The Western Growers Center for Innovation and Technology is launching a new initiative aimed at increasing the technology used in monitoring and maintaining food safety in specialty crops. It’s a continuation of the Center’s commitment to supporting development of ag tech, whether from start-ups or existing companies. Dennis Donohue, director of the Center for Innovation and Technology, spoke with Agri-Pulse about the year ahead for Western Growers.

Agri-Pulse: What’s on your horizon in 2022?

We're getting ready to do a food safety initiative that we're launching in Yuma with a focus on rapid diagnostics. We're starting with a cohort of startups. Startups are a key part of that initiative, but companies with expertise in other fields may choose to get involved. One of the reasons we are doing what we're doing is, with focused intentionality, we hope to attract other players along the way and create momentum around solving the priorities of the industry.

Agri-Pulse: What’s the focus of this food safety initiative?

We wanted to focus on what FDA likes to call an era of smarter food safety. They identified four key areas and one of them was improving the toolkit. We chose to focus on that. When it comes to food safety and how the various stakeholder holders interact, whether it's government, retail producers, etc., there's a lot of moving parts. We decided to have a particular emphasis on rapid diagnostics, that ability to get information [about a food safety concern] as quickly as possible. For example, shortening the amount of time it takes to get results from tests so you can ship sooner. Can you get information as you receive raw product in the field, or directly from the field, so you have—for lack of a better phrase, kind of an early warning system: ‘hey, you may want to look a little more closely in this field.’ The idea is to identify promising technologies, get them together directly within industry, identify industry issues and have a panel with regulators so we can consider the regulatory issues as part of the product development process. And then facilitate direct connections with technology players and growers and processors. Technology in a vacuum is just not as effective unless it’s shared and co-developed with the actual users. We’re trying to be more intentional about that process.

Agri-Pulse: The first gathering is in Yuma. Is there a focus on the leafy green sector?

There generally is, but because it's Western Growers, it's certainly not limited to that. A lot of the challenges we've had in recent years have been in the leafy greens, though there have been melons. There have been onions. So, our goal throughout the year will be to make sure we're representing food safety interests for the specialty crop network, which would be fruits, vegetables and nuts.

Agri-Pulse: What other ag tech innovations or developments are you watching or monitoring, beyond food safety and the center’s existing program for harvest automation

People are pretty focused on the key areas of food safety, solving labor challenges. There are companies that we deal with in the Center, like Concentric Power, that are talking about microgrids and the opportunity to immediately save money on energy. On the other hand, I think there's some sleeper companies out there. A favorite of mine is Ag Voice Global, which is a voice to text technology. That's really important because a lot of this technology is going to be applied in the field. Your workforce out in the field is going to have to implement a lot of things, whether it's how do you get information for the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act? How do you implement some of the analytic tools you're bringing in? A lot of people aren't necessarily computer conversant but they can talk. If you can talk, you can get the text, and then that text can be shared with the rest of the organization. The big picture thing that is on the horizon is that there will continue to be a lot of regulatory pressures on traditional inputs. Innovation is a space where I think biological soil health is going to get a more serious look.

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Agri-Pulse: Do you think companies are looking at addressing climate smart agriculture for specialty crops?

Yes, that's going to be part of the mix. But as it relates to specialty crops, it's still getting set up. For instance, there's one company we've been chatting with and they're interested in carbon sequestration and carbon credits. But a lot of that activity has been in the Midwest.

Agri-Pulse: Are there any other initiatives you’re planning?

We always want to be in the business of general discovery. As we've looked at our priorities, and as we've looked at our challenges, we've we made a conscious decision to be more intentional and strategic on how we pursue them. Food safety, automation, really accelerating the uses precision ag tools into our key challenges, whether it's SGMA, etc. We think we've got a terrific network to leverage and we're doing that more intentionally. But having said that, we always want to be open to what's out there. The bottom line is we want to continue to be a connector of technology and our members for their needs. But we're very, very focused on being strategic and intentional for the purposes of accelerating some solutions because it's a challenging environment. Some of our problems are now a race against time and we like winning races.

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