Like many scientific and highly technical professions, the agriculture and agtech industries have long been dominated by men. From growers and field laborers to the engineers developing the latest farm machinery and tools, women have traditionally comprised a small percentage of the overall workforce. This is quickly beginning to change.
Today, more women can be found in the fields, in the labs, and in the boardrooms of investment firms looking to advance agriculture technology and feed the world. Three such women will take the stage as expert speakers, panelists and moderators at the FIRA USA event held in October in Fresno, California. Meet Seana Day, Ines Hanrahan and Ingrid Sarlandie.
Partner at Culterra Capital and Venture Partner at Better Food Ventures
After spending the majority of her career in technology investment banking, Day was ready for a career shift. A conversation with a friend convinced Day to relocate from London back to her hometown of Turlock, California, a place known for its fertile land and thriving agriculture community. She planned for the trip to be temporary, but several discussions with friends and family members about their perception of technology, inspired her to stay.
“I wanted to understand if their perception of technology and the benefits of technology were similar to that which I was hearing in Silicon Valley, and lo and behold, it was a very, very different experience,” Day says. “For me, that made things really interesting because it gave me an opportunity to help build some of the bridges between the Central Valley’s ag sector and Silicon Valley. Things sort of took off from there.”
That temporary trip home was eight years ago. Today, Day is a proud fourth-generation Turlock resident with a robust understanding of the industry’s technological needs and challenges. She’s used this information and her previous work with mobile and communications infrastructure to help invest in the next generation of ag- and food-tech innovations. This work is done primarily through Better Food Ventures, where she joined as a partner in 2016, and Culterra Capital, a brand she began with another Better Food Ventures partner in 2020. Through these strategic investments across the agriculture sector and food supply chain, Day has seen firsthand how mechanization has the potential to change the game.
“As with anything, ag is not a monolith, so you have to look at the different production systems to really understand where we are in the adoption cycle of automation and robotics and where we’re going,” she says. “Obviously, here in California, labor is a huge issue. So, if we look at the more perishable specialty production systems, there's an acute need for both labor enhancement and labor replacement technologies, and I think there's some exciting work being done there. It’s still pretty early days. I'm optimistic about the outlook, but in terms of day-in, day-out adoption, we still have a little bit of a ways to go.”
Day sees mechanization taking hold in permanent crops like almonds, walnuts and grapes, while less-labor intense commodity crops already have a number of innovations such as variable-rate technologies. The biggest challenge remains for fast-turn row crops that are highly perishable, such as leafy greens and berries. These tend to be the crops that require the most hand labor and therefore benefit the most from robots and other smart technologies.
“I think we have absolutely no choice but to continue to automate those tasks and add to those capabilities over time,” Day says. “I sit on the board of Dave Wilson Nursery, which is a very large fruit and nut tree nursery based here in the Central Valley, and we're looking at every possible opportunity to automate in the field and in our greenhouses because over time, it's becoming more and more untenable with the rising cost of labor, labor availability and dependency, the level of skill required in some of the tasks. It's a kind of a no-brainer for us and others throughout the industry that we need to have better tools to either assist in labor activities or replace those jobs that are highly repetitive and highly manual.”
Part of getting the right autonomous technologies into farmers hands begins with helping manufacturers and startups get their products to market. Day will tackle the issue of scaling up as part of the Economics & Business Panel at FIRA USA. Along with her fellow panelists, the group will attempt to answer the following questions: What needs to be done to help the manufacturer get their robots built and in the field? What do these manufacturers need to do to scale up? Day has a few thoughts on what she’ll bring to this discussion.
“I remain really interested in the work that Western Growers is doing to assess the automation in the specialty crop sector and think about the technology stack,” Day says, referring to the combination of technologies a company uses to build and run an application or project. “What dimensions and elements of the technology stack can be standardized? Where can we leverage some of those economies of scale where many of the big manufacturers have already done the work to build those infrastructure pieces?”
When innovative companies are able to build on top of the technology stack that already exists, there are a number of positive outcomes. Not only do companies avoid reinventing the wheel, Day says, they have an opportunity to improve the current issues around standardization and interoperability. She’d like to see more clever and cost-effective tools available for entrepreneurs and developers to build from. On the other side of the supply chain, Day is interested in discussing ways to make adoption easier and more enticing to farmers.
“Another topic I hope to explore is how we can look at the business models for these products and overlay the risk profile,” she says. “In other words, how do we make the technology easier to adopt for growers and producers? I’m talking about approachable price points, but also looking how business models can shift some of the risk away from the producer, so they’re not paying several thousand dollars for a unit that's still in its early stages.”
“The machine might have the bugs mostly worked out, but even then, it will likely require continued improvements with new generations,” Day continues. “That's a lot of technology risk to expect a farmer to take on. So, the question becomes: How do the technology companies really come up with a business model and risk-sharing model that will accelerate adoption?”
One means of accelerating the transition to automation involves welcoming new people into the farming industry. Day says she sees a need for more “translators” who can speak the language of agriculture. It’s an area where women, people of color and the next generation can bring unique perspectives and challenge the status quo.
“This is something I’m very passionate about,” Day says. “Again, I'm optimistic, but we've got some work to do to bring new talent into the pipeline. I think a lot of that begins with education. There's a lot of narrative shifting that that needs to be done to get people excited about agriculture and the emerging agtech sector.”
“We can really start to build awareness in middle school and high school and certainly in the two-year colleges and the universities about the careers in agriculture that aren't just animal husbandry and farm labor,” Day adds, noting that there are an abundance of business model and entrepreneur opportunities.
“There’s also a place for people who can speak ag and can empathize with producers—people who understand the challenges and the timing and the urgency and can help translate this information to the people developing the tools. There are still some gaps between adopting and adapting. The people who can build those bridges will be important to the acceleration of the industry.”
Ines Hanrahan, Ph.D.
Executive Director at Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission
For Hanrahan, an agricultural engineer with a Ph.D. in horticulture, agtech is a natural combination of her expertise and interests. Some might say that agriculture is in her blood. Originally from East Germany, Hanrahan grew up with a gardening-loving grandmother in a family that grew its own produce to help mitigate food insecurity.
After moving to the U.S. for an agricultural exchange program in Washington State, Hanrahan discovered a love for the tree fruit industry, eventually rising to the top leadership position at the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission. She even married a fruit farmer. Together with their son, Hanrahan and her husband live on and run the commercial fruit orchard that has been in his family for generations.
While her husband tends to the orchard, Hanrahan is responsible for helping to realize the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission’s mission to provide science-based solutions to the challenges that plague the state’s apple, cherry, pear, and stone fruit growers and packers. Most often, these solutions center on the industry’s most expensive problem: the harvest.
“The thinning and pruning are difficult, but the harvest is really the most important because it takes the most labor and is the biggest investment a farmer makes,” Hanrahan says. “It would really help our growers if we could figure out how to automate some of the hardest tasks.”
She knows that the commission will not accomplish this monumental feat on its own. Hanrahan’s vision for the future very much requires a group effort. That’s part of the reason why the organization is committed to collaboration.
“We realized that these issues are not going to be solved by just one group alone or one specific effort,” Hanrahan says. “It really takes an innovative strategy of having smart public and private partnerships that involve the scientists, a community of growers and private companies. Realistically, we cannot solve this just on our own. To be successful we have to partner with other folks that have the same problem because otherwise, we cannot gain enough momentum to get things moving.”
Hanrahan believes one of the biggest advantages to living in Washington state is that the growing community is open to collaboration. This offers an ideal environment for technology companies to test their innovations.
“Through our technology advisory committee, a committed group of industry volunteers, we have a group of enthusiastic industry professionals available to assist when folks come and test the equipment. This group then helps by organizing introductions to the production environment, providing access to orchards, and by providing very honest feedback. This has been helpful for us in the past, and I think it will continue to serve us in the future.”
Still, Hanrahan is pleased with the developing partnerships with California, such as the Global Harvest Automation Initiative. This would give Washington the opportunity to elevate its issues to the national and international level, thus increasing interest in the growing community’s unique issues. Hanrahan also believes there’s potential for this to create more competition around developing economical solutions—something that’s sorely needed in an industry where farming is more expensive than ever before.
That’s not to say that cost is the only prohibitive factor that prevents growers from adopting the latest technologies. There’s also the issue of whether the machines are equipped to handle life on the farm. This is a topic Hanrahan is particularly keen to dive into during the Grower Panel she’s moderating at FIRA USA. The session will focus on answering the question of how to best integrate robots and automation onto the farm. Growers will be asked to share their best practices. Hanrahan sees this as an opportunity to help startups get their machines to the market faster.
“I’d really like for the panel to spell out some of the dos and don’ts that will help companies get ahead,” she says. “For example, having a machine run in a shop is totally different than a machine running in a field. So, basically from the beginning, machinery needs to be ruggedized to be able to handle different elements.”
“Companies will often say a machine can do something, but when they test it out in the field, that turns out not to be true,” Hanrahan continues. “Some of those pitfalls can be easily avoided by having a lot of outdoor time right away, even on some of the basic designs. I really would like to flesh out those things in the session. I want to help anybody starting out in this area, so they don't get down the road too far only testing their equipment in virtual reality.”
Hanrahan also wants to use the panel session to highlight why communication with the growing community is essential. Potential solutions don’t need to just work. They need to work within the workflow and production systems that growers understand. If a machine can’t fit between the orchard rows or the crew dislikes working with it, the solution won’t be implemented on the farm. As Hanrahan puts it, “the devil is in the details.”
While companies must do the work of considering how their technologies perform in the real world, growers must adjust to prepare for the forthcoming solutions. Hanrahan says this has been in the works for a long time. The Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission has spent the better part of the last three decades helping growers adapt their orchards to automation-friendly layouts and fruit varieties.
“With any machine there is always a concern about whether it will be as efficient as the old way, and that’s always a hard thing because initially a machine will not be as accurate or as fast,” Hanrahan says. “After the ramp up phase, however, the machine may ultimately be on par or better than the situation people had before. That’s the crux of the problem, but if growers see a machine that’s even in the ballpark, they are absolutely going to go for it. They are ready.”
This influx of interest in agriculture technologies also provides an opportunity to get the younger generation interested in the industry. Hanrahan has experienced firsthand how exciting and rewarding a career in this field can be. She wants others to be able to experience it, too.
“This field hits on a lot of points that resonate with the younger generation,” Hanrahan says. “They are worried about sustainability, climate change and local food production. So, while robots may sound a little bit futuristic, all of this can be part of the future that we're creating right now. We also need to really make sure we are sending the messaging that this field is not an exclusive club. It's actually quite inclusive. I think there's some education that we have to do, but I am very hopeful that a lot of young people will see where this is headed and feel that they can connect with this community and contribute in a meaningful way.”
Chief Operation Officer at Naïo Technologies
With two small children at home, Sarlandie understands the importance of having fresh fruit and vegetables to eat. She’s passionate about helping farmers produce enough crops to keep the world fed. Sarlandie, a mechanical engineer by trade, wanted to work for a company that shared her enthusiasm for sustainably grown produce.
After spending time in the automotive, management consulting and venture capital sectors, Sarlandie joined a startup on a mission to tackle some of agriculture’s biggest problems. Naïo Technologies is a pioneer in providing autonomous solutions that help growers get the job done. This includes three robots—versatile farming assistant Oz, large-scale vegetable wedding robot Dino and vineyard weeding robot Ted—with additional solutions planned for the future.
“Farming is becoming more and more difficult every day,” Sarlandie says, highlighting the labor shortage and transition away from chemical inputs as two main issues. “I really think that autonomous robots are the solution to a lot of the challenges the food industry is facing today, and Naïo is the leader in autonomous ag robots.”
Naïo Technologies is what Sarlandie likes to call “the Tesla of ag.” With more than 300 electric robots deployed across a large diversity of crops and different farming operations, the company uses a single software platform to run its hardware. This enables the robots to provide a vast number of services and train in the field very quickly. To date, Naïo robots have logged more than 60,000 hours of operations.
“We’re working very hard to stay ahead of the competition and provide great value to growers,” Sarlandie says. “In-field automation is going to scale very fast. Farming practices are evolving. Growers are very aware of all the challenges they’re facing, and they are looking for solutions sooner rather than later. Those solutions are needed now. I think growers are ready.”
Sarlandie also foresees a world in which farms tailor their operations to autonomous robots. For example, if a robot can successfully complete a U-turn at the end of a row 98 percent of the time, those who have farms that fall in the 2 percent might begin to look at tailoring their rows to better accommodate the technology. This is something Sarlandie says is already happening.
“The overall idea is that we’re not replacing the labor shortage, because that labor is not there anymore, but we don’t want to bring complexity onto the field,” she says. “So, we have to develop technologies that can be used easily, without requiring the workers to have Ph.Ds. or the farmer to change everything about the operation. The growers we work with very much look forward to using our robots and learning this new technology.”
At FIRA USA, Sarlandie will have the opportunity to share more of the work Naïo has done and showcase the technology. She will be speaking at the event’s Crop-Specific Robot Discussions breakout session, but she’s also looking forward to contributing to the zeitgeist of where the agtech industry is as a whole right now.
“FIRA USA is really about bringing together all the key stakeholders, from students to growers to manufacturers to researchers,” she says. “Everyone is going to be there and trying to really see where we are at in terms of the technology and what's left to do. The only way we can become successful is if we come together as an industry.”
One of the things Sarlandie appreciates most about this industry is how open and supportive the agriculture community is to those looking to help move it forward. She thinks if more people understood what a difference their contributions could make, there would be more women and young children interested in this exciting field.
“We really need to have role models to show that there are amazing careers in this industry, and we need to get started on sharing this message at a very young age,” Sarlandie says. “In this work, the reason why you get up every day is that you know it's going to make a difference. I think that's what most of us are looking for today. You can see the hard work you're doing and how that’s creating value and solutions. I don't think there's many spaces or industries where you can have such a direct impact on our daily lives and our future.”
To learn more about FIRA USA, the featured speakers and individual sessions, visit www.fira-agtech.com/event/fira-usa.