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Peter Wren-Hilton

LIVE from Salinas, California: The New Zealand agritech delegation arrive to support US specialty crop growers address a major crisis

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Today a large delegation of experienced New Zealand agri robotic and automation researchers and entrepreneurs arrived in Salinas, Northern California. We are here to meet Agritech New Zealand partner, Western Growers, the largest producers of fresh produce in North America. 

That’s 50%+ of all fresh vegetables, 50%+ of all fresh fruits, 50%+ of all organics. This is big.

We are here to learn more about one of Western Grower members’ most significant challenges. Labour. Lack of and cost of. Whilst the US public focuses on the merits, or otherwise, of a Mexican wall, the sad reality for most North American farmers &  growers is that more Mexican farm labourers are returning home than heading north. The labour crisis here is real. And its costing growers. Big time.

I have worked for several months with the Agritech team at Callaghan Innovation (big nod to Nicky & Simon) to bring a large and experienced team of kiwi specialists to Salinas.  We have representatives from;

  • AgResearch
  • Agritech New Zealand
  • Auckland University
  • Callaghan Innovation
  • CR Automation
  • Figured
  • GPS-IT
  • Lincoln Agritech
  • Massey University
  • New Zealand Trade & Enterprise
  • Plant & Food Research
  • PlantTech
  • Robotics Plus
  • TracMap
  • Uniservices
  • Waikato University
  • Zespri

It’s a fantastic group. We are here for a week and we are here to get stuff done.

I am writing this post during our Monday (PST) lunchtime break. This morning we have been on-farm looking at three crops; Romaine, Lettuce & Broccoli. This afternoon we are joining the Western Growers Trial meeting here at the WG Innovation & Technology Center in Salinas. This is when we will discuss the opportunity for conducting field trials of NZ agritech on Western Grower properties. This is when the rubber really hits the road.

Western Growers provides a huge commercial pathway for New Zealand agritech in the global specialty crop market. For context, according to a report published by Persistence Market Research in March 2018, the global specialty crops market is expected to witness a CAGR of 3.7%. from a valuation of US$ 1,382.3 Bn in 2017, to touch a valuation of US$ 1,842.3 Bn by the end of 2025. That’s NZD 2.77 trillion. Go figure.

It’s a massive opportunity, but for US growers, it’s also a massive challenge. Margins in this sector are often in the 3%-5% range. That’s tops. Increasing labour costs are wiping this out. The need to automate on-farm processes, particularly the harvesting of crops, is therefore front & centre for these growers. And this is where this week’s New Zealand’s agri robotic and automation delegation come in.

Back in August last year, Agritech New Zealand & Western Growers signed a strategic partnership agreement. It was designed in part to address this challenge. In case you missed it, this is what Western Growers had to say about it on US TV: https://www.kion546.com/news/global-partnership-could-bring-more-ag-tech-to-salinas-valley/788201576

Tomorrow, we are in the field again, this time in Watsonville talking to growers of strawberries and other berry products. A major outcome of these discussions is that the technologies that we are focusing on this week will help growers back home; kiwifruit in the Bay of Plenty, apples in the Hawkes Bay and grapes in Marlborough. All suffer seasonal labour shortages and all will benefit from the increased application of on-farm and in-orchard harvesting automation.

This mission is one of the most significant I have been on. It’s not just about learning about real on-farm experience in a general sense. It’s about enabling New Zealand’s agritech sector to understand and address a very specific grower need. And to do so in a very big market.

We have a major week ahead.

Peter Wren-Hilton Peter is Executive Director of Agritech New Zealand and founder of Wharf42 in Tauranga. Peter helps organise major agritech conferences in New Zealand and offshore and connects early stage New Zealand agritech companies with international markets.