Last week, I spoke to Dennis Donohue, Director of the Northern California-based Western Growers Innovation & Technology Center on the Center’s ‘Voices of the Valley’ podcast. It gave me the opportunity to share New Zealand’s agritech story as well as discuss a number of emerging global trends.
I first caught up with Dennis back in 2015. I was based in Silicon Valley at the time and became aware of this new investment asset class called ‘agtech’. What I learnt was that very little of this investment was finding its way across the Pacific. I returned to New Zealand in late 2015 and the rest as they say is history. Today, Agritech New Zealand is a strong industry-led organisation and there is no lack of capital for globally-focused investable agri-technology companies in the country.
In the podcast, we talked about three key focus areas for the Center (plus, I’ll add a fourth); These are labor (lack of and cost of), food security and rapid diagnostics. The fourth reflects the work and support of Karen Ross, the California Agriculture Secretary, who together with Dennis and the team at WG are looking at longer-term workforce skills and talent training. As robotics and automation begin to play a bigger role in the field, growers and their staff need to be up-skilled to operate in this significant emerging technology-driven environment.
During our call, my current focus on the impact of our changing climate also resonated. Water in states such as California, Nevada & Arizona is a major consideration for growers. I’ve seen at first hand in high-production areas such as the Central Valley and the Salinas Valley, the ongoing impact of drought. As I write this post, the western seaboard of the US is suffering some of its highest June temperatures on record. Seattle, in the northwest, hit 37.2c yesterday. Further north, Lytton in British Columbia (Canada) reached 46.6c. A taste, I suspect, of what’s to come with our changing climate.
In the podcast, we spoke about some of the emerging global trends and specifically about some of the specialist strengths of different national and regional agritech hubs. Dennis and I speak frequently on this subject. Western Growers understand that they need to be aware of what is happening globally to address some of their local challenges. The Center and its team are very open to this conversation.
Next month (travel bubble willing), I’m heading across the Tasman to keynote at South Australia’s AdvanceAg conference. Once again, it’s not just about sharing our story. It’s about identifying opportunities for collaboration across borders to address some of the major challenges that we discussed on the podcast last week. As the impact of climate change, labour shortages and the prospect of feeding a rapidly growing global population become more urgent, developing these collaborative cross-border frameworks will become ever more important.
If you want to check out last week’s ‘Voices of the Valley’ podcast, you can listen to the recording below.
The major theme of the event is the importance of education and the need to up-skill today’s agriculture workforce. It’s the strong belief that the agtech revolution of today, requires a ‘New Kind of Worker’ for tomorrow. With the emergence of game-changing robotic and automation technologies, many traditional manual roles will now become hybrid – humans and machines working together.
Dennis Donohue, Director of the Western Growers Center, will be joined by the California Secretary of Agriculture, Karen Ross. Together they will discuss the role of education and the significance of meeting today’s and tomorrow’s workforce needs. Wearing my New Zealand hat, I know that this is a conversation that is already underway. As the impact of automation increases across the production supply chain, so is the need to up-skill the workforce.
The Summit is also introducing the audience to opportunities in Mexico and LATAM. The reality is that a number of Western Grower members, particularly in California, Nevada and Arizona have moved south of the US border into Mexico and further south to LATAM. This region is growing in global significance. Once again, wearing my New Zealand hat, the Mexican and LATAM opportunity is being actively investigated by New Zealand Trade & Enterprise.
The discussions next week will provide further input into the opportunity. From my own visit to Argentina in 2018 and discussions with folk in Chile, Columbia, Brazil and Mexico more recently, I can absolutely confirm this interest. The sessions next week cover both the challenges facing growers in this important region as well as an overview of the emerging start-up scene.
I strongly urge anyone interested in learning more about just how education is going to play an ever more important role in the development of the agricultural workforce, as well as get a better understanding on the emerging opportunities in Mexico and LATAM, to register for this Summit.
Since the beginning of the year, I’ve had the opportunity to speak to and share information with Walt Duflock, Vice President of Innovation, Western Growers and Dennis Donohue, Director of the Western Growers Innovation and Technology Center in Salinas.
The focus of this discussion has been in preparation for a major announcement and initiative launch that Western Growers (WGA) will be hosting on 11 February.
Over the past five years, I’ve interacted with WGA on a regular basis. The challenges that their members face are well-known and a New Zealand agritech delegation had the opportunity to meet many of these growers during the Forbes Live conference back in June 2019. The image above shows some of the Kiwi delegation on a romaine property in the heart of Salinas Valley.
In advance of the 11 February announcements, Western Growers are asking startups (and scaleups) who are engaged in crop robotics and automation to complete a survey to help them identify early stage companies who are building products and working in the field. They are gathering this information to be able to share with WGA members.
Both Walt and Dennis understand the capability and expertise that exists ‘down-under’. By completing the survey below, early stage companies that work in this space will be able to share their information directly with WGA.
Being ‘down-under’ is NOT a disadvantage. WGA know that in order to address some of the major challenges members face, particularly around harvesting, they need to look at global solutions that can help address local problems. The main advantage that early stage companies in the southern hemisphere have is the counter seasonal opportunity. One can run a pilot programme in California, Arizona or Nevada during the northern hemisphere harvesting (picking) season and then refine the technology on southern hemisphere properties 6 months later.
Completing this survey will provide WGA with the information they need to know about your business and the technology you are either developing or have developed. With Western Growers members accounting for the production of more than 50% of all North American fresh produce; fruit, vegetables, nuts, organics, this is a major commercial pathway opportunity.
If you are developing robotics or automation technologies for the specialty crop market and are looking to expand your global footprint, this is one heck of a great way to start 2021!
This morning I had a briefing call with Dennis Donohue, Director of the Western Growers Technology and Innovation Center. We speak on a pretty regular basis. Wharf42 has been working with Western Growers since 2016, signing our first joint Memorandum of Understanding in June 2017.
These calls enable me to get a better understanding of the current landscape for North American growers as well as talking about some of the exciting agritech being developed in New Zealand.
Today, the biggest impact on our engagement is COVID-19. Closed borders mean that my trips to Salinas and the Central Valley will have to wait until next year. Hopefully.
In the meantime, ZOOM has become the main channel for our calls. This morning, we decided that we could leverage this platform to set up a virtual showcase of New Zealand agritech. The initial specific focus of interest to Dennis and a number of his grower members is robotics and automation. The lack of, and cost of labour, remains a key challenge for specialty crop growers across the United States.
Over the past few months, Dennis and the team at the Center have been building up a comprehensive field network of leading growers. The intent is to set up a virtual showcase which will enable selected NZ agritech companies to demonstrate their tech to these growers via a ZOOM conference. Over the coming weeks, I’ll be working with Dennis and the team to identify appropriate businesses and potentially, some key researchers who can talk about their work.
As I’ve indicated elsewhere on this website, the issue of closed borders is one that is today central to a lot of Wharf42’s activity. This virtual showcase is one example of how we can make it clear that New Zealand agritech is still open for business and keen to engage with the rest of the world.
If you want to learn more about the ongoing development of the Wharf42 Insights Programme and other initiatives currently being kept under wraps, please sign up for our free Monthly Newsletter.