In April Sustain OC featured the AgTech Innovation Symposium, which introduced an assembly of nationally recognized agriculture experts who discussed policy, industry challenges, current research, investments, and technology shaping the agricultural industry. Scott Kitcher, president and chief executive officer, Sustain OC, kicked off the event with an overview of agricultural technology.
“We have found that there is quite a bit of demand [for ag tech] in this region,” said Kitcher. “Our goal from this event is to create a group that’s focused on a solution, namely for economic development.”
Dave Puglia, executive vice president, Western Growers Association, discussed the challenges and drivers faced in Californian agricultural technology policy, which the state, as the most populous and urbanized state in the country, is also paradoxically one of the largest farm production states in the world.
He discussed California’s large rural areas produce more than 400 different high quality crops and is essentially one of the largest food suppliers in the world due to the Mediterranean climate, which allows for these crops to be produced at a higher yield for a longer growing season.
“At the same time, we have these massive metropolitan areas that are generally disconnected from the act of farming and increasingly distant politically from what agriculture can be,” said Puglia. “That presents a serious challenge for people like me and my colleagues.”
Puglia’s candid assessment focused on the current pressures agriculture is facing on a state and federal level. He highlighted that most Californian farms are family owned and operated and largely successful through innovative ways of food production. Despite successes, he talked about the demand for water supply for Californian farms so they can meet demand. In 2015 during the infamous drought, over 1 million acres were not utilized as a result.
“If we don’t change the way we manage water supply, another 700,000 acres in the San Joaquin Valley will have to be retired,” said Puglia.
He concluded his discussion with a recommendation to focus on innovation and technology to work around the current challenges of California agriculture.
The Reality of Smart Agriculture
A.G. Kawamura, founding member Orange County Produce, LLC, talked about the reality behind smart agriculture and explained comparatively, the United States has the ability to indulge in many choices. Kawamura provided examples of above ground farming and to consider augmenting landscapes and creating resilience in food supply.
“This ability to manipulate the environment, to alter things so we have a more predictable food supply never changes, it’s as complex as it’s ever been,” said Kawamura. “When we are successful at it, I have a forward phrase—a successful agriculture sustains civilization.”
Kawamura talked about weather vulnerability and interventions to save crops when dealing with floods, freezes and other types of erratic weather patterns. Sharing a personal anecdote, Kawamura mentioned an occasion when he would have had to abstain from watering his San Juan Capistrano farm. However, the large amount of engineering in Orange County provided his farm with reclaimed water. He also highlighted vertical systems that use 60-80 percent less water.
“You can’t farm in the ground, but you can farm above ground,” said Kawamura. “The idea is very simple: farmers will generally invest in something that gives them more predictability of their outcome.”
Water, Water Everywhere?
Lauren Steely, resource specialist, Water Resources Group, Metropolitan Water District, discussed the water district’s challenges across the Southern California region, which include old infrastructure, harsh environmental conditions and cost. The district is combating those challenges with a headgate measurement pilot study, which includes flume channels, doppler water flow meters and smart gates water technology.
Additionally MWD also aims to measure consumptive use through satellite imagery and thermal sensors, which map the water use from space to determine water usage changes. MWD has built a portal that contains several years of imagery so a person can easily determine crop water use.
Potential Ag Tech Solutions
Later in the morning, Eileen Licitra, director of product marketing, ClearAg, Iteris, Inc. a leader in applied informatics for transportation and agriculture, highlighted predictive analytics for weather, soil and agronomic data.
“Anywhere on the globe, we can deliver contextually relevant data specific to what that grower or agricultural company is trying to achieve,” said Licitra.
Steve Gitlin, vice president corporate strategy, investor relations and communications at AeroVironment, Inc., a leading manufacturer of unmanned aerial vehicles featured QuantixTM, an aerial vehicle designed to scout and essentially improve crop yields.
The drone technology, which covers 400 acres in 45 minutes, provides the user with an instant field assessment of water supply and soil composition on their tablet and a subsequent deeper analysis after the data is securely uploaded.
“We are digitizing crops from the air for growers so they have an even better understand of what’s going on in their crops,” said Gitlin.
Gitlin provided a case study of a 40 acre walnut farm that was analyzed using the drone technology system. Because the drone technology detected a lack of water and specific soil composition issues in certain areas of the field, the farmer was able to adjust their watering practices to match the soil composition as well as make appropriate fertilization changes. This resulted in a 22 percent increase in the farmer’s yield, which translated to $51,960 in revenue.
Working Together to Increase Efficiency and Reduce Cost
Later in the morning, a panel of executives from energy and water technology companies joined by moderator Hank Glicas, senior vice president, strategic planning, Western Growers Association to discuss agriculture’s pain points, and how Western Growers Association works with startup agtech companies to develop solutions surrounding the issues.
Manu Pillai, founder of WaterBit, a precision ag irrigation company, talked about the company’s solution to irrigation through analyzing specific data with the use of carbon for long range sensor data collection.
Brian Curtis, chief executive officer, Concentric Power, a next generation provider of smart microgrid systems that adapts proven technology to create firm on-site, dispatchable power using modular co-generation systems, discussed the “mega-trends” of agriculture with regards to an increase in consumption and population.
Aaron Enz, chief executive officer, Alta Energy, an analytics and procurement company that enables commercial enterprises and property owners to make clear, rational decisions about renewable energy, then described specific tools needed to achieve a sustainable future for agricultural technology.
At the event’s conclusion, Gary Corlett, field engineer, Southern California Edison, discussed energy efficiency for indoor agriculture, namely with greenhouses and warehouses. He highlighted the three main energy consumptions for indoor agriculture: lighting, temperature/humidity control and water. Despite the higher costs of light-emitting diode (LED) fixtures, Corlett recommended indoor farms to switch from the more common high pressure sodium (HPS) lights to LED lighting.
“The research around LED lighting shows that yields are better rather than using high pressure sodium or ceramic metal halides,” said Corlett. “They are able to create [LED] fixtures that more closely simulate the sun.”
SCE calculates a potential annual cost savings of $96,074 and 480,372 kilowatt hours.
For more information about Sustain OC events, click here.