When considering the challenges facing the agriculture industry, it’s tempting to focus on the negative. The reality is that there are significant issues that need to be addressed, including labor shortages, stringent environmental regulations, climate change and shrinking margins. While these problems are not going away overnight, a pessimistic perspective fails to account for all the organizations, companies and individual leaders dedicated to developing solutions.
The University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources (UC ANR) is one institution that’s put considerable resources toward finding ways to help. Through The VINE—an initiative committed to advancing sustainable agriculture and food innovation—UC ANR offers a multitude of opportunities for collaboration.
“When we first started The VINE some years ago, we understood that we were in a really unique position because our division sits between the campuses and the industry,” says Gabriel Youtsey, chief of innovation at UC ANR and founder of The VINE. “We realized that we have a special role here—to be a beacon and start a connecting force.”
Through conversations with the farming and technology communities, it quickly became clear that the regions where people had specialized expertise were scattered around the state. For example, UC ANR found that many rural communities wanted to become hubs for the next generation of agriculture technologies, but they often lacked the resources or industry knowledge to make that happen. The VINE was a means to foster and advance these goals.
“As our first charge, we took to becoming a force for connecting and amplifying these partners, and to create a fabric for ag tech to grow and thrive in California,” Youtsey says. “We also wanted to be able to present California ag tech as an example for the rest of the world.”
Today, The VINE boasts a number of programs to achieve its mission. The VINE Studio focuses on getting university research into the market. It also facilitates the Farm Robotics Challenge, a national robotics competition that challenges student teams to create new solutions for on-farm challenges. With the help of a $1 million grant UC ANR received for the VINE Climate Smart Agrifood Innovation Program, The VINE can foster the development of solutions that mitigate some of climate change’s negative effects. Meanwhile, The VINE VIP offers an accelerator program that gives agtech startups robust support in the form or proof of concepts and field trials.
"What really sets The VINE apart is our emphasis on collaboration,” says Hanif Houston, director of marketing and communications for The VINE. “Our programs are built on strong partnerships where everyone has a seat at the table and is working together to push the industry forward. It's this synergy, this unique blend of perspectives and resources and ideas, that makes The VINE's approach truly impactful."
In addition to bringing the right people and companies together through its programming, The VINE offers what Youtsey calls “value-added activities” to support the overall ecosystem. Such activities include strategic events with partners (such as FIRA USA and the aforementioned Farm Robotics Challenge), entrepreneurial programs that grow and accelerate new startups, and other initiatives that help companies identify, commercialize and scale their scientific breakthroughs. The goal with all of these programs is to develop effective technological solutions, get the products and services to market faster, and increase adoption of high-tech tools across the farming industry.
“Technology can sometimes be a hammer looking for a nail,” Youtsey says. “We’re trying to create the hammer and the nail at the same time.”
One of the ways The VINE accomplishes this is by doing what it does best: bringing people together. In this case, the program strives to connect the public and private sectors. To tackle the agriculture industry’s most difficult problems, The VINE pairs public research and development with private funding. Both sides need to do their part to ensure the technology is not only viable, but also that it can be used in the real world.
“As an initiative of the University of California, The VINE has one foot firmly planted in the public sector, yet our mission is very much industry-facing,” Houston says. “As such, our programs are focused on bridging the gap between the public and private sectors.”
Youtsey gives the example of drones that precision spray pesticides. The drones offer a number of benefits, such as operating seamlessly on hillsides and across treacherous terrain, maximizing worker safety through remote operation and minimizing environmental impact by delivering a specific dose of chemicals directly where they need to be. The solution, however, doesn’t end with the drone.
In addition to the technology, the farm also needs an operator who is certified to fly the done and also a licensed pest control applicator. The operator needs to be mindful of any policies in place around the use of drones and have the training to be able to execute the appropriate tasks. From there, this operator must work with the grower to spray the right chemicals in the right places, all while offering this service in a business model that the grower can afford to support.
This hypothetical situation touches on everything from legislation and rulemaking to training and industry participation in a real-world context. These interactions are important, Youtsey explains, and they need to be addressed collaboratively. All the technology in the world won’t help farmers if they can’t legally, practically or financially use it. The VINE continues to bridge the gaps.
“To advance new solutions and alleviate complex issues, it often takes a complete redesign of the business model,” Youtsey says. “The food system is critical infrastructure, and it’s one of the only pieces that’s in the hands of the private sector. The public sector needs to invest in supporting it through R&D. This is where public-private partnerships come into play. The industry has the know-how to produce food, but due to the technical complexity of doing so, the state government has to invest funds. Then, they need to work collaboratively across the spectra of university, industry and government to think about policies, agendas and the industry’s business models.”
In the near future, The VINE will expand its vision and reach through a forthcoming Innovation Center. While the project is still in the planning stages, it is designed to complement The VINE’s other projects by offering yet another place for innovators to grow and scale their technologies. At a high level, the Innovation Center will provide a facility for tech companies to work in a setting that mimics a university lab, greenhouse and biomanufacturing plant. More specifically, the goal is to keep food innovation and production in the Golden State.
“California's high amount of regulation in the in agriculture and food industry means it has the highest quality in the United States and, in many cases, in the world as well,” Youtsey says. “It's more expensive to produce, but the food safety and sustainability practices are better here. So, what we're trying to do is keep food innovation and food production here versus going to Mexico or Canada where there are different standards that are often not as stringent as what California does.”
Part of this project includes supporting small-scale farmers and farm workers on the journey to becoming entrepreneurs and business owners. One partner program called the Fresno-Merced Future of Food will give participants community college credit by allowing them to demonstrate the skills they already know.
“The VINE is really on the cutting edge of thinking about transforming the lives of farm workers, small farmers, and the communities in which they operate and live,” Youtsey says. “That's really important for us, and I think it makes both California and our program really different than other places around the U.S. and around the world.”