Kate Prengaman
Kate Prengaman

The first time I watched a camera sensor scan an orchard row and size every apple, I was amazed. The second time, I wondered what the value of such data would be to the grower. 

Turns out, I’m not the only one wondering. 

Growers and tech developers don’t always know, either.

“The nature of the beast is these are new things, so there is no market for these products and services yet,” said Dan Plath, president of orchard operations at Washington Fruit and Produce Co. in Yakima, Washington. The “price-discovery market-setting” takes place as tech companies “figure out what it’s worth to us — and we, of course, are trying not to pay more than we have to.” 

But when there’s no alignment between the time required for growers to figure that out — with a crop that harvests once a year — and for startups to deliver returns to their investors, startups shut down. It’s just one of the challenges in play as many startups from the tsunami of ag tech investment struggle to find their footing in the tree fruit industry.

Consider the wave of investment in crop load management tools driven by advancing vision technologies. Last spring, I counted at least half a dozen companies pitching growers such tools, and I learned of more while working on this column. This class of technologies, I believe, helps to illustrate both the potential of precision ag tech and the adoption challenges highlighted by growers and tech developers alike, though it is far from the only one. 

It seems to me, with growers facing ever-escalating labor costs, precision ag tools that promise improved quality face a harder challenge in demonstrating their return on investment to growers than do automation tools that offer direct labor savings. Wages today might push growers toward robotic harvest, if there was a robot ready — but that’s an article for another issue. Dialing in crop load can make growers more money, yes, but dialing in a new technology to work with the way any given orchard operates turns out to be much harder than many startups expected. 

I hope that by exploring some of those speed bumps encountered in recent efforts to roll out crop load management technologies, future efforts may be able to avoid them. 

I talked with Steve Mantle, owner of innov8.ag, which offers crop load scanning services via the Green Atlas technology; Bob Agnes, the CEO of ADDIUM, which acquired the Farm Vision technology and launched it commercially in January under the name POMETA; Matt King of FruitScout, which used cellphone cameras to automate crop load management but has since pulled out of orchards to focus on other markets; and others who helped to inform my reporting for this column. (Other companies continue to develop crop load management tools too, including Vivid Machines from Canada, Cornell University spinoff Orchard Robotics, and Dutch company Aurea Imaging.)

All three tech companies quoted in this story ran extensive trials with Washington growers in recent seasons but struggled to scale up their products. 

That’s not unexpected, said Agnes, CEO of ADDIUM, who cited startup pains during the 2023 season. The tech hype cycle often gets ahead of the products themselves. 

“We have to be realistic about technology adoption curves,” he said. “We are working with early adopters, and it can take three or four years for customers to understand what POMETA can do.”

Agnes said his business — a recently rebranded 40-year-old scientific instruments company — prepared for a slow adoption curve. But not every ag tech startup is so prepared; many tech investors look for fast growth or good margins.

Both are hard to find in the tree fruit industry right now.

“It’s a really challenging time for farms because the margins are slim or nonexistent,” Plath said. “It makes a higher bar for the tech guys to reach that value add.”

Even trialing technology requires growers to invest time and resources.

“We need to ask ourselves who is going to make it in the space. These are startup companies that don’t have long track records,” Plath said. “Especially with hardware, but even with a software product, we don’t want to invest our time in learning a system if the system isn’t going to stick around.” 

Therein lies the challenge. Tech companies need profitability for stability. 

Narrowly targeting products to apple orchards, in contrast to automated equipment or irrigation sensors that can build markets across more specialty crops using the same tools, also slows growth potential.

“Successful growers understand diversification,” Mantle said. He’s branching out his own business now to provide precision ag services to other crop systems, including row crops. “I thought specialization would be a good thing, but the (tech companies) that have diversification are going to be the ones that survive.”

Market size plays a role. King said investors today want to see larger target markets. The nearly 300,000 acres of apples in the U.S. sounds like an opportunity, but once you start looking closely at the apple market from a tech adoption perspective, it starts to shrink. 

For example, Mantle said, you might learn that growers only see value in crop load management or precision irrigation for Honeycrisp, which represents a subset of acreage. And then some of those orchards have no cellular coverage, and others have older plantings or irrigation infrastructure incompatible with the new technology’s design. 

“The reality is that it’s a significant subset of the acreage that is even available to adopt that technology,” he said. 

Beyond that, much as the tree fruit industry likes to talk about its uniform fruiting walls, in reality every orchard differs. And growers manage differently, too. 

“There is no industry standard for crop load management, and every orchard wants a very different product tailored to their individual management practices,” King said in an email. So, he pivoted his vision technology to work in a different crop system where one consistent approach can target a larger market. 

Providing the customization that makes a tool valuable to the specific customer takes time and raises costs. 

“The iterations required due to a lack of standardized orchards are almost endless,” Mantle said. “Most companies jump in and say, ‘Here’s our solution,’ and then reality hits the fan when people start adopting.”

Those needed adjustments can bog down small teams developing new products, and those market-limiting challenges turn off investors, who are becoming more cautious about ag tech.

So, the question we all want answered: How can ag tech overcome these challenges and address growers’ urgent and valuable problems?

“We need this stuff,” Plath said. “It’s just that they are complicated problems and not easy solutions. But we’re committed to trying to find them.” 

We’ve dedicated many of the pages of this Convention Special issue to technology: the automated tools on display at the FIRA convention and the perspectives ag tech experts shared there, as well as innovations in high-tech research and education in California and at Washington State University. 

Again and again, we heard that growers need to engage with technology and take an active role in shaping development of the solutions they need. We hope this gives you something to talk about. 

by Kate Prengaman