Written by David Castellon
These days, every company is a software company, whether it’s Google, McDonalds or any number of businesses that depend on computers to function, John Jefferson told a crowd of people from both the agricultural and technology industries gathered last week at the Fresno Convention Center.
That holds true for farms and other agricultural businesses, “though it’s hard for an ag company to think of itself as a software company,” said Jefferson, AT&T’S director of statewide constituency relations.
He was among a group of panelists participating in Fresno’s first “Deeper Dive” Ag Tech Innovation conference, organized by the Western Growers Association and sponsors that included Fresno State, the City of Fresno and the Fresno Food Expo.
“We want to encourage more deployment of ag [technology]” on farms and ranches in the Valley, said Henry “Hank” Giclas, senior vice president of science, technology and strategic planning for Western Growers, which also is a co-sponsor of the annual, two-day Forbes AgTech Summit in Salinas, one of a few summits that have sprung up in California in recent years to bring the ag industry together with startups and technology firms to work on developing and deploying the latest technology on farms and ranches.
The City of Salinas and that region’s farm industry have worked to make the area a hub for new ag tech development, but Giclas said several Central Valley farming operations are working with Silicon Valley, though testing and use of new products here hasn’t been as widely known as in the Central Coast area.
The event was just a one-day event with panel discussions and no associated trade show, and unlike many of the other ag tech events, it wasn’t intended to be a general technology event, but rather focused on one topic — water technology for agriculture.
While there certainly were speakers discussing technology for irrigation, pumping and measuring water use, much of the discussion over three seminars came down to people in the farming industry telling the technology experts what they need and the technology people telling the farmers they’re listening — or at least doing a better job of it than in the past.
For example, Jed Forbes co-founder of Wildeye, an Australia-based maker of farm-monitoring products that opened an office in Fresno last year, said one way his company has attracted customers is to stand by its products, fixing and adjusting them without charging customers for the work.
“You need to be willing to sit with customers and adjust,” though having engineers on standby to do that work can be costly, he said.
And in the case of communications giant AT&T — which sells several products that transmit data and control commands to and from fields — the challenge has been finding ways for representatives on the ground to communicate what farmers need to the people building the new technology, Jefferson said.
But speaking with farmers and ranchers isn’t easy, as they generally don’t have the freedom to stop what they’re doing during most work days, noted Stephen Patricio, president of Westside Produce in Firebaugh, which grows and markets melons grown in California and Arizona.
“Monday through Friday is when you’ve got too many wolves at the door,” and farmers don’t have time to speak with people hawking new technology or proposals to test it, he said, and advised developers to be willing to meet farmers during their evening down time or on weekends, said Patricio, who was on the panel discussing ag tech from the farmers’ perspectives.
“If you’re going to roll up your sleeves and get in the dirt with us … partner with us,” added Cannon Michael, president and chief executive officer of Bowles Farming Co. in Los Banos.
Also important to know is that farmers don’t work at the same pace as the tech industry or a lot of other industries that want to get a product developed, tested, recalibrated and on the market quickly, Patricio warned.
“Cycles mean a lot more to farmers,” so they want to see products tested through at least one or a few crop cycles, which could take a few years, he explained.
“They’re not looking for that instant point of gratification,” but rather that a product works as it’s supposed to for three, six or 10 years Patricio explained.
As such, while farmers do want to have the latest and greatest technology, they don’t want to put a lot of money into technology only to have it go obsolete or unsupported in a few years, as what happened to some farmers who purchased early systems using global positioning systems, Michael said.
Also vital is making the technology useful, he added, noting that farmers are experiencing an “information overload” with all the data new technology can collect, but they need ways to organize it and have practical ways to use it, he said. “We don’t just need fancy dashboards and a lot of graphs.”
“With crop prices as tight as they are now, we can’t afford not to pay for real solutions,” he added.
Don J. Cameron, vice president of Terra Nova Ranch in Helm, southwest of Fresno, agreed, noting that technology that notifies farmers of problems is particularly useful.
Also important is that the technology intended to help shouldn’t create new problems, said Stuart Woolf, president and CEO of Woolf Farming & Processing.
For example, drip systems make irrigation more efficient and save water, but they don’t doesn’t flush away salt — as field flooding can — that can accumulate in the ground around crops and eventually harm them, he said.
Tech developers getting into the ag field also need to realize that there is no “one-size-fits-all” method to what a farm needs, so solutions that might work in the Midwest might not work in California, as solutions that work in one part of this state may not work in another, Michael told the audience of about 180 people.
But farmers also are wary of “snake oil salesmen” that may come out of the Silicon Valley and other tech hubs, as the technology that has come out in the past didn’t always provide the solutions farms and ranches needed, the farm panelists said.
“There’s really nobody out there that’s waiting and giving us good information on the tech companies” or giving them ratings, as customers give to vendors on Amazon, Cameron said.
And their aren’t a lot of ag tech companies with name reputations of the sort that comes with buying John Deere products that generate confidence among farmers, Michael said.
“I know one thing — we love innovators, and we love people who stand behind their products” as well as people who are confident enough in their products to come back after farmers initially say no to them, Patricio said.
As such, Cameron said the best technology for the ag industry likely will come from people who spend time on farms and other ag operations, speak with the people there and create products based upon what they learned.
And the speakers discussing the farmers’ perspective urged that whatever new technology comes out, keep it simple and coordinate with other companies that make related products so the systems can be compatible.
“We don’t want 20 different apps,” Cameron said.
Aaron Magenheim, CEO of AgTech Industries in Salinas. agreed, saying that new products have to be “stupid simple” and not require training classes or videos to use.
“If my 5-year-old doesn’t understand it, then it doesn’t go,” said Magenheim, whose company sells sensors and software to monitor and control water use on farms.
But the startups and established developers of farm technology need the help of farmers, even if that’s just allowing researchers “to try out technology, full blast,” on their farms, said Manu Pillai, co-founder of WaterBit, Inc., a manufacturer of ground-based moisture sensors out of Santa Clara.
In some cases, even bad, unfarmed patches of dirt can be of use, he said.
“We are probably one of the slowest industries to adopt new technology,” as farmers tend to take a long time to analyze new products and usually want somebody else try it first so they can find out later how well it worked, said Rich Bernier, water logistics and services-project lead for Idaho-based JR Simplot, one of the largest privately-held food and agribusiness companies in the nation.
Besides being on the farming side of the ag industry, the company also is involved in developing new technology, which is why Bernier was among the four seminar speakers discussing the needs and difficulties the technology industry faces in developing ag products.
For his part, Pillai said farmers need to be honest and blunt in their feedback about technology and how well it works – “Extremely blunt feedback. Don’t be nice.”
After the summit — which included speeches by Fresno Mayor Lee Brand and A.G. Kawamura, the former Secretary of Agriculture for California — Giclas said it appeared to him the event went well.
And while it was too early to commit to holding another “Deeper Dive” event here next year, he did say it seems likely as efforts continue to connect Central Valley farmers and ranchers with Silicon Valley innovators.
“I think there’s a lot going on here, and we’re trying to demonstrate Salinas isn’t the only place where we need to work on these problems.
“I want to come back here and do something else,” Giclas added. “We’re gonna build on what we did here.”