By: Allison Nepveux
A growing number of startups are developing technologies designed for the agriculture industry. But just what should new technology companies know before trying to disrupt the produce industry? We reached out to two major growers — NatureFresh and Wish Farms — to get their take on technology and how tech providers can help them meet their needs and prepare for the future.
The Future of Tech
Peter Quiring (pictured left), founder of NatureFresh, is encouraged by the increasing amount of tech investment in the ag world. “I think the agriculture industry has been undervalued by the tech sector in the past, but I don’t see that as much today,” he said. “I think over the next 5-20 years, we’re going to be amazed at how tech advances as it relates to agriculture.”
Gary Wishnatzki (pictured below), owner of Wish Farms, said tech developers need to be mindful of what growers need, not what they think they need. “I would encourage programmers and engineers to connect with growers and visit farms before they head down a development path,” he said. “Spending significant time at the ranch upfront can lead to much better marketable solutions.”
Why Tech Matters
Before crafting innovative solutions, it can be helpful for tech companies to know why the ag industry is investing in tech. It all comes down to the need to compete. Camera technology, for example, can increase efficiency, and technology that reduces labor needs can help keep costs low. “We are forced to use more and more technologies to compete with third-world countries that don’t have the minimum wage standards or labor shortage we have,” Quiring said.
Shrinking labor availability is already sparking innovation and beginning to attract investments in the ag space, and Wishnatzki said the robotic revolution at the farm has begun.
NatureFresh uses robotics for packing and grading produce. “We have a robot that puts clam shells into a box two at a time and orients the labels all the same way. That would normally take three people, and now one robot is doing that,” Quiring said, adding that technology can also eliminate the need for people to move product around.
Tech isn’t just needed in the field. Quiring noted it could help throughout the entire supply chain. “The average age of a truck driver today is over 50. Thousands and thousands of drivers will be retiring,” he said, adding that driverless vehicles could help alleviate the shortage.
What’s more, gaining efficiencies at the farm will be the key for sustainability as resources get stretched thinner with a growing world population. “I am particularly interested in what the future holds for breeding programs using CRISPR Cas 9 technology,” Wishnatzki said. “As different plant genomes get mapped, it will undoubtedly help breeders bring new varieties to market much more quickly, as well as improving existing varieties in a multitude of ways.”
Why Growers Invest
Despite its advantages, technology can be expensive, and it is typically the return on investment that makes a company pursue a high-tech solution. However, that isn’t always the case. “Once in a while there might be a technology that we can produce at better quality. If it enables us to produce better quality, there is an ROI, but it is sometimes a little more difficult to calculate,” Quiring said.
Tech can also help those in the ag industry alleviate labor concerns, even if the ROI takes years to achieve. “Sometimes there is no choice but to go to technology because of shortage of labor,” Quiring said.
Wishnatzki said some people view growers as slow to change, but he rejects that notion. “Growers will embrace change when the benefits are clear,” he said.
How to Connect
Both Quiring and Wishnatzki recommend tech companies attend industry seminars and meetings. “Tech folks that want to work with the farming community should simply show up at conferences and events where growers are,” Wishnatzki said.
Quiring said he sees more and more opportunities for both parties to work together. “If the tech companies would come and say, ‘Here are some of the things we’ve got, how can we work together to implement these?’ and make themselves available, the farmers, packers and shippers would be all over it,” he said.