food Silicon Valley Meets America's Salad Bowl
Silicon Valley Meets America's Salad Bowl To Create The Farm Of The Future
By ARIEL SCHWARTZ
Though just down the road from each other, the country's tech capital and one of the country's largest farming regions are only now starting to work together—with only a little culture clash.
It's 2020. Drones are flying over the tomato plants, taking constant quick snapshots of the field to look for problems. A stream of ultra-accurate weather data informs crop decisions, while a handheld pathogen detection system sets off alerts for diseases in the field in a matter of minutes. The whole farm is hooked up to a massive outdoor wireless network, to ensure that no swath of land is ever left unconnected. Somewhere around here is a farmer.
Silicon Valley has a lot to offer the growing number of farmers who rely on high-tech solutions. But while Palo Alto and California's Central Valley, the place where much of the country's produce is grown, are just a few hours' drive from one another, the cultural gap is incalculable. If farmers and tech entrepreneurs can find common ground, our food supply will benefit.
Ashwin Madgavkar, the founder of a startup called Ceres Imaging that uses aerial photography and spectral imaging to keep track of water stress and nutrient content in crops, has mostly figured out how to navigate that cultural gap. But it took some time.
"At first, when I approached farmers, it was more for advice—asking about decisions they made on the farm and how we could influence those decisions," he says. "Farmers are simple at the end of the day in that if you can provide a product that will make more money than it costs them, then they will buy it. The biggest challenge is that farmers are busy—you have to really convince them it’s worthwhile."
Agriculture is a huge industry in the U.S., and precision agriculture—the practice of using sensors, software, analytics, and drones to micro-manage crops—is a growing part of it, with a market size estimated to be up to $2 billion (and rising fast). Entrepreneurs and big companies alike are salivating; Monsanto recently bought San Francisco-based weather analytics company Climate Corporation for $1 billion, and a number of agriculture technology startup incubators and funds, including Farm2050, have started popping up in the region.
If you can provide farmers a product that will make more money than it costs them, then they will buy it.
The RoyseLaw AgTech Incubator, an initiative spun out of a law firm that works with clients in the industry, is one of them. Roger Royse, founder of Royse Law, has been watching the ag-tech space for a few years. "I could see the stuff coming out of the tech community wasn't getting adopted," he says. "What was missing was an incubator that would give these companies business skills and also help get them in front of the relevant markets."
Royse has so far announced 11 of his 15 startups. They include FarmX, a company developing a real-time farm health-monitoring tool; Ayrstone, which is developing outdoor wireless networks for farms; AgRite, a startup that has created an automated wireless fertilizer injection and irrigation system; and RapidBio Systems, which is working on a handheld pathogen detection system. He's hopeful that the incubator's mentors, who are closely involved in the agriculture industry, can help with introductions. "Farmers in [Central Valley farming community] Salinas—the last thing they want to see is another sensor salesman. They want to see someone who's credible, who they know and trust that says this is state of the art," he says.
The potential market for Royse's startups is big. For farmers—especially those in California, which is where many Silicon Valley agriculture startups are focusing their energies—one of the most pressing issues is drought. The state is approaching its fourth summer with dangerously low water levels, and the economic impact on the agriculture industry will run into the billions. If a series of, say, high-tech sensors that can tell farmers precisely how much fertilizer to apply to a plant can save money at a time when they're already struggling, the farmers will get onboard. Even in times when drought isn't an issue, products that help farmers come up with time and money-saving plans for future planting are attention-grabbing.
Patrick Dosier, an agronomist and mentor in the RoyseLaw incubator, thinks he can bring farmers and entrepreneurs together with that age-old Silicon Valley ritual, the hackathon. But he's not advertising the Apps for Ag event, which will be held in April, as such.
"I went around to growers in my network and mentioned the event, and the immediate reaction was not good because of the word hackathon. It has a negative connotation. I had to explain that a hackathon is a good thing, it’s a social event where people come together," he says. When farmers hear the word "hack," says Dosier, they're likely to think of things like the Sony Pictures hacking incident, or the Home Depot security breach. "That's why we call it Apps for Ag rather than something like Ag Hack."
The last thing farmers want to see is another sensor salesman.
Dosier anticipates that the hackathon teams will look at pressing farm issues like water management and labor scarcity. These are complex issues that won't be solved in a weekend, but the hackathon might get a dialogue between growers and the tech community going. For budding farm entrepreneurs, the event could hammer home a point that successful tech companies in the agriculture space already know: providing loads of data to farmers without context isn't helpful.
"There's a wave of startups out there right now, and most are trying to have some sort of spin on data. There are imagery [companies], data aggregation companies. The problem is that people give [farmers] technology—they won’t give them solutions. Making data actionable is where people have struggled," says Madgavkar. "Even if your product is good, if you make somebody struggle or work hard to use it, it’s not going to be successful."
There's also a difference between what's technically possible and what farmers can currently use. While startups are developing tools that can offer precise crop data, down to the individual tree, farmers are by and large still managing dozens of acres of crops at a time.
And so, while the young generation of Central Valley growers seems interested in Dosier's hackathon, he "hasn't gotten a whole lot of commitment" yet.
It's not as if farmers are getting any younger. Over the past 30 years, the average age of farmers in the U.S. has climbed from 50.5 years to 58.3 years, according to the USDA. This is a trend that's unlikely to change, especially if land costs remain as high as they are now. Even so, the promise of money-saving technology, no matter how unfamiliar, could be hard to ignore—that is, if it actually ends up saving money.
Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more.