Prepare for Takeoff of Horticultural Technology [Opinion]

Over these past several years, I have to confess I’ve been a little disappointed with developments in agricultural technology. The iPhone was introduced a decade ago, and there have been several idea balloons launched in the intervening years, all full of wonderful promise. Most popped.

Like a lot of you, I’d eagerly attend events like the World Ag Expo, looking to find the latest developments in technology. Sure, there have been some great products. But each year, company reps would talk about the promise of breakthroughs. “Call me during the (coming growing) season,” they’d say, offering to give me the names of progressive growers using the new technology so I could talk to them.

Those calls, as you might surmise, we’re never satisfactorily answered. Could be some of the growers just didn’t want to talk, which I can certainly understand. But judging by the fact that these breakthrough products never made it to market, I think most just never made it off the drawing board.

Not any more. We have come upon a new day in the world of agricultural technology. Why has this occurred? I was recently in Silicon Valley, visiting Blue River Technology, where CEO Jorge Heraud, who used to be with Trimble, told me it’s a combination of two key developments.

First, you’ve probably heard of Moore’s Law, that computing power increases at a geometric rate, and we’ve reached the point where engineers can put a tremendous amount of computing power onto a device in the field.

Second, artificial intelligence, also referred to as machine learning, has become a reality. You know what I’m talking about if you read our February cover story on Deep Sky Vineyard. This coming season, the growers are going to let their artificial intelligence platform make all their
day-to-day decisions for irrigation.

In Blue River’s case, they have combined these two developments into a machine pulled by a tractor that can distinguish between weeds and a crop such as lettuce plants, precisely zapping each weed with a potent herbicide.

That same week in the Silicon Valley I attended a forum, THRIVE, highlighting agricultural — with an emphasis on horticultural — technology. There, the CEO of a company called Soft Robotics talked about an exciting development: a robotic hand that can pick fruit. It’s no small feat to duplicate the human hand, said Carl Vause.

He showed video of a robotic dexterous hand gentle enough to pick cherry tomatoes — at lightning speed. Pair that with the fact the cost of robotics is dropping, and the long sought-after robotic harvester really is coming soon.

Other reasons I expect hort tech developments are coming fast and furious? At that same forum, the chiefs of two huge produce operations, Bruce Taylor of Taylor Farms and Kevin Murphy of Driscoll’s Berries, shared several nuggets I tweeted out (@dave_wfg_avg), meaning the wording is mine.

Taylor: “Developing hyperspectral images showing downy mildew 2 days before it’s visible to human eye. Can save whole fields.”

Murphy: “Berries will be grown very differently in 10 years. Light bulb wasn’t invented by incremental improvements to candle.”

Think about that last statement for a minute. HortTech is about to take off, not gradually going faster down the runway, but at warp speed. Fasten your seat belts, it’s going to be a fantastic voyage.

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