How can AgTech innovation help address the top 10 food grower and supplier challenges and improve operational efficiency? Jim Bogart, President of the Grower Shipper Association of Central California, was part of a presentation hosted by Dennis Donohue at the Western Growers Center for Innovation and Technology (CIT) in Salinas earlier this month. Bogart surveys his membership each year to build the Top 10 Challenges list for food grower and suppliers. Here’s what his members (which includes growers and suppliers in Monterey, Santa Cruz, San Benito and Santa Clara counties) had to say about 2019.
The Top 10 Central California Grower and Supplier Challenges
In rank order, the top 10 food grower and supplier challenges cited by Bogart are:
- Labor shortages, labor costs, immigration and worker housing
- Labor employment law compliance and regulatory enforcement
- Water (projects, supply, quality, rights)
- Food safety
- Crop protection and pesticide regulation
- Healthcare costs
- Land use
- Workers’ compensation
- Research, innovation and technology
- Transportation and logistics
I expect that these would be fairly common throughout the rest of California as well.
Bogart, who is a forty year veteran in his position, said that labor has always been a top food grower and supplier challenge. Back in the 1960s and 70s, labor issues focused on unionization, strikes and contracts. Now it’s all about the labor shortage. Workers are aging, there’s less immigration and younger people are not taking the place of retiring workers. He advocates for a legal status for all workers and made the case that agricultural labor is not unskilled labor and that the agricultural workforce is indispensable and experienced.
(For additional perspectives on the agricultural labor challenges, you may find this article of interest.)
Technology and the Top 10 Challenges
In addressing the audience at the CIT, Bogart stated that the labor shortage makes innovation and technology critical. While noting that “research, innovation and technology” by itself ranked ninth on his members’ list of food grower and supplier challenges, he explained that technology has a role to play in addressing many of the top ten including water management, food safety, crop protection, land use and sustainability.
Innovation and Food Safety are Boardroom Considerations
The discussion, led by Dennis Donohue, then turned to a more macro view. Innovation is not confined to lower-level teams throughout the organization but is now a boardroom consideration. Food growers and suppliers are looking for technology that improves operational efficiency, and is cost-effective, responsible and sustainable. They want to enhance their competitiveness.
And, growers and suppliers need to be more transparent because today’s consumers increasingly want to know where their food is coming from and how it was produced. Are the farms using sustainable practices? Technology can help improve visibility and transparency from the farm to the store.
Similarly, food safety, particularly in light of the recent romaine lettuce issues, is also a boardroom concern. Certainly, technology innovation in water monitoring and post-harvest processing can play a key role in improving food safety.
Donohue stated that the Salinas Valley is the leader in post-harvest innovation and the CIT serves a key role in this by bringing together growers and suppliers with technology innovators that can help with food grower and supplier challenges. Not only are new technologies being deployed in the valley but also new marketing ideas. He said that a few years ago he thought cauliflower was dead as a crop but “now we have cauliflower rice, mashed cauliflower and even cauliflower pizza crust at Trader Joe’s.”
Innovation is the Future of Ag
What’s stopping technology from being adopted? Donohue said that another of the food grower and supplier challenges is cost considerations when it comes to implementing new technology. That’s certainly not unique to agriculture but the ebbs and flows of this industry perhaps leave less margin for error when considering technology investments. He suggested that new innovations shouldn’t just be a “better mousetrap” but need to solve a specific problem. He suggested that trials are a good way to demonstrate results and build trust between AgTech and growers and suppliers.
Data: A Common Denominator
When scanning the list of Top 10 food grower and supplier challenges, one common denominator for solving many of them is having data-driven insights as to what’s going on at the farm and the packhouse. Insights from data can be applied to improving water and pesticide utilization, and data can help optimize labor and improve operational efficiency across the post-harvest process, as well as improving sustainability and transparency.
Zest Labs is helping food growers and suppliers overcome this challenge and get better visibility into their post-harvest operations. Data-driven insights powered by IoT and predictive analytics can help improve operational efficiency and reduce waste by understanding – at the pallet-level – how produce is being handled from field to packhouse, in precooling and to shipment to identify issues and bottlenecks and deliver prescriptive insights that enable workers to improve decision making and deliver fresher product while reducing costs and improving competitiveness. Zest Labs exists to help overcome the food grower and supplier challenges.