 2014. Their latest machine will be on display at the Agricultural History Project’s Second Saturday on the Farm event on May 9 (11 a.m-3 p.m.) at the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds. FARMBOTIX