ORLAND, Calif. — None of them grew up on a farm, but five entrepreneurs are providing crucial services to growers across the country.
One has found a way to provide wireless connectivity to rural farms. Another is developing self-driving retrofit kits for tractors. Others help farms manage data and control pests.
Their advice to would-be start-ups: Find a need that isn’t being met and meet it.
“I think the farm of the future is clearly going to have more information derived from data to help make decisions,” said Brandt Bereton of the Salinas, Calif.-based Tailwater Systems, which developed a compact system to take nitrogen out of water. “And hopefully it’ll be a little gentler on the environment.”
Tailwater is one of numerous start-ups that have received help from the Western Growers Center for Innovation and Technology, which opened in Salinas two years ago to provide work space and other resources for entrepreneurs in agriculture-related fields.
Western Growers, which assists and advocates for produce growers in California and Arizona, received a $30,000 grant from the Wells Fargo Foundation in 2016 to operate the center. Its amenities have helped entrepreneurs develop products and services that help growers save water or labor, compile and use crop data and meet other needs.
Western Growers leaders thought it was important to invest in innovation and technology, said Dennis Donohue, the center’s consulting director.
“We decided there needed to be a physical manifestation” of that investment, Donohue told attendees of the second annual North State Innovations in Agriculture conference Nov. 7 at the Glenn County Fairgrounds.
The center offers basic office amenities such as a desk, phone and internet access as well as the ability to network with other companies and collaborate on projects. When choosing start-ups for the center, Western Growers looks particularly for companies developing solutions related to food safety, automation and water management, Donohue said.
“Those were the primary things we were looking at,” he said.
The center’s work comes as the University of California’s Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources and a nonprofit organization recently won a $500,000 grant to develop a separate network for agricultural entrepreneurs.
The money will go toward cultivating the Verde Innovation Network for Entrepreneurs, which goes by the acronym VINE. It will link businesses with mentors, advisers, collaborators, events, competitions and other services, according to the UCANR’s website.
Tailwater’s Bereton was one of five representatives of recent start-ups who joined Donahue in a panel discussion at the Orland conference. The others were Bill Moffitt of the Minnesota-based Ayrstone Productivity; Eyal Amit of the Israel-based FieldIn Technology; Ignio Cafiero of Bear Flag Robotics in Palo Alto, Calif.; and Manu Pillai of San Jose-based WaterBit inc.
Also participating was Jason Schwenkler, director of the Geographical Information Center at California State University-Chico. The center was established in 1988 to introduce geographic information systems technology to Northern California.
Mapping and data collation are at the heart of many advances in agriculture, the panelists said. For Cafiero’s Bear Flag Robotics, the technology enabled the business to develop a system that could convert a grower’s existing fleet of heavy equipment to self-driving.
“The idea is that you can orchestrate your tractors from your phone or tablet,” he said.
Moffitt’s Ayrstone sets up outdoor wifi hubs that enable better automation, he said.
“We’re not solving people’s problems,” he said, “but we’re providing an underpinning for people to solve problems. Over time they’re going to see their problems through a new prism.”