Ag at Large: The tech world needs veggies too

By Don Curlee | Contributed

California agriculture is attracting the world of technology the way spring blossoms attract bees – and a half dozen outstanding applications are competing for a substantial prize that will support their growth and deeper involvement.

The competition called Innovation Arena has been established by Western Growers, one of the state’s oldest and largest associations of growers and shippers of fruits, vegetables and other food products. It invited start-up companies, mostly from Silicon Valley, that have potential high-tech solutions for agricultural operations to apply for a financial prize it is offering.

Six finalists have been selected by a special committee of Western Growers, and one of them will be chosen to receive a substantial check to be awarded at the association’s annual meeting in Hawaii on Nov. 7.  The amount of the cash award has not been announced, but two of the winners will each receive a complimentary one-year membership with Western Growers and an opportunity to work with the association’s Center for Innovation & Technology in Salinas.

Other benefits for the winners include networking with leading produce companies, wide exposure to agriculture related organizations in Arizona and Colorado as well as California, training and mentorship from legal, human resources, insurance, financial and communications experts.

Only in its second year, the competition attracted 50 high tech start-up companies, twice the number that took part last year. They all offer solutions or improvements for sticky agricultural operations, some in the field, others in the handling, packaging and shipping of perishable, but valuable food items. Most involve substantial hand labor, hopefully to be replaced by technical or mechanical means.

One of the applicants called DeepLook builds weeding robots that distinguish weeds from the planted crop and remove the weeds without chemicals. The method, which can weed four acres of a typical vegetable field in one day, requires practically no human labor involvement. It costs about $50,000, not a staggering amount for growers used to hiring large hand crews for the job, employing them day after day in a series of fields.

Water conscious producers will be attracted to two of the entries, one called Agralogics, which improves irrigation efficiency, and CropX, which monitors soil moisture. Agralogics employs evapotranspiration to generate irrigation work orders, analyzing information inputs from multiple sources. CropX integrates soil moisture measuring hardware with a cellular communication system and state of the art mobile applications.

Improved soil health is the objective of two of the systems, California Safe Soil and Trace Genomics. California Safe Soil recycles food from supermarkets and uses heat, mechanical action and enzymes to convert it  into organic fertilizer. Trace Genomics offers a genetic test for soil microbes that gives growers an unprecedented look into the biology of their soil.

One other applicant offers a fully autonomous robotic harvester for fresh strawberries. With adjustments the unit can accomplish harvesting in certain other crops. The company proposes to lease its machines on a per harvested box basis, allowing a direct cost comparison with piece rate payments currently used.

Two of the winners will receive one-year memberships in Western Growers and an opportunity to work with the association’s Center for Innovation & Technology, located in Salinas. That provides exposure to and networking with fresh produce companies throughout California, Arizona and Colorado and training opportunities in human resources, insurance, financial and communications experts.

WG Senior Vice President Hank Giclas said the competition “demonstrates the type of positive impact we are having in the development of agtech.” Others in agriculture can be expected to follow similar paths – with substantial dependence on their GPS units, of course.