Ag Robotics Conference Addresses Labor and Water Problems in California

Ag Robotics Conference Addresses Labor and Water Problems in California

Agriculture planted a new seed in the Central Valley with The first robotics and automation conference in the country Intended for specialty crops.

The French non-profit organization GOFAR has partnered with the California University of Agriculture and Natural Resources (UC ANR), the Western Farmers Association and The future of Fresno Merced Food (F3) An initiative to bring the Global Forum, FIRA USA, to the San Joaquin Valley this week.

They packed the agenda with group discussions about the many challenges farmers hope automation and robotics will help alleviate in California and other states. Lightning talks delved into the advanced imaging, data, and engineering driving the latest startups and their products. The conference concludes on Thursday with a day full of demonstrations on farms from businesses.

In its first year, FIRA has attracted more than 800 participants, of whom about 40% represent startups and businesses, 20% are farmers, 25% are researchers, and 10% are students, according to University of California at ANR’s chief innovation officer, Gabi Yotsi.

“We want to bring scientists, engineers, startups, companies, farmers, farm workers, students, and product developers together to accelerate the development of agricultural robots and automation solutions that solve pressing challenges in agriculture,” Yutsi said at the conference opening Tuesday. . “But also to make sure that our farmers and farm workers work side by side with the technologists and that we engage and capture the imagination of our students who are ag tech’s future workforce.”

Labor issues—cost and availability—have always been driving agriculture toward automation. But water scarcity in the West is a growing concern, too, according to Walt Dufloc, vice president of innovation at Western Growers. And with California adopting more ambitious environmental regulations each year, farmers are looking to invest in precision technology to reduce inputs and increase efficiency.

Ines Hanrahan, Executive Director of the Washington Tree Fruit Research Committee

Despite the urgent need for innovation, agricultural technology companies are struggling to scale widespread adoption. A common concern in conference discussions was the technology development trap of one individual crop at a time—when California produces more than 400 commodities.

“One robot per crop is very unattractive for venture capital,” Duflok said. “We need to increase the capital efficiency of those startups. We need more effective interaction between farmers and startups so that we can get these things to market faster. What makes me wake up every morning are those interactions between farmers and startups.”

Each speaker emphasized the importance of cooperation in the field of agricultural technology. The pitfalls of developing technology without broad partnerships early in the process are more apparent than ever. In June, California’s workplace safety regulator, the standards board that governs the Occupational Safety and Health Division (Cal/OSHA), rejected Petition to allow self-driving tractors to operate on farms across the state. The council cited worker safety concerns and criticized the petition organizers for not engaging labor groups.

Edward Barnes, director of research and development at Cotton Inc. , disappointed with the decision, said the industry faced similar opposition when the drones were first introduced.

“We had to make it clear that when you use a drone over a field, the probability of it falling on someone’s head is very low,” Barnes said.

Duflok called the Cal/OSHA decision a missed opportunity, with California trailing a competitive field with Arizona. He said Arizona welcomes business sectors, including shared carriers, that California has aggressively targeted for workplace safety concerns.

“We’ve created a competitive dynamic where Arizona can now take the lead in self-governance,” Duflok said. They know they are in a leadership position. They are very happy to keep it. So there is more than just regulation in this case.”

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Other speakers suggested that the agriculture could have previously collaborated with the Cal/OSHA board and agency staff prior to the petition.

Noting the unusual collaboration, Hernan Hernandez, executive director of the California Farmworker Foundation, stressed the need to engage workers and understand the challenges they face.

He spoke to a farmer in the Coachella Valley recently who had bought a new harvester for row crops, brought it to the field and failed to get approval from the human resources department, which deemed it too risky to work alongside farm workers. Another farmer bought a $500,000 machine and immediately pulled his workforce from just 50 to 10 employees.

Hernandez pushed to involve farm workers in discussions to produce technology with safety in mind as well as critical insights from people who have spent decades in the field, know the terrain and work intimately.

He and many others at the conference saw hope in F3’s workforce-building initiative to meet California’s agriculture’s next technology needs. Last month the Alliance received $65 million economic development grant Funding the US bailout. The aim of the scholarship is to improve job quality, productivity, and raise the level of mobility of agricultural workers.

Newsom’s management has entered into such investments to grow emerging industries. CDFA Secretary Karen Ross, who has just returned from a trip to New Zealand, said California should partner with other countries to find innovative solutions to climate change.

“This symposium is a wonderful first step in building the global collaboration that we know is essential and gives us the greatest chance of success,” Ross said. “This new approach will be taken in every country, working together across continents to give actual signals to the marketplace, hosting integrators to see practical needs on the ground and then investing together, testing and proving them for tomorrow’s solutions.”

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