Technology that automates weeding, harvesting or other farm work is not taking jobs away from humans. Rather, it’s helping bridge the gap between work that needs to be done and a labor force that isn’t sufficient, a panel of ag technology leaders said during the Agri-Pulse Summit in Sacramento Monday.

Pauline Canteneur, business strategist at FarmWise, a start-up that has designed autonomous weeding machines, used the term “cobot” to refer to collaboration between robots and the people needed to work with them. She said FarmWise has already hired 20 equipment operators this year “so there's also job creation.”

“We need a new type of ag worker,” said Walt Duflock, vice president of innovation at Western Growers, “part biologist, part agronomist, part engineer, part computer scientist.” He said he’s exploring initiatives around a new curriculum that prepares students to fix robots and develop new ones, in addition to operating them.  

But alongside big, visible technological innovations, the crops themselves need to be bred for success. Jenny Maloney of Bayer CropScience said genetics can’t be left out of the equation. Mechanized harvesting, for example, will demand different traits in a crop “but developing those genetics takes time.”

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Private money hasn’t flowed as generously to ag tech start-ups as it has to other Silicon Valley companies, Duflock said. “It's hard for us to compete with Uber, Airbnb and some of the really, really cool unicorn companies.” Public-private partnerships help, but he said grant funding for new tech businesses typically doesn’t allow for scaling up once a concept is proven. In contrast, he said in Europe, “I saw a lot more investment in the actual collaboration to go to market and the commercialization of technologies.” He urged lawmakers in D.C. and Sacramento to consider ways to fund that stage of business development.

Gabe Youtsey, chief innovation officer for U.C. Agriculture and Natural Resources, said among his goals is to advance innovations “in better and smarter ways (to) help adapt the workforce to this onslaught of new technologies.” He added he’s excited that the state is “bringing back the budget footprint for Cooperative Extension, so we can do this work.”

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