Throughout history, some of the world’s greatest innovations have been developed to fulfill a need. The agriculture industry has a particularly rich record of inspiring farmers, inventors and manufacturers to create game-changing solutions. From the first tractors and early combines to today’s precision sprayers and weeding robots, professionals in the agriculture sector understand the importance of making one of the world’s toughest jobs a tiny bit easier.
Since 1926, the Western Growers Family of Companies has committed to doing its part to support and empower industry growth. Western Growers achieves this goal in a number of dynamic ways that include memberships, financial and insurance services, advocacy and more. In 2023, the organization built two new tools focused on smoothing a startup’s path to commercialization.
Through the use of the Agtech Toolkit and image library, these companies have access to invaluable information that helps them get to market faster, saving both time and money. These tools also arm startups with market research and other materials to ensure their solutions are viable. According to Walt Duflock, senior vice president of innovation at Western Growers and partner at a fifth-generation farming operation in Monterey County, California, there was a serious need for crop-focused tools that tell startups what they need to know to build an effective autonomous solution.
“There have been times when we (AgTech investors and mentors) answer the same questions from startups 100 times per week,” Duflock says. “As we were going through our slide deck with these companies, we realized we had to find a way to get these folks some self-help before they get to us and really before they get to the growers. The Agtech Toolkit came out of that conversation.”
The tool, which is available to anyone for free at agtechtoolkit.com, currently covers two crops: romaine lettuce and apples. Once inside the Crops section of the toolkit, users have access to an abundance of information. For example, the romaine lettuce crop has a brief overview of the vegetable and how it’s grown, followed by sections that discuss the total lettuce market, grower challenges, considerations for automation, considerations for pests, disease and weather, considerations for food safety and additional content with links to lettuce harvest videos.
The apple crop follows a similar layout. Western Growers also has a plan to expand the toolkit to eight crops by the end of the year. The forthcoming crops are table grapes, strawberries, citrus, broccoli, wine grapes and almonds. There are also plans to add wages, grower field trials, fundraising and a FarmGPT AI that makes finding the addressable market sizes a breeze. Even with the current information, the toolkit is having an impact. Duflock says 360 members have found the toolkit page and that figure includes 191 entrepreneurs—the Agtech Toolkit’s primary audience.
“We believe all 191 entrepreneurs should be able to save time by understanding the growers’ problems better with the toolkit,” he says. “Now, the startups can get the information they need to build better solutions without talking to the growers. The growers are busy, so we want to help the startups make any conversations with growers impactful, and the more prepared the startups are the better the odds of that happening."
The second tool—the image library—tackles an entirely different but equally important issue. When startups begin building their autonomous machines, they need images to understand what the specific crops look like in a wide range of conditions. A solution that picks strawberries, for instance, needs to know what they look like early in the season versus harvest time, in hot weather and cold weather, irrigated and not irrigated. The image library seeks to meet this need.
“A startup developer would go to the image library and download the images for the crop they want to work on,” Duflock says. “With that, the photos come with information on where they were taken, what date they were taken, what the crop is, what the conditions were, what the phase of growth was, if it was at three weeks, six weeks or 12 weeks, etc. Then, the developer can use that information for the early design, R&D and prototyping phases. It’s not for production. It’s for the early stuff.”
The image library, which is open to the public and available for free at github.com/Project-AgML/AgML, has photos for everything from guava to sugarcane, strawberries to rice seedlings. Duflock says the next crop on the list is tomatoes. From there, the organization will need to prioritize adding images of important crop growth phases and diseases.
The current images were taken whenever Western Growers’ partner Axis Ag and the camera-equipped Farm-NG machine could get onto the farms to take them. Going forward, the organizations will partner with a professor and student group at three schools: Hartnell College, West Hills College and University of Arizona.
Thanks to the University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources, Western Growers now has 10 Farm-NG machines that the school groups can use to take additional photos before finding the best ones to tag appropriately and add to the library. Much like the Agtech Toolkit, the image library has attracted interest. To date, nearly 400 users have downloaded images.
“Over and over again, we heard the same thing from startups: Getting these images takes a lot of effort,” Duflock says. “We asked them to count how long it would take to get them on their own. The consensus was that it would take at least six months on the low end, nine months on the high end, to go out and put together an image library. And it’s almost always going to have to be an engineer who does this because they’re the ones who will need to use the photos eventually.”
All things considered, Duflock estimates that the library not only saves startups time. It also saves them approximately $150-$250,000 in engineering costs and fills a common need. Taken together, the Agtech Toolkit and image library ensure startups are prepared for the challenges of bringing a successful autonomous solution to market.
“At a high level, Western Growers continues to work on tools like these that can help startups on the competitive landscape,” Duflock says. “A lot of times, when you begin talking to startups about what an in-depth field trial entails, you realize they don’t have their product quite as far along as they would like you to believe. In the ag industry, bad news travels fast. You can run a trial with a grower, but you really only get one shot. We want to make sure these startups can deliver.”