Local produce faces tougher challenges than drones - The Packer

Local produce faces tougher challenges than drones

08/08/2014 11:50:00 AM
Chuck Robinson

Chuck Robinson, assistant copy chiefChuck Robinson, assistant copy chiefDrones and high-tech local production are the hallmarks of what Clare Hasler-Lewis, executive director of the Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science at the University of California-Davis, envisions as the future of agriculture.

She drew a succint picture of what she sees in the crystal ball in a column in the July 8 Wall Street Journal. The newspaper was celebrating its 125th anniversary with a section of futuristic pipedreaming.

Drones I get. Here in the Midwest we have a former Kansas State University professor who left academia to join RoboFlight, a Denver-based company that sells drones and analyzes data for field crops.

Drones cruise fields and operators use the data to figure out if crops need pesticides. Some of our staff at Vance Publishing Corporation, parent company of The Packer, have witnessed them in action.

Hasler-Lewis sees the role of drones expanding beyond field crop management.

“Soon, we’ll have networks of sensors that detect moisture in the ground or on plants themselves and transmit their data to drones, which are poised to become farming’s new intelligence-gathering tool of choice,” she wrote.

She quotes the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (there is an association for everything, isn’t there?) saying in 10 years 80% of commercial drones will be used in agriculture.

Mike Hornick, staff writer for The Packer, wrote in April about attending a Web seminar covering these topics. He warned drones could be taking over analysis as well as monitoring fields, taking the employee out of the equation.

I believe it. The drones are coming.

However, it surprised me that Hasler-Lewis envisions a time when production of fresh fruits and vegetables is highly decentralized. She works near and with the industry in “The Salad Bowl of the World” in Salinas, Calif., but she sees that nickname eventually becoming outdated.

“I can envision a future where every community purchases its produce from its one vertical farm — taking ‘locally grown’ to a whole new level,” she wrote.

The thought has crossed my mind before. Recently, Urban Produce LLC, Irvine, Calif., announded having developed the High Density Vertical Growing System, a patented hydroponic alternative to traditional vegetable production.

In a news release, president and CEO Ed Horton said he expects to expand to urban centers across the U.S. and Canada.

The technology allows the equivalent of 16 acres of produce to be grown on just a 1/8-acre footprint. Water use is cut 90% compared to traditional row farming, according to the company’s news release, and it cuts the carbon footprint by reduced transportation and creates local jobs.

The pictures they sent out were whiz-bang awesome, like someone from the Buck Rogers universe took a Star Wars stormtrooper uniform and planted lettuce inside it. Golly gee willikers.

Also, of course, New York-based BrightFarms has been building a network of greenhouses providing local produce to seven retail partners:

 

  • McCaffrey’s Market, Yardley, Pa.;
  • Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Co. Inc., Montvale, N.J.;
  • Homeland Stores, Oklahoma City;
  • Eden Prairie, Minn.-based Supervalu banner Cub Foods;
  • Schnuck Markets in St. Louis and the Twin Cities area;
  • Landover, Md.-based Giant Food LLC to Washington, D.C., stores; and
  • Roundy’s Mariano’s stores in the Chicago area.

 

I see artist renderings of their facilities and get the same sort of buzz I used to get looking at futuristic ideas in Popular Science magazines. Wowza.

I see the value. It makes sense. I have even proposed filling caves in the Kansas City area with vegetable production operations using LED lights.

Yet, if this is a revolution we are in the seminal stages, and the big players have a huge advantage. “The Salad Bowl of the World” and other centralized production areas have a lot of trump cards. They can afford research and development to improve their production technology, packaging, food safety — everything.

For instance, Guadalupe, Calif.-based Apio Inc.’s parent company Landtec recently made a larger investment in Delta, British Columbia, greenhouse grower Windset Farms.

Apio uses BreatheWay packaging technology, which is owned by Menlo Park, Calif.-based Landtec. Windset Farms, through its Apio partnership, uses the BreatheWay technology for packaged cucumbers and peppers.

Rod Midyett, CEO of Apio, said in a news release that “Apio is working with Windset on additional possible uses of BreatheWay packing for Windset products.”

That packaging technology is quite an advantage. It would be tough for start-up competitors to match it.

Also, even if long-term drought sidelines California production (and I have not yet seen it in the grocery stores here), it isn’t a cinch that local production can get in line fast enough.

There are other centralized production areas in Mexico and Leamington, Ontario, that are in line first. And larger operations are more likely to look to or set up other larger operations to fill gaps rather than keep tabs on a zillion local hubs.

There is another advantage, and it is tougher to put into words. I think there is a culture in the centralized production areas where everyone is aligned to the same goals and knows the basics of the industry. Associated industries are interrelated.

That seems like something that is more difficult to create in a far-flung network of smaller-scale producers. A national network might be able to get all of its parts to pull together, but it will be far more difficult.

crobinson@thepacker.com

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