In the “Automation and the new ways of organizing agricultural work worldwide” roundtable at World FIRA 2022, four panelists from across the globe gathered to talk shop. Moderator Pierre Compere (Agri Sud-Ouest Innovation, France) led the discussion between Nicky Molloy (Callaghan Innovation, New Zealand), Walt Duflock (Western Growers, USA), Paul Voutier (Grow Asia, Australia), and Matt Grant (Rancho Nexo, Mexico).
Each panelist offered a regional perspective on present agricultural systems, the place for automation in the local markets, gaps in the current technologies and the path to developing the technologies farmers will actually adopt. In the roundtable recap that follows, each panelist’s input is summarized to give an overarching picture of the present state of ag tech innovations, as well as their visions for the future of farming.
New Zealand Seeks to Maximize the Export Market
As New Zealand’s representative, Nicky Molloy of Callaghan Innovation shared that the country’s biggest needs revolve around growing high quality food and getting premium prices for their exports. A whopping 95 percent of the crops New Zealand produces are exported, enabling a country of 5 million people to feed 40 million people in 128 countries around the world. Tracking and traceability technologies help to pull of this monumental feat.
Like most places, however, New Zealand was experiencing labor shortages prior to the pandemic that have only gotten worse over time. The country uses overseas workers to help with the shortages, and uses contract growers in Italy, China and other places around the world to deliver a year-round supply of certain commodities like apples. Molloy says that New Zealand is also looking to use technology to create virtual training programs to ensure standardization across plant-handling tasks and other jobs.
With respect to autonomous technologies, however, the barrier to entry is much harder. Molloy has noticed that even larger corporations struggle to absorb the costs of technologies that assist with harvest or other short-term jobs that only require help for three or four months out of the year. Weeding and spraying technologies are much more attractive, as they will be used year-round.
Molloy thinks there is a great opportunity for global partners to diffuse these costs. She gives the example of the apple industry coming together to with researchers to invest in problem-solving innovations that are specific to their needs. Without this group funding, Molloy believes many ag technologies will be cost prohibitive for even the largest corporations in New Zealand.
For the moment, the autonomous ag tech focus in New Zealand is on post-harvest and packaging solutions that focus on testing, measuring, monitoring and sorting. Automated picking platforms are increasingly popular as well. While there are trials and tests being conducted on autonomous weeders and other robots, these machines are not yet market ready.
The biggest barrier to the more sophisticated technologies seems to be the diversity of the country’s farming operations. A useful robot would need to be able to navigate different row spacing, growing systems, crop types and more. Molloy says that simplicity will prevail for now. Any startup that can help bring the packing house into the orchard will make the job faster, easier and more efficient.
United States Farms Need Harvest Automation Solutions
Walt Duflock from Western Growers offered his insights about farming specialty crops (fruits, nuts and vegetables) in the United States. Labor is the industry’s biggest concern as specialty crop growers can spend 20 to 40 percent of their total revenues on employment costs, with harvest accounting for over half of it.
Add to that the gap between how many laborers are required to do the work relative to the industry’s needs, and there simply aren’t enough people to get the job done. Automation is helping to address these shortages—just not fast enough. Duflock indicates that the labor problem itself has been a long time coming.
As bigger corporations buy out the smaller family-run farms that used to dominate the industry, more workers are needed to cover the growing acreage. Unfortunately, fewer people are interested in pursuing these types of jobs. Contract companies that provide foreign labor have gained market power by outsourcing a solution to the problem.
Duflock says that ag robotics startups have an opportunity to help growers supplement their labor force, but the ones that will do so successfully won’t be the best robot builders. A lot of companies have that capability. Farmers in the U.S. are more interested in customer service, return on investment and business model that makes sense for their unique needs.
Another thing that Duflock has noticed is that while sophisticated robots are a rarity beyond the testing and prototype phases, simpler automations are increasingly attractive. He gives the example of a robot called Burro that takes harvest grapes from the field crew to the truck before returning to the field.
In this case, using Burro required one of the workers to become the robot operator, proving another point Duflock sees as essential for adoption: The next generation of ag tech will require farms to have a new kind of farm worker—someone tech savvy who knows how to manage the robots and other autonomous machines.
While farms continue to have their work cut out for them, Duflock believes startups do as well. Picking technologies remain the primary need because they are the hardest to achieve. Even with this goal in mind, Duflock cautions against trying to do too much too soon and for too big an audience. For startups looking to work with specialty crop growers, the best approach is to find a mid-level dealer to work with and focus the technology on a specific region, growing environment and crop type.
South Asia is Searching for the Mobile Phone of Ag Tech
When discussing the agriculture industry in Southeast Asia, Paul Voutier of Grow Asia noted that 73 million small family farms are responsible for growing 70 percent of the region’s food. Like other places, this region is experiencing labor shortages as farm workers move to the urban to pursue job opportunities in the manufacturing sector. Automation might offer a remedy to the labor shortages, but there are hurdles to implementation.
For one thing, many Southeast Asian farmers do not have a history of using technology. Combined with how remote many of these farms in Southeast Asia are, a lack of mobile coverage and road access also make this part of the world what Voutier calls a “challenging automation environment.” He believes there will be a long road to automation.
Voutier predicts that farm technology will take the path of mobile phones in Southeast Asia. While Western countries often adopted the personal computer before the mobile phone, people in Southeast Asia skipped over the PC phase and began using the phone instead. Voutier is interested to see what the mobile phone of ag robotics will be, as well as which technologies are ignored entirely.
Still, there are entry points to the Southeast Asia agriculture market. Automation needs to provide the right value proposition. Corporately held palm oil plantations offer one area of promise, as do specialty crop growers that are connected to modern supply chains via supermarkets. Regardless, technology suppliers need to provide value to win over the region’s farms.
There are some examples of ag technologies succeeding in Asia. Voutier points to China, where the government saw an opportunity for drone-delivered aerial spraying to limit the input costs to farmers around the country. The new technology was realized through a mix of subsidies and government-funded research. After implementing this approach, there was a push to develop this industry locally. This example showcases how some technologies can be delivered as a service using fleets that can help many farms at once.
In the future, Voutier sees semi-autonomous technologies as a way to overcome some of the adoption issues that new machines often face. This is an entry point that enables farmers to use some of their existing practices with some technological assistance. Because spraying is now primarily done via workers with backpacks, Voutier believes this is the automation the region would most benefit from right away.
Mexico and Latin America’s Ag Tech Providers Must Do Their Homework
The way agriculture is organized in Mexico and Latin America is similar to other North American countries, Matt Grant of Rancho Nexo explains. There is a significant disparity between subsistence farming and the large vertically integrated farming corporations. The opportunities for ag robotics and other autonomous technologies tend to be with the latter.
Despite the reputation of Mexico and Latin America as being “labor-rich” countries, Grant has found that there are labor struggles in these regions, too. Fewer people are interested in farm work. Grant recently visited a 150-person farm where skilled labor was the biggest challenge. Producers in Mexico also bemoan the large amount of in-country labor that is being exported to Canada and the U.S.
One of the other interesting things about the Latin America region is that it has a small number of operations that dominate the animal production sector. Because the margins are thin, these ag professionals are eager to embrace robotics and automations that can help them cut costs and provide a worthy return on investment. Additionally, any ag tech that can enable a less skilled worker to do the job of an experienced one would be of interest across the board.
Despite the need for autonomous solutions, Grant says that companies interested in breaking into this market must do their homework. Language and regulatory hurdles can be more significant in this part of the world, which can lead to costly mishaps. Even big corporations learn hard lessons about the need for local partners that can navigate the regulatory bodies in Mexico and Latin America.
For many farmers in the region, their biggest technological concerns center on customer service and parts and availability. When a tractor breaks on a Sunday, Grant says, the operation wants to know that a customer service representative will be out to assist within a few hours, not days later.
Even with all these things in mind, the best companies will still struggle with adoption rates. Grant says that it can help to remember how painful the implementation of GPS was 25 years ago. Now the technology is ubiquitous and few tractors today are made without some sort of navigational system. That wasn’t always the case, and it was a long road to get where we are today. Grant says the key for this generation of ag tech providers will be working with professionals that farmers trust, such as agronomists and equipment dealers with whom they have long-standing relationships.