'Disruption' dominates Organic Grower Summit

Though organic produce has largely gone mainstream, “disruption” was still a key theme at the recent Organic Grower Summit as a plethora of speakers invoked that concept in discussing emerging technologies as well as the need to transform the world’s agricultural practices.DSC 0153 Soren Bjorn of Driscoll's, Dave Puglia of Western Growers, Carmen Ponce of T&A and Hannah Freeman of Ganazz taking part in the panel for The Last Harvest session.

The third annual summit, which is co-hosted by the Organic Produce Network and California Certified Organic Farmers, was held in Monterey, CA, and attended by 700 people, including 200 organic growers and 90 exhibitors who populated the sold-out trade show for two days. The event included several networking opportunities as well as 10 different educational sessions featuring several dozen speakers.

The overarching theme was that organic produce continues to be an ever-increasing part of the fruit and vegetable sector with year-over-year growth still on the upswing.

An intensive two-part education session on “AgTech Disruption” kicked off the program on Wednesday, Dec. 4, and disruption was also the topic of the keynote session, which was the last educational event held on Thursday, Dec. 5.

One of the major themes during that keynote session was the need for the adoption of regenerative farming practices to save our planet and reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in our environment. The vast majority of scientists in the world agree that it is the increase of CO2 in the environment that has led to climate change and the devastating weather events that have become commonplace. During much of the history of earth, CO2 in the atmosphere had remained in a relatively narrow range of 200-250 ppm. Over the past 250 years, that high water mark has seen continual increases so that it now is 65 percent higher with 411 ppm.

Keynote speaker David Perry, chief executive officer and director of Indigo Ag, which is dedicated to using natural microbiology and digital technologies to improve both environmental sustainability and grower profitability, talked about a global project called the Terraton Initiative, which is dedicated to removing 1 trillion tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through regenerative farming practices and photosynthesis.

Though not necessarily certified organic, regenerative farming shares the same basic building blocks that drive in-the-dirt organic farming; planting cover crops, utilizing no-till farming, rotating crops, using manure and reducing inputs are core to both. For organic farming, these practices build great soil. For the Terraton Initiative, they also maximize the pulling of carbon out of the environment by having farming land covered with crops for a longer period of time each year thus allowing for increased photosynthesis, and the continued sequestering of the carbon in the ground.

Perry applauds the Paris Climate Agreement’s goal to freeze the amount of CO2 in the environment at its current level. But he said more needs to be done and regenerative farming techniques can accomplish that task. The Terraton Initiative is aimed at convincing farmers to change their growing practices to increase the amount of CO2 that is taken out of the air every year. The concept involves paying farmers to adopt regenerative growing practices. Already 13 million acres have signed up to participate, when funding is available through public/private cooperation.

Another keynote speaker, Kat Taylor, founding director of TomKat Ranch Educational Foundation, highlighted that group’s effort to sign up 1 million acres of rangeland in California to follow the same regenerative farming practices. TomKat Ranch is a working cattle ranch, located 50 miles south of San Francisco, dedicated to those practices. The ranch serves as a learning laboratory for other farmers interested in adopting those techniques.

Still another speaker, Amy Ansel, founder and chief marketing officer of Titan BioPlastics, outlined her company’s effort to disrupt the plastics industry by replacing petroleum-based plastics with those made from plant-based polymers. She said the technology exists to create alternatives to plastic bottles, clamshells, crop covers and virtually anything else made from that material — and she brought samples to prove it. She did say that the capability to make these items is moving faster than the ability of the supply chain to use them. But she is very optimistic about the future, and particularly the ability of the fibrous hemp plant to revolutionize the world of plastics.

As mentioned, ag-tech disruptors were also quite visible during the summit as there were experts touting aquaponics, DNA testing of soil, the use of robotics to perform in-field tasks and biological packaging materials that can extend the shelf life of fruits and vegetables as much as three times longer.

Kaben Smallwood, co-founder and CEO of Symbiotic Aquaponic, detailed his two Oklahoma facilities that are farming fish and using the fish waste to grow vegetables in the hydroponic section of the closed-loop system. He said the process is much more efficient than any other farming method. He envisions bringing it to communities all over the country, partnering with potential buyers of the products, such as school districts, to provide nutritious food at competitive prices in an environmentally friendly way.

Diane Wu, co-founder and CEO of Trace Genomics, explained that her company is basically using genetic and DNA testing to get a much more precise view of the soil biology. Trace has developed soil tests that delve deep into the makeup of the soil and can give farmers a precise look at the dirt in any particular field and allow them to address issues before planting the crop.

Sebastien Boyer is co-founder of FarmWise, which is creating autonomous, robotic-based farming services utilizing artificial intelligence. Mechanical weeding is the first service the three-year-old company is offering and Boyer claims the cost of the service is less than hiring a crew to provide the same service.

Aidan Mouat, CEO of Hazel Technologies, explained that his firm has developed technology that reduces produce shrink by increasing shelf life. The company has created a suite of biological products — box inserts and packaging — that slow down the aging process of fruits and vegetables. He said the firm’s products can extend shelf life three times longer for many fresh fruits and vegetables.

Another speaker, Jeff Orrey, founder and chief science officer of GeoVisual Analytics, discussed his company’s use of imagery to improve harvesting efficiency. By taking high-tech, fly-over photos of a field, the company can digitalize the data and more precisely determine the optimum harvest date, which can increase yields and reduce food loss.

There were many other session but another of particular featured a showing of Driscoll’s “The Last Harvest," a 22-minute film about the lack of farm labor in California. Following the film, a panel of experts discussed it and potential solutions to the problem. Among the panelist was Soren Bjorn, president of Driscoll’s of the America’s, who revealed that the film is only shown at special events and is always followed by a discussion period to talk about the problems explored in the film.

Bjorn said lack of labor is a major problem because of a myriad of concerns, including the declining birthrate in Mexico that has led to negative growth, as well as immigration and border issues. He said Driscoll’s has had to utilize the Department of Labor’s H2A guest worker program to try to fill its needs. He and panelist Carmen Ponce of Tanimura & Antle noted that the program is cumbersome and not easy to use.

Ponce said T&A built company housing in Salinas, CA, as an effort to qualify for the housing requirement under the provisions of H2A. That housing, which is offered to adult workers at a very good rate, has attracted workers and helped the company fill its need.

But both speakers agreed that there needs to be a long-term solution as specialty agriculture cannot continue to thrive in the United States without more workers. In fact, the film concluded that the United States will either gets its workers or its food from foreign sources.

Dave Puglia, incoming president and chief executive officer of Western Growers, reported on a bill in Congress – HR 5038: Farm Workforce Modernization Act of 2019 - that does establish an immigration solution specifically for agriculture. He said the bill isn’t perfect but it does give existing undocumented agricultural workers a path to legalization if they meet certain circumstances and streamlines the H2A program. For it to pass both the House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate and be signed by President Donald Trump, Puglia said it must have bi-partisan support. For this bill Democrats have been more supportive than Republicans. Puglia urged everyone in the audience to reach out to their own members of Congress and ask them to vote for the bill.

LATE BREAKING NEWS: HR 5038, the Farm Workforce Modernization Act was passed by the House of Representatives on Wednesday, Dec. 11 by a vote of 260-165. It now goes to the U.S. Senate, where passage is expected to be more difficult.

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