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Will Silicon Valley ag tech really grow with farmers?

A word of advice from farmers to entrepreneurs: Walk in our muddy boots before tossing us new tech products.

If you’ve any doubt that technology is in a rush to disrupt agriculture, consider the scene at this week's AgTech Silicon Valley 2015 conference.

Amid well-attended sessions covering the Internet of Things in farming, water reuse technology and agricultural data — where neatly-dressed Silicon Valley types mixed with suntanned and scruffy-shoed farmers — one session was standing room only.

It was the pitch session where entrepreneurs got four minutes to sell an ag tech business concept to venture capitalists and angel investors. One-time farmers, chemistry Phds and data experts pitched electric motor tractors, solar-powered sensor tools that pinpoint soil needs around individual plants and an app for monitoring food waste in one’s personal lifestyle. 

Tables outside the pitch room were lined with already launched products in the new world of ag tech.

There’s CoolTerra, a plant waste-based soil amendment that helps dirt retain water and therefore require less irrigation; AgRite a sensor software that provides farmers remote views and decision making controls on such things as soil moisture needs and pH balance differentiated by plot; and Farm Solutions, a mobile app for optimizing irrigation schedules in realtime. There were agriculture drones and harvesting robots.

Tech has officially met the field.

Sowing a new market

According to the Royse Law Firm, which hosted the conference in Google's hometown of Mountain View, the agriculture technology market is “still immature.”

Most investment deals are done at the seed stage, or as other forms of early-stage backing. But Royce also points out that there is no shortage of budding prospects.

Last year, there were a total of 264 ag tech financing deals worth $2.36 billion. According to AgFunder principals writing in TechCrunch, that’s a 170 percent jump from 2013 — and also makes agriculture a bigger tech market than clean energy, which attracted $2 billion last year.

But the nascent ag tech market also has different external factors contributing to a sense of urgency.

As a historic drought hangs over the Western third of the country, threatening half the nation’s fruit and vegetable harvest along with expansive cattle ranches, there's demand for increased precision and efficiency in planting, growing and harvesting.

For example, better measurements of the soil needs for particular fields — or even individualized plants — can help tell a farmer if the field or plant needs more water, more nutrients or should be harvested immediately. 

Precision agriculture is what the market is calling for, Royce says, and tech can answer with satellite data collection and cloud-based storage and constant monitoring of fields for irrigation needs, likely crop yields, ideal harvest times.

Bring hype back to earth

Still, farmers themselves had a clear warning for tech-savvy entrepreneurs who may be new to the agriculture market.

“Come talk to the growers. Don’t make something for us and say, ‘Hey I got something you are going to need,’" said Dave Murray of Andrew & Williamson Fresh Produce. "Talk to us first, see if we need it.”

He explained that work on a farm exposed to the elements can quickly alter the value of new technology.

“Walk the fields with us — and not on a sunny day, but on a rainy day when the lettuce can’t be pulled mechanically because the machine can’t go through the field,” Murray said.

But there is one underlying bonus for farmers in the meantime. Longtime business owners in the industry said agriculture is generally misunderstood — so at least they like the new attention.

“I’m happy to be speaking to an audience that doesn’t think that food is manufactured in a back room at SafeWay.” said Bob Martin, owner of Rio Farms who has spent his life in California’s Central Valley farming.  

Farmers are all for water reuse, he said, “but we want to be able to control the source, control the quality" so farmers can assure their customers — and their customers' customers — that the water used to grow their food is clean.

What that means is that on-the-farm water reuse systems would be ideal, so a farmer knows exactly how the water was used before and how it was filtered and reclaimed, he and others said.

Farmers also want to know that data collected from their fields is secure.  As big data analytics and data collection apps come to agriculture, farmers said they want to know that their data is not vulnerable to security leaks, that competitive information about plantings, expected yield, irrigation remains under their control.

Realizing what the real needs are that farmers have and addressing them is where the market opportunities are,  said several investors who have been looking at the field.

“The best way to understand farming is to go out and visit the farmer,” said Lisa Prassack of Trimble. “A farm runs on a work schedule, the important thing is to walk a day in the life of a farmer and also of their trusted advisors, their seed suppliers.” 

Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers partner Brook Porter said there's "huge opportunity" in agriculture but that would be entrepreneurs need to make sure their product makes life easier for the farmer, adds real value.

“There are a lot of great solutions but if we can’t connect them to life on a farm to help farmers, they fall apart” as business plans.

Amrith Gunasekara, science advisor with the California Department of Food and Agriculture, said the answer is to provide tech support along with the new tech product.

"It is not about setting something up and walking away and saying good luck. It needs to be supported, When these technologies  are brought to the farm, bring a tech support (team) with them," he said.  

Better yet, offer products with clear and multiple solutions.  "We need technology that bundles the issues farmers deal with: water and nitrates in the soil, insects."

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