Facing labor challenges, a new ag robotics forum aims to connect growers and startups

The World FIRA Ag Robotics Forum is launching a new event to take place in Fresno on October 18-20 to connect specialty crop growers, agtech startups, investors and leaders in workforce development.

The French non-profit organization GOFAR established the annual forum in 2016 and has partnered with UC Agriculture and Natural Resources (ANR), the Western Growers Association and the Fresno-Merced Future of Food (F3) Initiative to launch FIRA USA in the San Joaquin Valley.

“Ag robotics are here right now and really starting to address [the world’s pressing agriculture, food and health] challenges by saving water, reducing chemicals and solving labor problems, ”said UC ANR Chief Innovation Officer Gabe Youtsey, in a press conference announcing the forum on Tuesday in Fresno.

Naio demonstrates a robot designed for vegetable production.

Walt Duflock, vice president of innovation at Western Growers, greeted the World Agri-Tech Innovation Summit in San Francisco but said FIRA USA “is going to be different,” with a specific focus on agtech robotics. Duflock noted that — despite rising costs for water and food safety — labor is the top challenge for farmers these days, for both availability and cost.

“Those two things are hitting every farming operation right in the head every day,” he said. “And the only thing harder than farming in California some days is being a farming startup.”

To address those challenges, the forum will help to build the conversations between growers and startups that are needed to get “the right problems solved with the right economics” and to bring the tools and capital for startups to scale up their operations. Duflock noted that a recent survey by Western Growers found that 75% of the mechanization startups in agtech remain in the initial seed funding round of investment, while the other 25% is only a step or two above that but not close to the amount needed for scaling up the companies to compete commercially.

Along with UC ANR, the forum has drawn UC Merced and California State University, Fresno, with agtech robotics opening up opportunities for engineering design, soil science, plant pathology and many more sciences.

“A trained workforce in order to invent, maintain and operate robots is going to be essential for the future of California agriculture,” said Dennis Nef, dean of the Jordan College of Agricultural Sciences and Technology at Fresno State.

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Nef explained how the campus has been working closely with the Central Valley Community Foundation and other organizations on the F3 Initiative to develop a workforce to meet the agtech needs.

“One of the major components that we’re proposing to take on,” explained Ashley Swearengen, the foundation’s CEO and former Fresno mayor, “is creating a pipeline — a regional system — that can train and upskill our workforce with the skills and tools they need to be the folks who are benefiting from these higher-value, permanent, full-time dedicated jobs that get created. ”

Ashley SwearingenCentral Valley Community Foundation CEO Ashley Swearingen

The initiative is reaching out to federal and state lawmakers to fund a proposal for developing a physical space in downtown Fresno for farmers, researchers, investors and the community to see the agtech advancements and build connections, according to Swearengen.

The initiative has gained strong support from the Newsom administration, with CDFA Secretary Karen Ross championing a $ 32 million state budget allocation for the initiative last year.

FIRA USA will serve as a proving ground for such a partnership, as it draws international attention to the Fresno-Merced corridor. The three-day conference will focus on networking, learning and collaboration. Each day has a theme and structure, with a research and development showcase, panel discussions on industry adoption and a demonstration day.

Being in California, specialty crops will be a central focus of the forum. Yet FIRA Co-Director Gwendoline Legrand and others stressed that this will be an international event and address robotics for a variety of agricultural needs and marketplaces.

“Autonomous systems and robotics for farming are really relevant,” said Legrand. “I think we found good partners.”

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