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The Good, Bad, and Ugly of Technology for Agriculture – AgTech Conference Wrap-up

Nevada County Tech Connection (NCTC) hosted the AgTech Micro Conference on Friday, in conjunction with Sierra Harvest’s Sustainable Food and Farm Conference. The event, which explored best practices and challenges in AgTech — the intersection of agriculture and technology — drew participants from as far away as San Jose. Attendees included techies, farmers, and a handful of nonprofit leaders and inventors who are interested in making farming more efficient and productive. Some attendees were surprised by what they learned at the conference, while others got validation. Travis Dovala owns a horse and cattle ranch, and leases part of his land to almond growers. He was glad that he decided to attend the conference:  “There’s a lot more going on in the Ag Tech Sector than I thought,” he said. His biggest pain point as a horse rancher is cleaning stalls – he spends 20 hours a week on that task alone. “I don’t see a robot doing that work any time soon,” he said with a wry smile.

Ed Norma, who drove up from San Jose to attend the conference, works for a tech company in Silicon Valley that is just starting to investigate the on-farm infrastructure side of the Ag Tech sector. “I’ve paid $500 to go to Ag Tech conferences where I can find all of the information they present online,” he said. “This conference is providing information that is specific to California – it’s very complementary to some of the other Ag Tech conferences. And it’s validating that I am talking to the right people.”

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Broadband is Critical

While questions and comments from a highly engaged audience took the discussion in a variety of directions, there were a few clear themes that repeated with each of the four presentations and panel discussion. First, broadband is a huge issue in rural areas. If many of the new farming technologies being proposed are to become a reality, the internet must extend to rural, agricultural areas. “We’ve seen growers get frustrated when the technology that they just spent thousands of dollars on doesn’t work because their internet is too slow,” said Steven Davis, CEO of Intelligent Wireless Networks, who moderated the panel discussion.

Appropriate Technology that Farmers Actually Need

Second, it is critical that the people who are developing technology talk to the farmers who will actually be using the technology. If the technology doesn’t address the pain points they are experiencing, it’s useless. On the other hand, presenter and State Broadband Coordinator Robert Tse shared examples of appropriate technology that can make a difference for farmers. One example that he shared — FitBits for cows — may sound silly, but if FitBit-like monitors can alert a dairy farmer to a cow that is starting to run a fever, that cow can be treated earlier, minimizing the exposure of illness to healthy cows. This results in real savings and healthier animals.

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Social Media is Helping in Myriad Ways

Lastly, social media is connecting farmers and buyers like never before. Susie Sutphin, a panelist, is the Director of the Tahoe Food Hub, which connects chefs with local farmers through an app. “Chefs can be in their kitchen, and look on their phone to find out what is available right now within 100 miles,” she said. “And 80% of them order something.” Not only does this reduce waste, it expands the market for small farmers.

Molly Nakahara, a panelist, is a farmer and owner of Dinner Bell Farm. She has a different perspective on how social media is helping farmers. “My peers are excited about appropriate technology and collective knowledge,” she said. “If you want to learn from other farmers, get on YouTube. How to artificially inseminate a sow? It’s all on YouTube.” Eric Bleau, a panelist and 10th generation farmer who manages Blue Oaks Ranch, runs an AirBnB that lets guests experience life on an organic farm. He relies on social media to connect him with his target audience – Bay Area foodies.  “Social media and email marketing has brought a lot of visitors to our county who would not otherwise know we were here,” he said.

NCTC is extremely grateful to our presenters, volunteers, and sponsors, for making this event a resounding success. We are already looking forward to AgTech 2019.

If you missed the conference, you can access the presentations and FaceBook Livestream recording of the event here.


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