Farm bill should push innovation, farmers testify


Issue Date: July 19, 2017
By Christine Souza
California Farm Bureau Federation President Paul Wenger tells the House Agriculture Committee that a new farm bill should foster innovation such as mechanization for fruits, vegetables, nuts and other specialty crops.
Photo/US House Agriculture Committee

Investment in new technology, including robotics and mechanization, would ensure the future success of American agriculture, according to specialty-crop farmers who testified before the U.S. House Agriculture Committee.

The committee convened a hearing in Washington, D.C., last week as part of its preliminary work on the upcoming 2018 Farm Bill, which includes provisions specific to specialty crops—defined as fruits, vegetables, tree nuts, and nursery and horticultural products.

California Farm Bureau Federation President Paul Wenger, who grows walnuts and almonds, addressed the committee as part of a panel of specialty-crop farmers who said chronic shortages of available employees, worsened by an inadequate immigration system, intensify the need for research into technological solutions.

California specialty crop growers have long led the way in adopting and embracing new technologies and innovation in order to remain competitive and profitable, Wenger noted. However, faced with laws and regulations on employment, immigration, taxes, the environment, food safety and crop protection, he said, "the best bet for future success growing specialty crops can be summed up in one word: innovation."

Wenger and other panelists reported that finding people willing to perform agricultural work remains a challenge, regardless of the rate of pay.

"The most significant innovation that can be achieved on the farm is increased mechanization," he said. "This need arises as the pool of available workers dramatically declines. Specialized equipment, robotics and other tools can help offset the growing labor shortage. If we don't aggressively invest in the development of new technologies, the consequence will be to lose a large share of our nation's specialty crop production."

The land-grant university system has been integral to the development of labor-saving mechanical technologies, Wenger told the committee, including when the University of California, Davis, developed the field harvester for processing tomatoes.

"The process from the initial vision to complete commercial acceptance and utilization took over two decades, in order to design and build the harvester and the plant breeding involved to develop a tomato suited to mechanical harvesting," he said. "We no longer have the luxury to wait decades for similar innovations. The University of California has estimated an investment of $10-$20 million will be needed to research and develop critical technologies for each of the specialty crops."

Wenger spoke specifically about the prospect of robotics.

"For all of the peaches, apricots, avocados, strawberries—all of the soft fruits—we have to look at ways that a robot can size and pick that product at the peak of ripeness," he said.

Berry farmer Gary Wishnatzki of Wish Farms in Plant City, Fla., is co-founder of Harvest CROO Robotics, a start-up to develop harvest technology. Speaking before the committee, Wishnatzki identified the shortage of employees as the top challenge growers face.

"I believe an impending crisis is at hand. Innovation can play a key role in solving this problem," Wishnatzki said.

He said his company has developed a system with soft claws on a picking wheel, which travels around a berry plant, inspects it quickly and picks the fruit.

"It's a great time in history right now. There is this tremendous need for automation at the same time that the technology is coming of age," Wishnatzki said.

Driscoll's Inc. Chief Executive Officer Kevin Murphy discussed innovative methods the Watsonville-based berry company has adopted or considered: increasingly growing berries in containers rather than on the ground; exploring mechanized harvesting; addressing water shortages; creating a privately managed aquifer recharge basin; and researching disease- and pest-free organic strawberry starter plants.

Murphy told the committee the next farm bill should prioritize research that addresses challenges faced by agriculture, with a special emphasis on water and employment issues.

"There is a great need to accelerate innovation through research programs, public-private partnerships and aggregated efforts," he said.

Paul Heller, vice president of Wonderful Citrus, Texas Division, said the farm bill has been instrumental in maintaining the health of the citrus sector. Among the most critical, Heller said, are the crop insurance and specialty-crop programs to respond to pests and diseases.

"Pest and disease issues remain a key priority for Wonderful and the citrus industry at large," Heller said. "This is especially true as we continue to fight the devastating disease known as citrus greening or huanglongbing. With no known cure for HLB, it is absolutely necessary that the citrus industry take every possible precaution to prevent the spread of the disease, while continuing to search for a treatment protocol."

The president and CEO of the American Seed Trade Association, Andrew LaVigne, said farm bill research funding has helped in development of new plant varieties, a process that can take five to 10 years.

"Federally funded U.S. agricultural research has played an important role in expanding our understanding of plant genetics leading to new crop varieties. Federal research dollars can be extended and multiplied through public-private partnerships," LaVigne said.

House Agriculture Committee Chairman Michael Conaway, R-Texas, described programs for specialty crop producers as "an essential part of the farm bill. As we approach the next farm bill, our goal is to ensure that the policy we craft serves the needs of all of our producers."

A "listening session" hosted by Chairman Conaway to discuss the next farm bill has been scheduled for Aug. 5 in Modesto.

(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at csouza@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.