The inaugural Growing Innovations event, a unique conference and expo that brought all types of specialty crop growers together to talk about solutions to some of the industry’s most pressing challenges, was a roaring success Nov. 7-8 at the Las Vegas Convention Center.
In attendance were C-level managers from many of the nation’s leading specialty crop growers, hailing from 33 states and eight countries and representing virtually every crop segment of specialty agriculture. They came eager to learn about new solutions to their most pressing problems, thronging conference sessions and spending time on the show floor.
Growing Innovations delivered. Since its initial concept by Meister Media Worldwide in a joint venture with NXT Events Media Group called Meister | NXT, the event has been about discovery: helping specialty crop growers discover new solutions to the universal challenges of labor and water shortages, more erratic weather patterns, sustainability issues, and digital farming. All were addressed at length in Las Vegas and reinforced the universality of crop growers’ issues.
The event’s hashtag #GRO18 was active as it traced the conference’s progress through to its closing session.
“I’m learning more about a segment of ag that I haven’t had as much exposure to,” said Robert Blair, a private consultant, grower of row crops in Idaho, and a conference presenter on the effective use of drones and UAVs in the farm operation. “What a great event, and I can’t wait to see what next year brings.”
SlantRange, an exhibitor at Growing Innovations which recently entered into a partnership with Microsoft to bring “new enterprise-scale data analytics to agriculture,” tweeted to its followers: “Growing Innovations put on a great show and our team was glad to be a part of it. Lots of great things happening in agriculture to greatly improve farming operations.”
Cross-Pollination of Ideas
Meister Media Worldwide Chief Content Officer Jim Sulecki kicked off the high-energy two-day conference program by noting there is no other event in the U.S. that brings together growers of fruit, vegetables, ornamentals, and other specialty crops. This cross-pollination of ideas is going to be critical as challenges such as labor availability, extreme weather, demanding consumers, and tightening water resources intensify in the future.
Sulecki pointed out that many exhibitors at Growing Innovations aren’t found at the average ag show. Rather than innovation, other shows are more about “how we’ve always done it,” Sulecki told the capacity crowd.
“But the fact that you attendees are here at a first-time event shows you are unlikely to fall into that trap,” he said. “You’re not just thinking outside the box, but throwing away the box.”
Cannon Michael, President/CEO of Bowles Farming, a California grower of tomatoes, almonds, cotton, and other crops, echoed that sentiment in the first of several keynotes that drew SRO attendance and gave insights into how some of the most progressive growers and industry thought-leaders are embracing change, implementing new solutions, and achieving positive results.
“It’s hard to know when to take a new plunge into tech, as companies have already gone by the wayside,” Michael said. “But you’re going to have to make a move at some point or you are going to be left behind, so you have to arm yourself with information.”
The educational program featured high-impact sessions giving growers practical insights and information that they can put right to use on their farms to address major challenges.
Ed Treacy, Vice President, Supply Chain Efficiencies for the Produce Marketing Association, clarified many of the details surrounding the implementation of blockchain. Treacy said people are intimidated by the concept of blockchain, but it’s just a secure platform for sharing data.
“The key is the data is decentralized so everyone involved in the supply chain has access,” he said.
The process is transparent, and all of the participants have access to the same data. So, for example, it’s very clear when a truck arrives at its destination with a shipment. Neither the shipper nor the buyer can adjust the data to their own benefit, Treacy said.
Walmart is implementing blockchain right away in leafy greens, primarily because of the recent food safety problem in Yuma, AZ.
Heidi Centola, Senior Account Executive, New Markets for IBM Watson & Cloud Platform, discussed how the tech giant is bringing its Watson Decision Platform to solve problems in agriculture.
“We need technology to feed 2.2 billion more people in 2050 with no new arable land, which means empowering the entire food chain,” she said. “The Watson Platform is about 1) data, which is collected automatically; 2) artificial intelligence, to extract insights; and 3) decision support, unbiased and actionable.”
Leonard Batti, Vice President of Taylor Farms, a major producer and processor of fresh vegetables, noted the company works with growers across the country to produce 150 million servings of salads and other vegetables each week at its 17 processing plants. Taylor Farms soon will have 90% of crops harvested mechanically. But its efforts to use technology around food safety may be their most impressive accomplishment.
“We have a search-and-destroy philosophy. That means we’re constantly and actively searching for dangerous microorganisms in every nook and cranny in the processing plant,” Batti said.
Steve Fennimore, University of California-Davis Extension Specialist, said mechanization will be coming to weeding in a big way because new herbicides may be registered for major commodity crops but not for fruits and vegetables. In addition, organic vegetables are a natural fit for mechanical weeding.
“Most of the important vegetable herbicides are 40 to 60 years old now. Automated weeders are a solution that needs more attention,” he said.
Robotics were also a focus. Gaëtan Séverac, a founder of Naio Technologies, a French firm that made its U.S. farm show debut at Growing Innovations, noted Europe is more advanced in agricultural robotics because it lost its source of relatively inexpensive labor before the U.S. The company has sold 150 ag robots since 2014, many of them autonomous weeders in both vegetables and trees and vines.
The conference program concluded with a discussion on total farm management. Five speakers and conference advisors gathered on stage to talk about their impressions from the program. Vince Restucci, Director of Procurement & Business Technology for R.D. Offutt Company, was confident that many of the topics and innovations discussed during Growing Innovations will be solutions for growers in the coming season or two.
“I am incredibly optimistic with all of the investment coming into agriculture that we are on the precipice of a huge step change,” he said. “Data management is going to open a new door and it’s going to be a wow.”
Multi-Faceted Event to Return in 2019
Outside of the many conference sessions, Growing Innovations also incorporated unique offerings into the exposition area.
- Show floor. Hundreds of important connections were made here as senior management of many of the nation’s most sophisticated growers spent quality time researching and vetting innovative products and services and talking with exhibitors.
- GRO Talks. This innovative format enabled growers to take deep dives into the science and real-world results provided by many of the new solutions featured on the show floor. These 20-minute “TED”-like talks proved to be so popular that several drew crowds exceeding seating capacity.
- GRO NXT. This special section of the expo was a hub for bright young innovative companies recently launched.
- Peer-to-peer networking. Growers from different crop segments and key industry suppliers shared ideas freely on best practices for controlling costs and increasing yields in the ever-changing farming environment.
Following the event, Meister | NXT announced that Growing Innovations will return in 2019 in response to overwhelmingly positive feedback from attendees and exhibitors. More details on the second annual edition of the conference and expo – to be held in November 2019 in Las Vegas – will be available at GrowingInnovations.com.