Conner Cunningham, a field specialist for WaterBit shows one of the small, solar-powered computers his company has installed in an almond orchard at California State University Fresno’s test farm. Photo by David Castellon.
Written by David Castellon
Back in 2014, a small business was started to develop systems of ground sensors to monitor moisture in farm soil.
But plans for the fledgling company, WaterBit, soon changed, as the founders realized the tiny, solar-powered computers they were using not only negated the need to install batteries or connect the system to the electrical grid — which can be difficult in a remote field — but they also had a reliable communication system that could be viewed and controlled online, said Conner Cunningham, a field specialist for WaterBit, which is based in San Jose, but has a presence at Fresno State.
Like many new companies marrying the latest high-tech and scientific innovations to the needs of farmers and ranchers, defining what WaterBit does can be difficult.
It certainly is in the irrigation business, but it doesn’t drill wells or lay pipes, nor is it easy to tell on first glance that the technology is any different from other businesses working with soil moisture sensors.
PAGO is in much the same boat. The nearly 2-year-old Fresno-based business created a software platform for agricultural labor to help farmers and labor contractors schedule work crews, monitor hours and the volume of crops they harvest, helping farms be compliant with labor laws and rules, said Mike Dodson, founder and CEO of Lotpath, Inc., PAGO’s parent business, which isn’t much older, having launched about five years ago on the development of software to monitor quality control data for fruits and vegetables.
So how do farmers and ranchers find these businesses and others developing new technology when their services may not fall into the sort of easy-to-define categories that can be listed in the Yellow Pages?
The Western Growers Association may have the answer.
The Irvine-based association representing family farmers in California, Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico has announced the launch of its AgTech Innovation Directory at www.agtechpages.com. It’s described in a press release as “an interactive directory that acts as a marketplace for agricultural technology startups.”
It allows users to find out what the more than 50 listed startups are doing so the farmers can determine if the companies fit their needs. In most cases, the farmers may connect with these businesses as potential clients, but some may inquire if their farms or ranches could become testing grounds, or they may look to invest in the startups.
“These startups are specializing in everything from automation and traceability to data management and aerial imagery,” Hank Giclas, Western Growers’ senior vice president for strategic planning, science and technology, stated in the release. “The vision of Western Growers AgTech Innovation Directory is to streamline that process, saving farmers time and money by allowing them to easily search for the startup and technology that meets their most immediate needs.”
As for how the startups made the directory, all have a desk or office at the Western Growers Center for Innovation and Technology in Salinas, a business incubator focused on promoting tech entrepreneurs to work with the ag industry.
While some of the businesses on the list are based at the Salinas facility, some are based in other parts of the country and overseas.
In the case of PAGO, its home base is at Bitwise in Fresno, while WaterBit is at the WET Center at Fresno State, another incubator focused on businesses involved in water.
Tech for agriculture isn’t anything new, but for years the tech sector focused largely on other, more profitable markets — entrainment, medicine, communications and the military, among them — and farmers frequently complained the new tech developed for them didn’t work well or quite suit their needs or was too expensive, as the various tech developers didn’t understand how various ag businesses worked.
“We believe the solutions for agriculture need to be co developed,” with farmers and ranchers working with tech developers or at least providing input that is listened to by the tech experts, which is why Western Growers is involved in growing ag tech businesses, Giclas said in an interview.’
The businesses working out of the Western Growers center have expanded beyond the coastal farming areas, reaching out into the Central and Imperial Valley and other parts of the country.
Among WaterBit’s Valley clients are researchers at Fresno State, who are using its irrigation and soil-monitoring systems in fields where test growing methods of almonds and grapes are underway.
For his part, Dodson said Western Growers already does a lot to connect startups to potential clients, and the directory is an added method of doing that.
“The real benefit for me is being plugged into that ecosystem,” he said.
Giclas said the directory — which actually launched in November 2018 but hasn’t been promoted — was developed in response to farmers asking for a better “line of sight” on businesses using new technology.
The directory will get bigger, he said, as so far only about 60 percent of the startups at the innovation center are on the list, and several are planning to create online profiles for the directory.
“The value is being another source for farmers to come in and look at what’s going on and what’s new in the marketplace and being able to find a solution and access the information we have available for people to learn what we have going on,” Cunningham added.
While there are other companies doing things “along the line” of what WaterBit is doing, being able to see in the online directory what it does differently or better is a benefit, Cunningham said.
It further helps that Western Growers isn’t promoting fly-by-night startups or those “just making a lot of noise” without delivering what they offer.
“The challenge is to not only find somebody that’s doing something out of the box, but also doing it well.”