Digital Farming’s “Up in the Air” Moment

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By Rodrigo M. Pereyra 

I was recently watching the movie “Up in the Air” and beyond being a great portrayal of the human cost of job loss and itinerancy of modern life, I was interested by another thread in the story: the introduction of new technology to fundamentally change a business. During an argument with Anna Kendrick, the bright new employee bringing in a innovative “outplacement” technology, George Clooney’s character, the seasoned industry veteran, has a wonderful quote: “Before you try to revolutionize my business, I’d like to know that you actually know my business.” That quote struck a chord. What does a movie have to do with urban agriculture and digital farming? I believe that if the digital farming is to succeed it has to adopt this mantra and ask the question – do our technologies, solutions and investments fundamentally understand the business of our end-users?

Over the last 5 years, there has been a significant influx of players entering Digital Farming and Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA). Large corporates, start-ups and investors have flocked the market as they rightly see opportunities for investment, development and growth. Last year alone, there were over $20 Billion invested in Agtech and Foodtech as outlined in the latest AgFunder Investing Report. This surge in investment is not without merit as industry segments such as cannabis can be very profitable in the short term. There is also a recognition that Urban Agriculture and CEA can play a significant role in supplementing our future food supply chain. 

On the technology front, the possibilities are endless: Cloud-based software along with advancements in the fields of data analytics, image processing, robotics and sensing, combined with very smart and passionate people, are making reality solutions that were just concepts a few years ago. A great example is the Autonomous Greenhouse Challenge currently taking place at Wageningen University. Over the course of 8 months, a total of 21 multi-disciplinary teams are challenged to grow cherry tomatoes remotely using a combination of sensing, modeling and machine learning. Again, possibilities that were not realizable not too long ago. 

With both investment and technology willing and able to participate in the market, it appears that all the stars are aligned to move Digital Farming forward into and beyond the 2020s. Here’s where I become the wet towel and come back to George Clooney: do we actually know the business of urban, greenhouse and indoor growers and operators? The farming and agriculture industry are stereotyped as conservative and slow to adopt technologies. As every stereotype, there may be some truth, but it’s also rooted in a keen understanding of the demands of their business and the need to use proven technologies to either boost revenue or improve profitability. This is particularly true in those segments in which margins are razor thin. 

As digital farming develops, it’s critical to think about the grower’s needs, business models and balance sheets. By doing so, the Digital Farming industry will be able to clearly articulate the impact its technology and products have on a grower’s bottom line and the value it brings to the operation. As much as possible, companies or people developing the technologies should spend time in greenhouses, vertical farms and indoor growth facilities to truly get a sense of the ground truth in the industry. It requires radical collaboration between technologists and growers and a meeting in the middle between what is possible and what is practical. If that empathy with the end-user is not at the core of everything we do, all technological development will be for naught. 

Over the last four years, I have been fortunate to visit a number of urban farming operations, but one that stands out is a greenhouse where I spent significant time doing an installation. Being at a greenhouse day-in and day-out gave me an appreciation for the intricacies and complexities of running such an operation. Every conversation I had, from the tomato picker who could instantly tell when a tomato was ripe to overall strategy discussions with the general manager left me with a better sense of how the challenges are complex and cannot be broad stroked. I realized I couldn’t isolate my developments to my niche; I had to think about it in the broader context of the grower’s needs and business. 

So, what happens at the end of “Up in the Air”? (Spoiler Alert!) The new technology solution is scrapped, and George Clooney’s outplacement business stays the same. Digital Farming has too much potential to not be successful, but we have to make sure we “know the business” in order to succeed. 

Rodrigo M. Pereyra loves the smell of greenhouses in the morning. Passionate about technology, people  and the impact they will have on moving our agricultural systems forward. He led internal technology development in horticultural lighting and digital farming solutions at OSRAM. An avid foodie, traveler and father of two, he is exploring what’s next in Digital Agriculture. You can contact him at: rodrigopi@gmail.com 

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