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Technology, innovation drive future of California agTechnology, innovation drive future of California ag

Robots, drones, sensors and environmentally friendly inputs will be ubiquitous on farms in 2030.

Tim Hearden

August 21, 2020

6 Min Read
PlantTape demonstration
Marcus Dunning, director of sales for PlantTape, discusses how drip tape can be mechanically installed for row crops during a field day at Bayer’s fruit and vegetable seed lab in Woodland, Calif., in 2019.Tim Hearden

[Note: This is the final article in a series examining what California agriculture could look like in 2030 – a decade from now.]

Sitting in his office in Manteca, Calif., Winters Farming Co. manager Alex Bergwerff keeps tabs on what’s happening in the company’s orchards and vineyards throughout the Central Valley and can make changes with the touch of a finger or click of a mouse.

In 2017, the company began using aerial imagery by plane from the Oakland-based Ceres Imaging and sensing monitors from the Novato-based Ranch Systems to run farms in Yuba City, Vacaville, Galt and Oakdale.

One day shortly after installing the systems, Bergwerff was notified that the water provider for the farm in Vacaville had a line break and couldn’t deliver water, so he used the new farm management technology to stop the pumps from beginning to run idle, which could have ruined them.

“We were able to shut them off without having to drive there,” he said.

Since then, the systems have been so beneficial to the operation that it has added more automation, Bergwerff said recently. He said the technology can help farms keep up with the added tasks and regulations associated with growing crops in California.

Big growth in ag-tech

Winters Farming isn’t alone in seeking a helping hand from ag-tech startups. Last year, California ag-tech firms saw $4.9 billion in venture capital investment, according to state statistics. That was twice as much as the remaining top five states combined and a quarter of the worldwide total, according to the Governor’s Office of Business and Economic Development.

Related:California ag faces a decade of challenges

“Given its deep roots in agricultural productivity, it is no surprise that California is leading the nation in ag tech,” the office’s website boasts. “Our state has the critical ecosystem to support cutting-edge developments in this rapidly expanding sector. California is home to the nation’s top Agricultural Sciences university and 11 Tier 1 research universities making discoveries in everything from seed breeding to biofuel alternatives.”

Automation and innovation will be key to helping California’s agriculture industry remain prosperous over the next decade, as water and labor uncertainties and copious regulations have significantly increased growers’ cost of production in recent years.

“It’s no longer just about growing a crop,” said Jackie Applegate, president of global vegetable seeds and environmental science for Bayer Crop Science. “It’s about water management, integrated solutions, soil management.

Related:Resilient strawberry industry faces new challenges

“From an overall perspective, every innovation we do is a commitment to sustainable development,” Applegate said during a field day at Bayer’s vegetable seed lab in Woodland in 2019. “It’s about innovating differently and it’s about collaboration.”

[Related: Could sustainability focus earn a premium for growers?]

Among those developing technology that will help growers cut costs while coordinating tasks is the University of California, Davis’ Smart Farm Initiative, where researchers are using donated funds to try to replicate the farm of the future.

UC's Smart Farm

On a 300-acre research farm at the Davis campus, researchers are working with robotic tractors, using drones to track the condition of plants in the field and using sensors to monitor individual plants and animals.

The researchers envision the farm of 2030 and beyond producing more food than ever before as measured by inputs of land, labor, energy and materials, and doing so with less water and less of an environmental impact, the UC explains.

To that end, plant breeders are working on crop varieties that will resist pests and diseases, requiring less chemical treatment.

“There’s a lot of activity going on,” said David Slaughter, professor of biological and agricultural engineering at UC Davis, who is leading the initiative. “We have more horticultural crop breeders in Davis than at any other public university in the country. There are a number of breeding trials going on there.”

One of the concepts Slaughter’s team has been working on is “co-robotics,” in which a robot works in partnership with a person, he said. In a strawberry field in the Monterey area, where GPS-guided tractors follow human pickers with a tray and cart it out of the field when it’s full, bringing a new one in its place.

Elsewhere, scientists are attaching sensors to individual grape vines or almond trees to monitor water-related stress and send the information to a cloud, Slaughter said.

“There are some startups that are commercializing this,” he said. “It’s a technology that’s been developed at Davis and researchers continue to work in the area. Preliminary results show it can save about 20 percent of water without harm to the crop.

“This is something we see a lot of farms being able to adopt,” he said.

[Related: Ag shrinking under weight of Calif. regulations]

At UC Davis’ Viticulture and Enology Oakville Station in Napa, a 40-acre research vineyard on two plots, viticulturist/enologist Kaan Kurtural’s team have established a “touchless” vineyard demonstration to show growers how much they can save on labor costs.

“Today, 90% of our wine grape acreage is mechanically harvested,” Kurtural recently told Farm Press. “No human touches it and we’re working on mechanizing some of the remaining items like pruning and shoot and leaf removal.

“Of immediate benefit to grape growers is that the current lack of hand labor becomes less of a problem as we can do just about everything by machine,” he said. “This could save 85%-90% of labor operations costs.”

Numerous innovations

Meanwhile, numerous private companies and startups are coming up with innovations that will help growers save on inputs. One of them is the Illinois-based Precision Laboratories, which is using surfactants to more efficiently move water through soil to plant roots and improve plants’ water retention. The products seek to help growers use less water, reduce plant stress and optimize yields, according to the company’s website.

The company’s movers and holders have shown good results in strawberries, said Don Spier, Precision’s business manager for southern and western markets. In one research trial, the products increased yield by 27.5 percent and increased the weight of each berry by 51.6 percent, according to Spier.

“I believe California, especially, is only going to be more restrictive on the use of water” by 2030, Spier said. “Any way we can find to produce crops using the same amount or less water is going to be a benefit.”

At its field tour last summer, Bayer highlighted its partnerships with companies including Netafim, an Israeli firm specializing in irrigation technology, and the San Francisco-based Climate Corp., a digital data provider.

Many of the stations during the field tour highlighted partnerships. At one, Netafim and Sentek demonstrated a lighter drip tape that will last for three seasons and save on labor. At another, discussions of digital analytics and in-field innovations included a demonstration of PlantTape, a biodegradable tape used commercially to plant lettuces, broccoli, cauliflower, celery, onions, tomatoes, cabbage and other crops, according to the product’s website.

Partnerships important

“It’s integrated and combined solutions that will make the industry grow and propel into the future,” said Jenna Oesch, former global marketing and customer experience leader for Bayer Vegetable Seeds. “California is critical today, and I think California will be critical tomorrow.”

In the coming decade, much of farmers’ success will depend on how willing they are to embrace new concepts and practices, the experts say.

“There’s always consolidation” in agriculture, Oesch said, “but there’s also a lot of new players coming into the industry. Without being able to think differently, you’re not relevant.”

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