World Ag Expo 2015—Venturing Outside the Bubble

The World Ag Expo in Tulare, CA is an agri-business baptism of fire for a group of virgin Silicon Valley pilgrims. I attended the Expo for the first time last year, taking the 3.5 hour drive with Rob Trice down a very dry Interstate 99 from the Bay Area, past makeshift roadside signs that read, “No Water, No Food”, and “Congress Created the Dust Bowl”, through Manteca and Modesto, past Madera and Merced. This year, seeing the incredible value last year, The Mixing Bowl loaded up a 15-passenger van of Silicon Valley Ag and food-minded folk, and made the trek down.

Gratefully, the trip was greener this time, albeit new makeshift signs like those that dotted the highway last year were still standing sentinel, reminding all of us that the complicated and dire predicament that California farmers face when it comes to water is still a paramount issue.

 

Forgive my sentimentality here, but I must say, as an aside, that I have a profound respect for the Central Valley. If the Corn Belt is the Heartland of America, the Central Valley is the Heartland of California. For years, my Japanese immigrant forbearers eked out an existence in its soil in the literal shadow of the Sierras and the figurative shadow of bad harvests and busted bank accounts.

Anyone who has visited California’s major population centers, its beautiful coastline, forests, or mountains, but has failed to spend time in the great San Joaquin Valley—the largest food production region in the world—cannot really claim a comprehensive understanding of what California actually is. But I digress…

 

The Expo itself gives access to an industry— its pain points, its geography, and, most important, its people—that many here in the Silicon Valley really know very little about. For some of The Mixing Bowl crew, used to the pastoral dreams of Northern California small-holder farms, this was their first exposure to the workings and culture of scaled agriculture—a, “you’re not in Kansas anymore,”-type experience. Indeed, within the taxonomy of food production, the world where most of our food comes from is a rather distant cousin to the food movement tribe of our urban centers.

 

At first blush, the annual event, which covers close to 3 million square feet, and attracts almost 150,000 visitors and 1,500 exhibitors, most resembles a state fair. There is a grandstand with lasso shows and tractor pulls. The local high schools sell ribeye sandwiches alongside regional dance teams and Kiwanis Clubs selling very convincing peach cobbler a la mode. There are cowboy boots and hats galore, and in the labyrinthine parking lots surrounding the grounds there are no spaces for compact cars—at least, there are no compact cars parked there. Perusing the hundreds of booths, exhibitions, and demonstrations, the Silicon Valley piligrim realizes very quickly how complex and technical scaled agricultural production actually is. Booth after booth and display after display of expensive hardware, from hydroponic fodder grow systems, automated milking parlors, to water remediation technologies, weather stations, and heavy machinery line the dusty roads of the Expo and lay backdrop to the handshakes of farmers and their dealers, processors and their asset suppliers, doing business. Many of the parties to these transactions are family businesses and they have been exchanging goods and money for years if not generations —a bit different than the typical business relationship of Silicon Valley. Amidst all this, there were also booths from Israel and Japan, Germany and New Zealand, and a wonderful array of new and innovative products.

 

Let’s look at some of those new products featured at the Expo. Among the thousands that were on display, 10 new products were voted the best in show by a panel of farmer, rancher, and industry professional judges. DairyProQ—Automated milking parlors that improve milking efficiencies freeing workers to manage other tasks. Forestripping, simulation, milk harvesting, and post dipping are all automated into one single attachment.

 

DeLaval BCS System—A herd management system leveraging proprietary algorithms to analyze 3D images of cows for body condition scoring in order to determine the nutritional and health issues associated with cow herds. This process has traditionally been done manually, which is very time-intensive and can be inaccurate.

 

DRI System (Deep Root Irrigation)—A cost-effective device that attaches to existing drip systems delivering water directly to the roots reducing runoff and evaporation loss. It also can help root penetration increasing drought and disease resistance. It claims to reduce overall water usage by up to 50%.

 

Earth Talon Shovel—A unique patented shovel with an asymmetrical edge on the shovel head that allows for easier digs.

 

The Hybrid Shipper—A new ultra-lightweight plastic bin made by Macro Plastics. Cost effective over wood and cardboard bins as it is reusable for handling, storing, and shipping, and keeps products fresh for extended periods with hundreds of ventilated slots.

 

Molecat—Gets rid of burrowing pests in the field without poison. The small canister is charged with a .27 caliber blank cartridge that is triggered by rodents and other burrowers coming into contact with it. The blast quickly kills the pest and blows them 2-4 feet back in the hole.

 

Polydress O2 Barrier 2in1—This new film is designed to protect silage in one simple step. Conventional practice requires two films in order to create a protective O2 barrier, thus the Polydress can reduce labor by up to 50%, and is six to ten times more effective in preventing oxygenation over other systems.

 

Simple Pump Solar Package—A solar powered water pump automating any hand pump in the field. It can pump water from 225 feet at 45-50 gallons per hour eight hours per day.

 

TR521 Nut Crowder—Nikkel Iron Works introduced this product at the Expo as a time and money saver, increasing the efficiencies of nut harvesting and reducing waste by collecting nuts spilled at the end of rows.

 

Vet Check Maxx—This subscription Android app developed by Dairy Records Management Systems digitizes cow health exams, eliminating the need for paper, and reducing human error.

 

The problems that these products seek to address broadly fall in the efficiency innovation categories of labor reduction, water conservation, waste mitigation, etc., improving the quality of life and margins for the farmer. Their articulation may be a bit different than what would typically emerge from the mind of an average startup founder, but their opportunism is congruent. The level of innovation already in the space is really astounding, but we need more. We need more convergence between the great Valleys of the State of California and the innovation hubs and agricultural productive regions of the world to pollinate new ideas pushing this much needed innovation forward. The World Ag Expo is a great place to start that exchange. Next year, we hope to make the trip down the Valley, past the makeshift signs, and into Tulare, with a larger contingent of Mixing Bowl friends who are set to learn, to exchange, and to have a great time!

 

By Tim Koide