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Overburdened growers fuel an ag-tech investment boom

Alex Bergwerff using a tablet
Alex Bergwerff, manager of Manteca, Calif.-based Winters Farming Co., runs four different farm sites using hand-held devices. He is in his second year of using aerial imagery and sensing technologies to run the farms.
Grower challenges such as a persistent labor shortage and increasing regulatory burdens have prompted more investments in robotics, information technology and remote sensing in agriculture, a study has found.

Winters Farming Co. manager Alex Bergwerff was sitting in his office in Manteca, Calif., one day last year when he was notified of a problem on the company’s farm in Vacaville, about two and a half hours away.

The farm’s water provider had a line break and couldn’t deliver water, and the pumps were set to start running. A pump running idle can be ruined, he explains.

But with the new farm management technology Winters Farming had recently installed, Bergwerff could control the pumps from his desk.

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

Winters Farming Co., which grows mainly almonds, walnuts and grapes on several thousand acres in the Central Valley, is one of many agricultural producers that have recently taken the high-tech plunge.

Investments zoom

While ag was slower than some other industries at adopting digital technologies, farm and food sector investments in these technologies zoomed to $10.1 billion nationwide last year, up from $3.2 billion in 2016, according to a new University of California report.

California was the leading state for ag-tech investments with $2.2 billion in 2017, or 22 percent of the total, and ag and food producers in the Golden State spent $5.1 billion on new technologies between 2012 and 2017, reports the UC Giannini Foundation for Agricultural Economics.

The rapid increases come as innovators have addressed the challenges of incorporating robotics, information technology and remote sensing to agriculture, authors Gordon Rausser, Ben Gordon and James Davis observe. Investments have been in the areas of precision agriculture, agricultural technology, vertical farming, alternative animal products, decision-making tools, and supply chain management, the report states.

Precision agriculture tools enhance a grower’s ability to apply inputs such as water or fertilizer based on a micro-level recommendation. By using remote sensing and probe technologies, a user can recognize water needs at a sub-field level.

Up to now, irrigation systems haven’t been able to apply variable water quantities, but that’s changing. For instance, Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Blue River Technologies has developed “see and shoot,” which uses a small robot on the back of a conventional tractor to spot weed growth and aim a spritz of herbicide at the root of the infestation, the researchers note. To further enhance efficiency, the technology is paired with a software program that combines weather and climate data with remote sensing and GPS to find the sub-fields most prone to infestations.

Farming remotely

Bergwerff is a partner with his father and uncle in operating Winters Farming, which consists of several thousand acres on plots in Yuba City, Vacaville, Galt and Oakdale, all in the Central Valley. He is in his second year of using aerial imagery by plane from the Oakland, Calif.-based Ceres Imaging and sensing monitors from the Novato, Calif.-based Ranch Systems to run the farms.

Ceres does from six to 10 flyovers a year at each ranch and takes photos with various types of lenses that can determine such things as water and heat stress. Bergwerff says he can incorporate the imagery into the Ranch Systems' data to give him a real-time picture of conditions at each site.

“A few days ago we found a drip line that had been closed” just by examining the imagery, he says. Previously, that might have required hours of walking through orchards to check all the lines.

Put together, the two sensing technologies enable Bergwerff to manage the farm sites remotely.

“I can run the whole ranch from my tablet," he says. “We use pulse irrigation, which takes longer, and I don’t have to physically be there to do it. The Vacaville ranch is in full automation.”

The technology enables Bergwerff to schedule irrigation at night rather than during the day, “when there’s a lot of evaporation,” he says.

Tools in demand

Tools that make the task of farming easier are becoming more in demand as labor shortages persist and regulatory burdens increase, growers say. For this reason, the UC Cooperative Extension has stepped up testing and showcasing various new products. For example, a walnut irrigation field day June 7 near Red Bluff featured a drone demonstration by UC-Davis doctoral candidate Zhehan Tang, who spoke of the role that unmanned aerial vehicles can play in irrigated agriculture.

He sent the drone up and controlled it with his iPad, allowing growers to look at the photos as they were being generated.

“With our eyes, we look at things from different angles. With a drone, you can take four or five pictures of the same object from different angles” for a three-dimensional effect, Tang told growers. “We want to stitch all of (the pictures) together for one big map.”

Also within the last few years, several events and services have been started to advance the use of technology in agriculture. In 2015, Western Growers opened its Center for Innovation and Technology in Salinas, which provides work space and other resources for entrepreneurs developing products and services that help growers save water or labor, compile and use crop data and meet other needs.

Several events have been started to promote the ag-tech boom, including the North State Innovations in Agriculture conference in Orland in November. Panelists at the most recent conference at the Glenn County fairgrounds included an entrepreneur who found a way to provide wireless connectivity in poorly served areas, another retrofitting tractors with self-driving technology and others seeking to help farms manage data.

More than 600 global agricultural leaders and entrepreneurs were to gather June 26-28 in Salinas for media magnate and former presidential candidate Steve Forbes’ fourth annual Ag-Tech Summit. The event was to explore such innovations and issues as artificial intelligence, “big data,” blockchain programs, crop protection, labor, microbiome research, robotics, sustainability, vertical farming, water and other topics, according to a news release.

Forbes has worked for several years to match innovators in the Silicon Valley with those in the Salinas and Central valleys. Speaking at the 2017 Almond Conference in December, Forbes said some of the most important advances aren’t from new inventions but are from new applications of existing tools.

Collecting data

That’s certainly the case for Ryan Kaplan, an Orland walnut and pistachio grower who developed a mobile device app to collate data from pressure chamber devices that measure water stress in tree leaves. UC advisors have been promoting the pressure chambers as water-saving devices for several years, but the information can be overwhelming, Kaplan says.

Kaplan developed the Pressure Bomb Express app with the help of interns from California State University-Chico, he says.

“You start pressure bombing and input the numbers and at the end of the day you hit ‘upload’, and you have a report sent to your computer,” he says. “It instantly makes the data you collect a real-time information tool.”

As the data helps growers determine if they’re putting on the right amount of water, whether it will result in water savings depends on the situation, Kaplan says. Growers who are under-irrigating might use more water, but they’ll get better quality and yields, he says.

“I want growers to use it and if they like it, awesome,” he says.

Bergwerff, of Winters Farming, says the technology he’s using makes the farms more efficient.

“Before, we would slam a bunch of water on this one time and half of it would evaporate,” he said recently while walking through a third-leaf almond orchard in Oakdale. “Now, we’re more efficient in how we’re putting it on there. And it frees us up to do other things.

“I think there’s more and more tasks put on growers every day, on the accounting side and work flow … to keep up with regulations,” he says. “It allows you to be multitasking a lot easier. It’s moved a lot in the last 10 years. Maybe in the next 10 years we’ll see things we haven’t seen before at all.”


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