During a recent blizzard in Massachusetts, Sonia Lo, CEO of FreshBox Farms, was in a grocery store suggesting to skeptical patrons that they sample her leafy greens. “They were picked yesterday,” is what she told tasters. She also told them no, they weren’t picked elsewhere and flown in that morning. Lo’s greens — over 30 different types — grow year-round in an airtight modular box in Millis, Massachusetts. Every plant’s tray is attached to a sensor to determine just the right amount of water, nutrients and LED lighting the plant needs.
“We have an algorithm for every plant variety,” says Lo. They measure around 10,000 data points per plant for factors such as environment, nutrients, plant stress and LED light. “We have our own software intended to identify if the plants are unhappy. We don’t use chemical controls — we rely on these digital points to pre-empt plant stress and allow for extraordinary things like faster grow times.”
As corporate investors start putting their money into agriculture technology (ag tech) startups, shoppers might just start seeing a lot more fresh crops at their local stores, even in the dead of winter.
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Ag tech — from hobbyist to huge commercial farms — is taking off. CB Insights defines ag tech as “technology that increases the efficiency of farms (in the form of software), sensors, aerial-based data, internet-based distribution channels (marketplaces) and tools for technology-enabled farming.”
A recent report from Boston Consulting Group says that “new technologies are revolutionizing agriculture.” In fact, according to this report, venture capital firms have upped their ag tech investments by 80% since 2012 — even though commodity prices remain volatile.
Cleveland Justis, the executive director of the Mike and Renee Child Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at University of California, Davis says his campus is seeing a lot of traffic from venture capitalists as well as big industry companies who are looking for fresh agricultural technologies. Researchers at UC Davis are working on food growth technologies such as gut microbiome innovations, precision farming and drought-friendly cultivation.
“Companies are seeing this as a hub of science around how we feed people and make more resilient crops with less,” Justis says. “How are we going to feed 9 billion people in the future? Not with a simple software program. We’re going to have to use really deep, cutting-edge research to inform these processes.”
The software market for precision farming (such as yield monitoring, field mapping, crop scouting and weather forecasting) is expected to grow 14% between 2016 and 2022 in the United States. Dale Jefferson, president and COO of CropZilla Software Inc., says that in less than two years, his precision farming startup’s software has been installed in farms across the U.S. and Canada, and it is even being tested in Italy. His software takes into account every aspect of a farm, from the types of seeds planted to the number of workers and combines in use.
“We create a digital model,” he says. Farmers can use the software to play with variables and see how potential changes — such as an expensive combine purchase or hiring 10 new field hands — can affect their forecast. For instance, a Midwestern farmer recently used CropZilla to see what would happen if he took his soybean planting schedule from one 12-hour shift to two 10-hour shifts. “The numbers worked out to a five bushel-per-acre increase,” Jefferson says. The farmer made an additional $170,000 from his soybean yield after making this change.
“With corn and bean prices down, farmers are turning to technology to help them survive,” Jefferson says.
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