Earlier this year members of the Western Growers Association met with the Agri-TechE community to talk about solutions to some of the intractable issues faced by fruit and vegetable producers – food safety and harvest automation.
Members of Western Growers are family farmers growing fresh produce in Arizona, California, Colorado and New Mexico, and together they provide over half the nation’s fresh fruits, vegetables and tree nuts, including nearly half of America’s fresh organic produce.
This workshop was one of the outcomes of a partnership announced at REAP 2020 between Western Growers Center for Innovation & Technology (WGCIT), a premiere U.S.-based agtech incubator, and Agri-TechE, the leading UK agri-tech innovation network.
We are delighted that Western Growers will be represented in the REAP 2021 International Cafe and talked to Dennis Donohue, WGCIT Director, about the year and what this year’s theme ‘Time’ means to his membership.
Q The last 12 months has been a difficult time for many – what have been the challenges for your members?
DD. It has been a challenging year on several fronts. For one, the decades-long labor shortage continues to be an issue for specialty crop farmers. Though we had strong industry efforts on education and vaccination drives, COVID-19 created additional hurdles for the fresh produce industry.
This year, our industry also faced trucking shortages, increased cost of goods (such as pallets), and a rise in operating costs paired with higher costs associated with worker protection.
The current drought has also affected all of the Western United States and has resulted in serious cutbacks in a number of agricultural production areas.
Q The workshop was well received. Were there any outcomes that you are able to share?
DD. The Western Growers members who participated in last year’s event enjoyed the opportunity to share the challenges they face and made some nice contacts.
With the ability to “Zoom” with everyone and anyone across the globe, the world got smaller in a sense and our growers had the opportunity to engage with UK growers and chat about common challenges. I think I would rephrase “misery loves company” to “appreciating that they are not alone with the challenges they have”!
Q It is great that Western Growers will be participating in the International Cafe – I understand that you have some exciting initiatives to discuss?
It is good to have participated once to get a feel of the event. I think the goal this year will be a bit more strategic and specific.
Since last year, Western Growers has embarked on pursuing two strategic initiatives:
- Accelerating Harvest Automation: In February 2021, we launched the Global Harvest Automation Initiative to accelerate harvest automation across the fresh produce industry, with a goal of automating 50 percent of harvest within 10 years. From our perspective, advancing mechanical and automated harvesting simply needs to move quicker. We are pleased to be working with the British companies as a result of that initiative – some of whom we met at last year’s REAP event!
- Food Safety: We are looking to “improve the toolkit” for rapid diagnostics and getting information on a more real-time basis. There are a lot of players involved in the supply chain. As policy discussions continue, the supply chain continues to look at ways to be more collaborative. The Western Growers Center for Innovation & Technology’s focus in on all of those elements and we are continuously looking for breakthroughs on getting information in a more timely fashion.
Q The theme of the conference is ‘Time’ – what does that mean for your members?
Time is something we think a lot about at the Western Growers. To be more specific, we think in terms of speed and acceleration. For example, we are constantly asking ourselves, “What strategies can we deploy to speed up product development for commercial application that is economically feasible for growers and processors? Are we addressing the issue in a unique manner?”
We are working to organize a broad cross-section of the customer base (i.e., Western Growers members) that are addressing these issues in a unique manner and to work together to provide clear direction for the solutions.
If you are interested in harvest automation or improving food safety there will be an opportunity to meet the Western Growers at REAP 2021.