Produce Marketing Association's Vonnie Estes and Culterra Capital's Seana Day Discuss Organic Labeling and Sustainability at Organic Grower Summit
MONTEREY, CA - Agtech is a rapidly expanding sector, one designed to make farming as efficient and profitable as possible. During the Organic Grower Summit education session Are Regenerative and Sustainability Labeling Good for Organics?, Seana Day, Partner of Culterra Capital, and Vonnie Estes, Vice President of Technology for Produce Marketing Association, discussed the role of technology in ag operations.
I was able to chat with both Seana and Vonnie for further details.
“If biologicals and biostimulants can aid in better yields or enhanced crop protection, the cost of these programs can be managed with more precise applicators like UAVs, robotics, and other variable rate technologies,” Seana explained. “I am optimistic that in the next three to five years, the cost of these systems will continue to come down because the tech is getting more mature and affordable to build.”
Seana also noted during the session that digital record keeping is crucial, and developers have become more savvy about creating solutions that are easy to use.
“They have to fit seamlessly into existing workflows in the field. In engineering, there is something called the flywheel effect—a flywheel takes time to get rolling, but once it builds kinetic energy and momentum, it can sustain itself and more rapidly iterate. A digital flywheel for ag means recording trials, measuring, analyzing, and adapting. You can’t efficiently do that without a good record keeping tool that also helps you look at how much time you spent and how much it costs,” she remarked.
Seana outlined why the specialty sector needs to adopt more purpose-built FMIS (Farm Management Information Systems) for tracking labor, costs, and profitability relative to contracts. The sector needs better tools to plan, run scenarios, and track breakevens.
“Fundamentally, FMIS’ should help growers monitor the true cost of production, such as equipment utilization, overhead, custom farming on a per field/ranch basis. It should really be able to link agronomic activities to financial decisions so growers have a more real-time view of financial performance to aid in decision making,” she said.
Looking toward the future, Seana added that tech cannot be the answer to all problems.
“The industry should be playing a very proactive role in defining what is sustainable for a particular production system and how they can benchmark and approach continuous improvement. But this needs to be done in a well coordinated way. I have some concerns that the market and brands are driving the narrative without analyzing the full consequences of regenerative and sustainable goals and claims,” she observed.
As the world continues to move at an intense pace, Seana remarked that ag can’t afford to take a wait-and-see approach to sustainable solutions.
Vonnie also took the time to share with me her insights.
“During the panel, I wanted to compel the organics community to be open to new technologies that may allow them to grow more sustainably,” she told me. “I would love to see them follow the science and challenge some of the wording of early organics doctrines, before many of these technologies were even dreamed of.”
For example, Vonnie commented that using new breeding tools like gene editing can allow the industry to more quickly adapt to climate change.
“These tools have no foreign DNA and allow breeders to make quicker changes for a changing environment. With climate change a prominent concern, we are going to need varieties that offer drought tolerance, and can adapt to changing temperatures, with a resistance to new pests,” she stated.
She too echoed Seana’s call to action, remarking that the time for biological solutions is now.
“We have better products that stay effective through the supply chain,” Vonnie supplied. “The industry also has a convergence of other technologies to improve cost efficiency. Precision ag advances like computer vision/AI-driven field applicators allow for much lower doses and higher application precision that drives down costs and increases efficacy. PCR detectors in the field tell us where spores are. The world of genomics is helping us better use biologicals because we can know the exact effect of the product on the soil and plants.”
Vonnie warned that the potential for confusion at the consumer level is high, as many do not know the difference between organic and regenerative.
“Regenerative could take the place of organic without the rules and regulations. Regenerative could steal the sustainability moniker from organic if there isn’t clear stewardship from growers through retailers of the differences and organic doesn’t change practices to allow for technical advances for improved sustainability,” she elaborated.
There is much to consider moving forward! We’ll continue to keep track of the produce pulse, so stay tuned to AndNowUKnow.