Ag-tech startups are working on everything from apple-picking robots to machine learning — and they could radically transform how we grow our food

Jeremy Berke, provided by Published 7:45 am, Saturday, January 20, 2018 REUTERS/Ammar Awad The agriculture-technology sector is booming. Companies are working on everything from apple-picking robots to wearable technology that helps farmers grow produce more efficiently, and meet the demands of a rapidly-increasing global population.  The way food is grown will be radically transformed in the next few decades.  Feeding the planet's rapidly expanding population is one of the most critical challenges for humanity. According to the UN, the world's population is approximately 7.3 billion people — and that number is expected to skyrocket to 9.7 billion by 2050. Some researchers expect global food demand to expand by up to 98% by the middle of this century. And ongoing issues related to rising temperatures, water scarcity, and desertification will negatively impact how much food farms are able to grow. A number of agricultural technology startups — working on everything from apple-picking robots to augmented reality (AR) systems for greenhouses — are attempting to make food production more efficient and less impactful on the planet. By employing machine learning, drones, and hordes of sensors, these companies hope to radically transform how food is grown. LATEST BUSINESS VIDEOS Now Playing: Now Playing Amazon Announces Price Increase For Prime Memberships GeoBeats FOX Business Report - 1/19 Fox7 Instagram Now Shows When Users Were Last Online Wibbitz These Are The World’s Most Admired Companies Buzz 60 Watch NASA Plane Fold Its Wings Mid-Flight GeoBeats Tax breaks for small business Fox5 Baby Rides Hoverboard Around House Jukin Media WhatsApp Launches New Business App Fortune These Are The World’s Most Admired Companies Veuer FOX Business Beat: Most Americans don't have cash to cover emergency, study finds Fox5DC REUTERS/Eduard Korniyenko Ag-tech is exploding — and Continue Reading

Mental health issues cropping up as financial stress continues on farms

Organic dairy farmer Kevin Stuedemann knows how it feels to be on the verge of calling it quits. After several producers in his area went out of business, Stuedemann’s milk buyer ended its contract with him on 30 days’ notice because there were no longer enough organic dairies nearby to justify sending a truck. With 70 cows producing milk, no customers and zero income, Stuedemann searched frantically for a new buyer and took an off-farm job to make ends meet. “It was a terrible time,” said Stuedemann, 54, who farms about 60 miles southwest of Minneapolis near Belle Plaine. “There was a lot of anxiety, and you wonder why this is happening to me. I had two months of throwing away milk, and I couldn’t continue to do that.” Minnesota’s farmers are worn down, both financially and emotionally, after nearly half a decade of soft prices that have upended the economics of one of the most important segments of the state’s economy. Many have done their best to cut costs, rebalance debt and stretch out loan payments, but they have also burned through savings and are running on empty. A recent state survey of bankers, veterinarians and others who work with farmers found that 80 percent had observed an increase in financial worries, more than half noticed higher anxiety levels and more than a third saw higher levels of burnout and depression. There is no indication that things will get better soon, with commodity prices remaining below what it would take for most farmers to cover their costs. Soybean prices are a third lower than they were in 2013, and corn prices are down by nearly half. “We’re seeing some producers that are looking at their fourth or fifth year of losses, and that just takes a significant toll,” said Matt Ginder, chief core markets officer for Compeer Financial, a credit cooperative that works with farmers. Farmers are no strangers to stress. They cope with unpredictable weather, physically Continue Reading

Don Cunningham column: Why we must teach farmers how to run a business

I always thought it would be nice to have a garden.Till some soil. Grow some vegetables. Go backyard to table.It turns out what I really like is the thought of having a garden. Working on it, not so much. I have the same issue with doing yoga and owning a dog.I’d like to be the guy who walks the dog, then heads off to yoga and returns to work the garden. Turns out, I’m not. The Hamiltonian in me won the duel against any idea of a Jeffersonian agrarian existence. I just buy my food.In this, I feel a bit of family shame, of contributing to the inevitable softening that comes as generations march on.I don’t come from farmers. My people all lived in Bethlehem. They were mill workers and tradesmen. The reason they had gardens and fruit trees was to make sure they’d never go hungry.My grandfather was born in 1922. His parents had fled the villages of Slovenia following World War I for the mills of Bethlehem. His father was dead by 1927, shot while running booze across Saucon Valley during Prohibition. Left behind were five kids and an immigrant widow who didn’t speak English, and never really would.Social Security and food stamps didn’t exist.The backyard gardens of her tiny row houses on Mechanic and then Polk streets kept her family from starving. My great-grandmother lived to 98. She never left the Slovenian-Windish neighborhood in south Bethlehem. The garden remained as long as she did. Upon any visit, we’d leave with some of its bounty.My grandfather lived until 2004. Despite retiring as a union machinist, and long escaping the poverty of the Depression, he never missed a garden season. He also had fruit trees crowded into his north Bethlehem backyard on Goepp Street. The fear of being hungry again kept his hands in the soil — and mine on rotted plums and peaches. As the only grandson, my job was to pick up the dead fruit that fell to the ground, which was always infested with ugly, angry yellow jackets.I’d also Continue Reading

California’s marijuana farmers fear crops could go up in smoke

CALISTOGA, Calif. — Marijuana farmers and dispensary owners across Northern California are nervously watching as wildfires burn through some of the state’s prime cannabis growing areas and destroy valuable crops, which could drive up prices for consumers across the country.“This is right smack in the middle of people’s harvests,” said Eli Melrod, the CEO of Solful Dispensary in Sebastopol, in northern California. “It couldn’t have been worse timing, frankly.”A single marijuana plant can be worth up to $5,000, but pot growers can’t get crop insurance like traditional farmers or the vintners whose grapevines tend to get most of the attention here.Wildfires are burning across parts of Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino counties, which are known for both wine and marijuana, particularly among high-end consumers willing to pay a premium for the name.Complicating matters: Marijuana farms are built in remote areas with poor road access and don’t necessarily appear on firefighters’ maps of buildings to be protected. The growers often live largely off the radar, without health insurance or access to traditional job support systems such as unemployment insurance. Black market growers may be reluctant to tell friends and family members of the losses they’ve suffered.“It’s just sad that we live in this underground world where we can’t discuss the true extent of the damage,” said Jessica Lilga of Alta Supply, a statewide wholesale cannabis distribution based in Oakland. “All remaining growers who did not literally lose their crops will be affected.”It’s unclear exactly how many people work in the cannabis industry in northern California and how many cultivation operations exist. Lilga said she’s aware of “thousands” of grow operations but was reluctant to speculate, given the industry’s secretive nature.But any Continue Reading

How Hamilton County gardeners are helping feed their hungry neighbors

Cara Culp and Andrew Fritz can't single-handedly fix the food insecurity problem in Hamilton County, but they are marshaling the talents and goodwill of county residents to help feed their neighbors.The two were hired through a grant to increase donations of fresh produce to area food pantries and to teach people how to grow their own food.Backyard gardens are nothing new, but using them to address the wider problem of food insecurity would signify a return to our roots as an agrarian society, a time when farmers and families looked out for one another. Hamilton County hunger: More than 40 food pantries serve Hamilton County "We are using urban agriculture to alleviate food insecurity in Hamilton County," said Culp, an urban agriculture outreach specialist who is working with the Hamilton County Soil and Water Conservation District. "One of the things we're trying to get across is it doesn't have to be large quantity. One pound of tomatoes is a meaningful donation as much as 50 pounds." More on community gardens This urban farm will feed an Indy food desert Community garden will offer 'a more dignified free food experience' for 13,000 residents of east-side food desert So, those backyard gardeners who try to pawn off their extra tomatoes and cucumbers at work now have somewhere else to take their crop. One of the pair's initiatives is a "where to donate" directory that makes it easy to contact area pantries to arrange a drop-off for those extra veggies.Another program is Adopt a Pantry, which will allow Hamilton County businesses, service clubs and other organizations to conduct produce food drives over the summer in support of a pantry partner.“Many businesses and service clubs have canned food drives during the holiday season for food pantries,” said Culp. “This program takes that same concept of giving to those in need and moves it to the summer months, using fresh produce instead of Continue Reading

Dakota Access pipeline wrecking soil, farmers complain

GRANVILLE, Ia. — All Francis Goebel wanted was for Dakota Access pipeline crews to put his soil back the way they found it.Instead, he's got a scar running across his soybean fields where the dark, fertile topsoil is being stacked on top of several feet of hard clay mixed with clay loam.The result, Goebel fears, will be soil less suited for growing crops — and much less valuable."Nature separated those soils for a reason, that's the way I feel," said Goebel, who runs a 164-acre century farm in Sioux County. "If nature put it there, they should put it back the way it was."His complaint is one of several popping up across Iowa as work ramps up on the pipeline that will stretch from the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota across Iowa to Patoka, IIl.Admittedly, Goebel was against the pipeline from day one. But he's not the only landowner complaining about how Dakota Access is handling their soil.Although Dakota Access is separating the rich topsoil from the soil beneath, it isn't being as careful with the next two layers, mixing the clay loam subsoil with the hard clay underneath. PREVIOUS COVERAGE:Goebel acknowledges he was well compensated by Dakota Access for the 12-acre easement the company obtained to cross his land. He received $21,000 per acre for the easement, plus payments for initial crop losses.But he's worried about his future corn and soybean yields. In some places, crews excavated 20 feet deep, meaning the hard clay at the bottom could end up just a couple feet from the ground."To me, it's a scar," he said.Across the street from Goebel, Tom Konz shares his neighbor's concern.He grows crops on 120 acres of his wife's family farm. Crews dug up about 4.5 acres for pipeline work.He grudgingly began negotiating an easement agreement with Dakota Access this spring after it became clear the company could use eminent domain to condemn properties in the pipeline's Continue Reading

Marijuana crops planted outside Osama Bin Laden’s compound; farmers growing ganja near terror lair

Holy smoke!It's no wonder the locals in Abbottabad didn't know Osama Bin Laden was living there - they were too busy harvesting their ganja.Reporters at Bin Laden's million-dollar hideout discovered small plots of marijuana growing in the deserted lots on the compound's perimeter.The dope plants were planted on three sides of the compound, alongside some less sexy crops such as cabbage and potatoes, CNN reported Tuesday.Despite Abbottabad's reputation as a military city, the discovery is not surprising.Pakistan makes about $4 billion a year from drug trafficking - though opium poppy is the drug-runners preferred crop.  MORE: OSAMA BIN LADEN KILLED PHOTOS: Al Qaeda mastermind's reign of terror over Navy SEALs recover treasure trove of intel during raid Hero's welcome: Obama to visit Ground Zero Thursday Inside Osama's bloody lair (Warning: GRAPHIC VIDEO) Sarah Palin weighs in on kill - without using Obama's name Anatomy of the kill: How the U.S. nailed Osama Daly: The heroic Navy SEALs, had fun 'in the sandbox' Bin Laden's death raises questions about what Pakistan knew VIDEO: President Obama's speech announcing bin Laden's death COMPLETE COVERAGE on our special index page   Join the Conversation: Continue Reading

American farms’ answer to illegal immigration is to grow crops in Mexico

IRAPUATO, Mexico — Antonio Martinez no longer pays smugglers thousands of dollars each year to sneak him into the United States to manage farm crews. Now, the work comes to him. Supervising lettuce pickers in central Mexico, Martinez earns just half of the US$1,100 a week he made in the U.S. But the job has its advantages, including working without fear of immigration raids. "Because I never moved my family to the U.S., I was always alone there," said Martinez, 45, who could never get a work permit, even after 16 years in agriculture in California and Arizona. "When I got the opportunity to be close to my family, doing similar work, I didn't even have to think about it." Martinez, now a legal employee of U.S.-owned VegPacker de Mexico, is exactly the kind of worker more American farm companies are seeking. Many have moved their fields to Mexico, where they can find qualified people, often with U.S. experience, who can't be deported. American companies now farm more than 45,000 acres (18,200 hectares) of land in three Mexican states, employing about 11,000 people, a 2007 survey by the U.S. farm group Western Growers shows. There were no earlier studies to document how much the acreage has grown. But U.S. direct investment in Mexican agriculture, which includes both American companies moving their operations to Mexico and setting up Mexican partnerships, has swelled sevenfold to 624 million pesos (US$60 million) since 2000, Mexico's Economy Department said. Major corporations such as Archer Daniels Midland Co. and Bunge have invested across Latin America for decades, particularly in countries like Brazil, where agribusiness is booming. Some small farmers have cultivated parts of Mexico for much longer, seeking to secure year-round supplies of fruits and vegetables, while taking advantage of cheap labor and proximity to the U.S. But the latest move south has been fueled by something new, farmers say: a way to continue to deliver cheap, Continue Reading

Iowa has world’s largest cereal plant, but state’s farmers lack market for oats

Once the nation's leading oats producer, Iowa growers now struggle to find markets for the crop.That's the dilemma Earl Canfield faced three years ago: He had about 3,000 bushels of oats, but no place to sell them profitably.Quaker Oats in Cedar Rapids, the world's largest cereal production plant, does not take in oats from Iowa growers.And most Iowa livestock operations don't include oats in the feed supply of their cattle, pigs and chickens.With no place else to go, Canfield and his family started a business selling small batches of oats, along with their corn and soybeans, to families feeding horses, goats, cattle, pigs and chickens."There’s a constant perception that we can’t grow good oats in Iowa, because we’re in the Corn Belt," said Sarah Carlson, Practical Farmers of Iowa's Midwest cover crop expert. "But we've proven that we can."Iowa has led the nation in corn production for 23 straight years, and about 80 percent of the state's 30 million crop acres are covered with either corn or soybeans.Despite that dominance, developing markets for alfalfa, oats and other small grains could help Iowa farmers address some significant environmental problems, including degraded soil and water quality and increased weed resistance to herbicides, experts say.Canfield said more farmers might be willing to break the steady corn-and-soybean cycle if markets for alternative crops were available."We've had to work hard to get around the lack of markets," the Dunkerton farmer said. "It's been a leap of faith."Quaker Oats buys its oats from Canada, where it can find the quantity and quality the company needs, experts say.But some other companies could be considering a shift.Some large multinational businesses — grain, beef, pork and dairy processors — are exploring adding oats to the supply chain, driven by the efforts of large Continue Reading

ORGANIC…OR NOT. It’s not easy deciding whether, or how, to eat green

Last week, Target's coffee shelves got a little bit greener. Next to the cans of Maxwell House was Archer Farms coffee, the superstore's first organic house brand. Like other mainstream retailers, Target is responding to the $15 billion demand for dinners that might fight disease or help save the world - by boosting life-saving antioxidants in the diet, for example, or reducing the amount of pesticides used to grow crops. All of the new products coming onto shelves can make food-shopping seem more confusing - and news reports like the ones about tainted spinach can complicate decisions even more. But relax - some of the same basic rules still apply. "Eat less, move more, eat lots of fruits and vegetables, don't eat too much junk food, and you're doing just fine," says Marion Nestle, a professor of Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health at New York University and the author of "What to Eat," a comprehensive guide to navigating the supermarket. But what if you want to make sure the animals you eat led happier lives, or that your carrots were grown with as few pesticides as possible? Organic foods, which must be certified by the government, are produced in ways that minimize pollution, pesticides on crops and antibiotics for animals. They also take into account the health of the soil, animals and farmworkers. Other labels, like Whole Foods' new "animal-compassionate" line, aren't certified like organics, but may indicate that the animals were treated in a more humane and environmentally responsible way. BOUNTIFUL CHOICES All these foods cost more, in part because of the extra labor that goes into producing or certifying them, but there are ways to save money (see shopping tips below). If you want the world to be a healthier, and more flavorful, place you should buy local, says Judith LaBelle, the director of the Glynwood Center, a Hudson Valley nonprofit that helps promote smaller farms. That means that fewer natural resources will be Continue Reading