Forbes Event Identified Technology Opportunities in Agriculture

The field is wide open for engineering innovations

21 November 2017

If you are looking to start a business or develop a new technology, you might want to consider the farming industry. There’s a huge need for innovations to improve food production for a growing population. That’s according to presenters at the Forbes AgTech Launch event, held 14 November in New York City. The event attracted venture capitalists looking to invest in agriculture.

The opportunities to “get rich in growing” are many, said Steve Forbes, chair and editor in chief of Forbes Media. “It’s not technology itself that is exciting, but what can be done with it,” he said. “Nowhere is that more true than in agriculture.”

Presenters discussed opportunities for engineers and entrepreneurs to develop applications for the industry. They noted that many of the technologies being developed for other fields can be applied to farming too, including automation, genomics, and machine learning.

The Institute attended the event. Here are several key takeaways.

GETTING YOUR HANDS DIRTY

One problem facing the farming industry is that most records about crops are handwritten or, at best, entered into an Excel spreadsheet, according to Seana Day, a partner at Better Food Ventures and the Mixing Bowl. Better Food Ventures invests in startups. The Mixing Bowl brings together innovators in food, agriculture, and tech to collaborate.

“Before we can apply automation, big data, and deep learning to farming, we need to capture data,” Day says, adding that although many entrepreneurs are looking to get involved in a more exciting area, creating an electronic recordkeeping system for farmers is a huge opportunity.

Incorporating self-driving innovations in tractors and other farming machinery should be pursued as well, she says.

Several startups are helping farmers improve their harvests with soil sensors that can measure oxygen levels, humidity, and other environmental factors. The sensors can be placed throughout the fields, and the information they generate can reduce the percentage of crops that die.

Obstacles to installing new technologies include helping farmers understand how to use them and assisting the farmers with repairs. At the launch event, Day suggested a version of Best Buy’s Geek Squad that would provide farmers with technical support, whether online, by phone, or in person.

MOVING THE FARM INDOORS

One of the highlights of the event was a session on vertical indoor farming. Marc Oshima, cofounder and chief marketing officer of AeroFarms, discussed how moving the farm inside makes it possible to control environmental conditions. The newest AeroFarms facility, in Newark, N.J., can produce nearly 1 million kilograms of leafy greens each year.

Plants are grown in trays with embedded sensors that provide some 30,000 data points, such as temperature and nutrient levels, to help determine how to improve the crops. For example, by adjusting the environmental factors, lettuce could become crisper and spinach more flavorful. Instead of relying on sunlight, the farms use LED lamps, which can be adjusted by amount of light and wavelength.

Related: Indoor Farms Could Revolutionize Agriculture.

Although indoor farms don’t compare to field farms that could produce 100 times more produce and with more variety, they might be better for the environment. They use about 95 percent less water, for example, and no pesticides. And because the Newark facility is just a few miles from New York City, it can transport its greens to a large number of consumers using minimal transportation. The goal is to open indoor farms near major cities around the globe.

Another area ripe for exploration is genomics, said Dan Harburg, venture associate at Anterra Capital. That includes designing fruit and vegetable seeds in labs so that the produce is easier to pick in the fields. Other examples include apples that grow on walls instead of on trees, strawberries with longer stems, and broccoli that grows without leaves.

Such genetic alterations are making the process more efficient for farm workers, but they’re also setting the stage for automation. Robots soon could be picking our produce.

Farm robots as a service could be another area to consider, whereby farmers could rent automated machines to help them reduce their labor costs.

Harburg also proposed that farmers rent out their own equipment as a way to make extra money: an Airbnb-type model for tractors. But first, someone needs to create the technologies to make such ideas possible.

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