Few places are more steeped in agriculture than the Central Valley of California, so it is no surprise that it is home to the World Ag Expo, the largest annual outdoor agricultural exhibition, which boasts over 1,200 exhibitors and attracts 100,000 attendees.
Automation was the name of the game this year, with many companies showcasing farming robots, tractor retrofitting software, and implements designed to ease the labor issues plaguing agriculture worldwide, and particularly in the Central Valley with its focus on specialty crops. It was great to see our portfolio company Burro demonstrating their plug-and-play robots that operate alongside farmworkers to increase productivity. Burro is partnering with several companies to enable their technologies to support the autonomous deployment of their technologies in fields by being mounted onto a Burro.
For example, Burros can now support BloomX’s bio-mimicking pollination technology in blueberries to manage the pollination process and drive increased output. The company has also partnered with Bitwise Agronomy to enable crop scouting onboard their robots, a collaboration for which they received a Top-10 New Products award at the Expo. Burro currently has robots deployed in nurseries, orchards and vineyards in the Central Valley, and it was exciting to see how they were received by the farming community.
We also got to check out a number of other companies making waves in farm automation. Carbon Robotics was showcasing its laser weeder, Tevel’s drones were picking apples in a makeshift orchard, driverless tractors were navigating fields at the Agtonomy booth, and Farmwise premiered its next-generation autonomous weeding implement. We will dig deeper into the advancements in farm autonomy in a future article.
While there is already too much to see at the expo itself for its three-day duration, a unique feature of the event is the farm tours, which highlight the variety and abundance of the region’s agricultural sector. I attended two farm tours focused on dairy and citrus and heard from farmers about how they are navigating today’s most pressing issues and thinking about the future of their operations.
Growing an Operation with Elkhorn Dairy
The first stop was at Elkhorn Dairy in Visalia, CA, for a tour of their vast operation. Elkhorn Dairy milks 10,000 cows which each produce about 11 gallons of milk a day over the course of three milkings. Evaporative cooling keeps those cows at a comfortable temperature which is particularly important in an area where temperature highs can be well over 100 degrees in the summer.
But milk is just one part of a very multifaceted operation. Elkhorn Dairy also grows forages such as winter wheat and alfalfa, which are bailed up for hay. Seventy percent of their cows are bred with Angus cows, and Elkhorn Dairy raises the calves for the first year before selling them to be finished for beef. During the tour, we stopped to see an anaerobic methane digester that was in the process of being installed. California has allocated over $350 million to build digesters and capture methane on dairy farms. The system consists of a large tarp that balloons over a lagoon filled with manure, capturing the methane and enabling it to be sent through a network of pipes to Goshen, CA. It is then refined into renewable natural gas and added to the Southern California Gas pipeline for fuel. Elkhorn Dairy was also an early adopter of solar and is now planning to update their 14-year-old solar panels.
Milking Robots at Top O’ the Morn Dairy
We then headed to Top O’ the Morn Dairy, where we were greeted by owner Ron Locke and two belly-rub-ready dogs. Top O’ the Morn Dairy milks 2,000 cows, and like Elkhorn Dairy, they grow corn and wheat for forage and are installing a methane digester and a solar project. But perhaps their biggest claim to fame is that they were the first farm to install robotic milkers in Tulare County, which produces the most milk of any county in the US. The machines are taking most of the labor out of milking while providing the farmer with comprehensive insights into the information on animal health and milk parameters of each cow. With the increasing cost of labor, Ron hopes to install more robots to save money in the long run and streamline his operation. He spoke to the competitive and unpredictable nature of the dairy industry, with farmers not knowing how much they will be paid until they get the milk check in the mail, giving these payments the nickname “mailbox checks.”
Solving for Citrus at Lindcove Research and Extension Center
For the first stop on the citrus tour, we pulled up to the Lindcove Research and Extension Center in Exeter, CA, which supports citrus crop research projects by University of California academics and local partners addressing critical horticulture needs, pest and disease management, and crop breeding. The tour began with a presentation about the various types of projects the center undertakes, such as preventing HLB, or citrus greening disease, which has devastated Florida citrus, from impacting the valley. The researchers shared some of the tools and techniques they use to perform a variety of evaluations on the fruit to determine their quality and detect characteristics such as early frost damage and disease adaptation.
Outside, we looked at some of the experiments the center is running to address the two most pressing issues farmers face in the valley: labor and water shortages. Dr. Ashraf El Kereamy, the Center’s Director, showed us how they are testing row density at different intervals to try to increase yield and offset costs while reducing labor needs and using mulch to retain moisture in the soil and reduce water use.
McKellar Family Farms
We then saw some of these practices in action at McKellar Family Farms, a 100-acre citrus farm in Ivanhoe, CA. In addition to growing oranges and mandarins, the farm has a mission to educate the public and runs tours and programming to teach about sustainable farming, cultural practices, water conservation, and food safety. We were greeted by farmer Bob who has spent decades managing the farm that was originally purchased by his parents 1927. Bob explained how they switched from flood to drip irrigation to conserve water. They are now thinking about putting their irrigation lines underground to prevent evaporation and conserve up to 25 percent more water, but they are worried about the gophers eating the drip lines.
According to Farmer Bob, the most frequent questions he gets from some of his youngest visitors are how old he is and if he is rich. He is 91 years old and says, “anyone who lives here and can put food on the table is rich.”
While we work with agricultural technologies daily, it was a privilege to see these technologies and farms in person and get a deeper insight into how farmers navigate challenges and think about innovation. We look forward to more of these on-the-ground experiences.