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Innovation: Emerging Agribusiness Technologies

Originally Published in Oct-Dec 2019 Quarterly

Sheri McClure

Good business leaders are always trying to do the best for their stakeholders, their employees, and their customers; but they don’t always have the time to research new ways to make their businesses more efficient and sustainable. Luckily, talking to experts is what we do best. We want to share three emerging technologies that can help you streamline your agribusiness in remarkable and eco friendly new ways.

Basil and lettuce being grown hydroponically in a large greenhouse. Water usage is only 1% of regular farming!

Vertical Farming

Traditional farms require mass quantities of acreage and are subject to issues like unseasonable weather, fallow land, and pests. With increasingly unpredictable weather, a growing aversion to pesticides, and an ever increasing population to feed, agricultural areas are feeling additional pressure. Vertical farms have become one way farmers can address these issues.  

It may be helpful to think of vertical farming as the technologically-advanced urban cousin to traditional greenhouses. Of course, each company offers systems with different features, but the overall goal is to utilize vertical space in a safe, controlled environment that greatly lessens each farm’s carbon footprint. Vertical farms can also be housed in old warehouses or other unused buildings, which could help boost the economy of underutilized urban areas and bring fresh, local produce to these communities.

I spoke at length with Niko Kurumaa, the International Sales Manager for Netled (pronounced net led) about Vera, their closed vertical farming solution. Netled has its roots in tomato farming, but was developed as a daughter to their greenhouse business after 20 years in industry. Their primary crops are leafy greens, like basil and lettuce, and they are expanding into the cannabis industry. Netled were pioneers in LED grow lights back in 2007, and have continued to push the technology of indoor agriculture with Vera. 

In general, vertical farms cut the farm’s carbon footprint and transportation costs. They even allow farmers to utilize more layers of soil since most of the good soil has already been used. Vertical farms can also be housed in old buildings or even skyscrapers–urban spaces where traditional agriculture would not be possible on the same scale. 

So what exactly is Vera and what prompted Netled’s recent 11 million dollar contract with EU company Astwood Infrastructure? Niko began by explaining Vera’s automation benefits. “Vera uses 95% less water than traditional farming,” he said. This decrease is primarily attributed to the water circulation system. The plants are watered, but when they give up additional moisture through natural processes, the AC system captures it, condenses it, and reuses it. The Netled engineering team has proven that Vera circulates 98% of the water used, which makes this type of farming more sustainable and aids in doubling average crop production. Recycling water in these closed environments also keeps chemicals out of the soil, which is helpful because the chemicals can affect future crops and contaminate drinking water.

But I believe Netled’s success is about more than a great product. “We see ourselves as a technical partner, not just a technical supplier,” Niko explained. The company has their own testing facility in Finland, where they are based. (Although they are actively looking for partners in the US and an operator in Indiana.) Netled is constantly improving the product and will test their customer’s crop in their own facilities to make sure everything is working optimally. In addition, Vera comes with a 10 year maintenance agreement, and their software connects all of the Netled farms globally to their tech. In other words, whether you’re in Finland or California, their team can help ensure that your vertical farm is functional and efficient. 

Management Software & Services

Agribusiness consists of a lot of moving parts. It is important to have reliable methods for tracking things like production, shipping, sales, and compliance. There are companies like AgriCare, located in the Central Valley, that manage some or all of these aspects for businesses. But there is also a growing list of vertical software technology that you can manage with or without additional support to keep your business organized. 

One of these resources is Chasqui (pronounced cha-ski), a platform managed by Ciclo. I met Oscar Aguilera, Co-Founder and VP of growth at Ciclo, at the NCIA’s Cannabis Business Summit and Expo in July 2019. I was impressed by their services, and was even more excited to learn that their product can be customized for any type of agribusiness. 

Ciclo places a huge emphasis on meeting their customers’ needs. In the legal cannabis industry, there is an enormous need to remain compliant despite everchanging and dense guidelines. Their platform, Chasqui, helps to keep growers and distributors compliant. But the software can also be customized for more traditional crops and their agricultural needs. 

For customers who would like additional support, Ciclo is there to provide managed services for Chasqui customers. You can use the software straight out of the box, but Ciclo wants to ensure that your and your businesses needs are reflected in your software customization and support. They begin by speaking with new customers over the phone. Their representatives want to understand your business, including its challenges, workflow, and processes, so you can customize the software to work best for you. This preliminary call is followed by hands on and face-to-face site visits, so you can feel comfortable with the product and its uses. They even have representatives who are fluent in both English and Spanish, so everyone involved in your business can have their voice heard. 

Management software like Chasqui makes it easier to keep tabs on all aspects of your business from anywhere at any time. It is important to find the best product for your business needs, but finding one that marries customized software and face-to-face customer service sounds like a promising start.

Alternative Energy

Notice that this section is not called Solar Energy. Solar can be a great way to go, and there are great companies like Sunworks Solar Power in Roseville, Wildwood Pools and Solar in Fresno, and SPURR in Concord. But these days everyone knows at least something about solar energy. What you may not know is that you can take solar on or off the grid. The companies listed above can help customers learn to bank their own solar energy and use it when they need it most instead of selling it back to large energy corporations. And Dr. Micro Grid consultants can help you get off the grid entirely. But solar is not the only option.

We met the Executive Vice President and Senior Account Manager of Ice Energy at the Southern California Facilities Expo back in May, and we were fascinated by their innovative solution to the high cost of cooling commercial spaces. Instead of using a conventional HVAC unit, use ice. In many ways, their Ice Bear and Thermal Bear thermal storage AC units are the opposite of solar energy. When ambient temperatures and energy costs are lower, these units make ice. When temperatures and energy costs are higher, they use these huge chunks of ice to cool the coils that in turn cool your space. 

If you are currently envisioning a large block of ice in a big bucket a la Looney Toons, think again. These are slick, HVAC sized units that easily replace traditional units. Ice Energy claims their customers can save up to 40% on their overall energy costs, and up to 95% on their peak energy usage. They also have a pretty impressive list of big name customers in agriculture, retail, and industrial, including New Belgium Brewery, Staples, AT&T, Lithia Chevrolet, and Panda Express.

Each business is unique and requires different supporting services. We love speaking with experts about what they do, what they offer, and what they know. And we are always happy to pass along that information to our readers. Hopefully some of these new innovations piqued your professional interest and will help you learn new ways to run your business more efficiently and sustainably.

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